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Great art prints; Divine Comedy by Dore

The French artist Gustave Dore was known for his painting, illustration, sculpting, and great art prints, pouring out a large volume of beautifully designed and crafted wood engravings, which are widely considered the best examples of the medium. Producing over 10,000 artworks to illustrate classic literature from the Bible to Edgar Allen Poe, Dore’s design work was engraved by a team of as many as 40 block-cutters to keep up with his prolific output and vast project undertakings.

Something of a childhood prodigy recognised for his talents at just five years old, Dore was carving in stone by 12, and at 15 began work as a caricaturist for a French newspaper. His interest in illustrating stories began to emerge through a series of text comics which helped him attract wider attention and his first commissions illustrating editions of great literature. At first offered just the occasional scene from works by Balzac, Milton, and Cervantes, he quickly progressed to illustrating the works of Lord Byron, an edition of the Bible, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which became hugely famous and influenced visual depictions of the story for years to come.

Dore excelled at combining vast, imposing, fantastical landscapes with beautifully studied, and lit, figures often dwarfed by the world, and creatures, around them. This was a window into a dark, dreamlike world which attracted the fascination, popularity, and demand of audiences; many of his artworks were duplicated as steel engravings to allow much larger print runs, captivating a vast audience. Though Dore also painted and sculpted with considerable skill it was only in his woodcut work that his true vision was unleashed, creating iconic visions of great literature.

The Divine Comedy, and zenith of Dore’s woodcut art prints

With a style perfectly suited to darker subjects, Dante’s first person journey through hell and purgatory on the way to paradise and God, drawing heavily on Roman Catholic visions of the afterlife, was a dream art project for Dore who by now a master of his craft. But even with his considerable skill, and widespread popularity, he couldn’t convince a publisher to finance the prints. After years of trying he eventually decided to approach the project independently, and began working on the first part of Dante’s work, Inferno, with his own money.

The series was a huge success, selling out almost as soon as it was released and driving immediate demand for more copies, and for the rest of the Divine Comedy to be illustrated; Dore’s publisher apologised for not seeing the potential of the series, and immediately financed the completion of the project. It is little surprise the art prints were so popular; Dante and Dore were a perfect marriage, with critics at the time pondering over whether they had some occult communication between their souls, Dore’s illustrations almost felt like they finally completed the great vision begun 500 years previously.

The classic touches of Dore’s design approach were all there, but reached new heights with the series; brooding, monumental landscapes and settings, dark and gloomy with highlights carefully picked out, and a constant play with scale as human figures are routinely dwarfed by the rock faces and demons around them. The work immerses you into the dark forests and caves, and awes as the wonder of heaven, God, and angels are revealed in the final chapter.

The definitive Dore print artwork, and vision of Dante’s masterpiece

Dore was far from the only great artist to illustrate Dante’s story; William Blake, another visionary of dark fantasy, and the great surrealist Salvador Dali, both completed highly praised series of illustrations for it, but no other artist has captured Dore’s blend of realist fantasy and brooding iconography in quite the same way. Printed in over 200 editions since they were first released, Dore’s Divine Comedy woodcuts would cement his status as a great artist, and master of the art print medium.

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