The Disorderly Notions of Gustave Dore: Don Quixote

Next, in my series investigating the work of Gustave Dore, is the illustrations done for Miguel de Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’, regarded as the most influential piece of Spanish literature in history. The Dore edition, published in 1863, contained a staggering 370 engravings spread over two volumes. The images were inspired by Dore’s recollections of travelling through Spain and communicated the satirical humour he had previously explored in ‘Rabelais’ (1854). Like most of his illustration work, Dore’s ‘Don Quixote became the most recognised and established versions.

First, is perhaps the most iconic image from ‘Don Quixote’. Even before I started my research I recognised and appreciated the combination of fictional characters springing to life while the reader raves in his chair by the window. The title character sits and waves his blade (real or imaginary?), either fighting off the hoard of fantastical beings or marshalling them against an unseen enemy. The majority of them are etched into the shadow, reinforcing their mysterious, otherworldly quality. Don Quixote’s novel of choice is concerned with romance and chivalry and this is reflected by the presence of noble medieval figures riding on horseback. Particularly humorous details include the severed giant’s head and the two miniature knights jousting on the backs of rodents, located in the bottom left hand corner. There is a real sense of churning motion and cramped space in the background which reflects the quote,”…disorderly notions crowded…”

Here we have our delusional hero riding in full armour on horseback down a ravine, while the sky above him teems with more visions of grandeur and heroism. The cloudy figures in mortal combat in the heavens reflect where Don Quixote would like to be but, despite his passion and imagination, he is still grounded in an unremarkable reality. The barren ground upon which he rides serves as a contrast against the unbelievable sights in the enchanted sky. The whole image has a potentially epic atmosphere but this is diffused by the comical sight of the untrained knight riding alone aimlessly.

Next, another noble pose is struck by Don Quixote under the glowing moonlight. His posture is serious and defiant but, once again, is made humorous by his spindly physique and the rural setting. Rather than being set on the battlements of an ancient castle, Don Quixote finds himself living out his fantasy in the presence of a flock of sheep and a horse trough. The dramatic lighting and ominous night clouds try to redeem this, however, and make the Don look convincing.

Finally, making a jump to the very end of Vol. 2, the Don and his ‘squire’ Sancho Panza find themselves on the shore with their dishevelled steeds. Bereft of his armour, Don Quixote looks to the Moon, just as he did in the previous image, but without any hint of self assuredness at all. The whole atmosphere of the engraving is muted and forlorn, the solitary seabirds flying past emphasising the loneliness of their final location. The clouds in the sky here are calm, reflecting that any drama of their previous adventures has now dissipated.