The Dark Side | Newberry

The Dark Side

So he was drawing household scenes at an age when other children haven’t figured out how many sticks to put on a hand for the fingers. He went pro at fifteen. When his works were shown at the Art Institute of Chicago, the lines stretched down the boulevard, and the museum had to stay open Sundays to accommodate demand. And someone dropped off a boxful of his work for us to sell.

A boxful of books he illustrated is hardly a drop in a very large bucket. One list of books he illustrated runs to about sixty titles, some of them rather long books indeed, requiring LOTS of pictures: the Bible, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, and such like. The list of authors he embellished includes Tennyson, Poe, Balzac, Rabelais. He was working on illustrations for a complete set of Shakespeare when he died, at the age of fifty. The list of books he illustrated expanded greatly after that, because, being French, he didn’t own any copyrights which would keep American publishers from pirating and compiling his stuff into new compilations. You have almost certainly run into some of his work, or something inspired by it. Apparently, no one since has been able to illustrate, animate, or film Don Quixote without some study of his illustrations. I know he gave me almost as many nightmares when I was a child as Sir John Tenniel, the illustrator of Alice in Wonderland.

His name was Gustave Dore, and if that does not ring a bell, look up some of his work online. He enjoyed a certain fame for his paintings, which don’t look all that special to me. His genius was in his dark, brooding illustrations. Once Dore finished with the Divine Comedy, the image of Hell was pretty much established, and whoever didn’t get enough on that trip got to descend with him again in Paradise Lost. I thought Don Quixote was meant to be funny, but he seems to be moving through territory Milton and Dante already covered. He did pictures for a set of books on life in London, and was criticized for how dark and grotesque the city came out. What did they expect? Gustave Dore was at work. (He insisted on showing POOR people in the alleys. Fake views, said the critics, who never looked down the alleys.)

Among the dainties we have been given, which include two different editions of Paradise Lost, and one of Don Quixote, is a cheerful little book for children embodying his illustrations for Cinderella. If I were asked to list ten artists who should NOT illustrate Cinderella, Gustave would come fairly near the top. He was great with Little Red Riding Hood (which we do not have): a wolf and a dark forest were just his milieu. The crowds of mice in the story about belling the cat just ripple with between-the-walls gloom. But his Cinderella just reinforces how much more at home he was on the doomed ship of the Ancient Mariner.

We do have his scenes of Spain, which force him sometimes into the sunshine. The paperback of his Bible illustrations is currently for sale in the bookshop. (You can’t miss it: a magnificent Moses is about to hurl the Ten Commandments down the mountain. Gustave could handle violence when he got down to it as well.) The Divine Comedy we have is not one of the nineteenth century editions, however, but that Book-of-the-Month Club edition my parents left around for small boys to scare themselves. But we have his Bible Gallery both in a nineteenth century edition (some publisher realized people would buy just the pictures without his having to print the entire text) AND the Dover reprint at the bookshop. (We can’t put the originals in the bookshop; they are coffee table books for a more generous age, and we’d have at least one fatality for every three people who tried to lift one off the shelves.)

Be sure to stop by in July and give yourself a few chills at the art corner of the Collectibles tables. By then I’ll have finished my list of other artists who should not have ventured into fairy godmothers and glass slippers.

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