Ottawa exhibition of note: Gustave Doré

Special artists attain enough fame to draw crowds on their reputation alone. You know, ones like Picasso, Rembrandt, da Vinci or Monet. Others are also important, but just don’t have the right name recognition.

"Paul Gustave Dore" by Felix Nadar 1855-1859. Pretty dashing, eh? Portrait (detail): Public domain

“Paul Gustave Dore” by Felix Nadar 1855-1859. Quite the dashing figure!

Take Gustave Doré. Sure, some readers know his art, others even know who created it. But he’s just not that famous. Which seems a pity as Doré is : “…without doubt one of the most prodigious artists of the 19th century” according to the Museé d’Orsay:

As an illustrator, Doré set himself the challenge of the greatest texts (the Bible, Dante, Rabelais, Perrault, Cervantes, Milton, Shakespeare, Hugo, Balzac, Poe), which turned him into a real purveyor of European culture. He thus occupies a special place in contemporary collective imagination, from van Gogh to Terry Gilliam, not to mention his undoubted influence on comic books…

Why am I bringing him up? Because the big summer event for the National Gallery of Canada (right here in Ottawa) is a major showing of work by Doré. A North American exclusive, I might add.

Unfortunately, according to media reports, attendance hasn’t been all that great so far. CBC quotes National gallery spokeswoman Josée-Britanie Mallet as saying this exhibition has drawn raves. But: “Until they see the artwork, they don’t know who Gustave Doré is.”

How often is an artist from centuries past credited – as Doré is – with influencing films and comic books? But wait, there’s more. Doré was the opposite of a one trick pony, the man did it all: drawing, painting, watercolor, engravings and sculpture. And talk about prolific, where did he find the time to create so much? According to a mini-bio from WikiArt:

He produced over 100,000 sketches in his lifetime, and lived to be 50 years old, averaging 6 sketches per day for each day he lived. By the time he died he had also earned over $2 million, living a life of affluence. Even though he was an untrained, self-taught artist, who never used a live model, and who could not sketch from nature, his work is considered some of the most important in the entire engraving art world.

Again from the Musée d’Orsay, his talent encompassed completely different styles and genres:

Petit Chaperon Rouge/Little Red Riding-Hood "She was astonished to see how her grandmother looked"

Doré illustration for Petit Chaperon Rouge/Little Red Riding-Hood “She was astonished to see how her grandmother looked”

…from satire to history painting, delivering in turn, enormous canvases and more intimate paintings, flamboyant watercolours, virtuoso washes, incisive pen and ink drawings, engravings, fanciful illustrations, as well as Baroque, humorous, monumental and enigmatic sculptures.

Museum Deputy Director and Chief Curator Paul Lang describes Doré’s significance in this video.

One of the featured items for this event is  something called the Poem of the Vine: a four meter tall, 6,000 pound bronze sculpture that tells the story of the importance of wine, on loan from the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. Here’s a video on the instillation of that in Ottawa:

Looking through his work I realized I’d seen some without knowing who it was by. (In contrast, Dale Hobson knew Doré the second I proposed this topic.)

One reason I recommend going, if possible, to exhibits like this one is how original art can be enormously better than reproductions. I attended the 2012 exhibit on van Gogh and found it nothing less than stunning. It’s well-known that van Gogh laid his oils on thick. But only by seeing it in person could I appreciate how much that texture added. Van Gogh’s paintings are multi-dimensional in a magical way, changing at every angle of viewing. And you just can’t “see” that online or in a book.

So, if you already know and like Doré, or if you want to take advantage of a good opportunity to expand your horizons, here’s a good chance to do all that.

Gustave Doré (1832-1883): Master of Imagination runs through Sept 14.

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