Gustave Doré's (1832-1883) illustrations and Dante's Divine Comedy have become so intimately connected that even today, nearly 150 years after their initial publication, the artist's rendering of the poet's text still determines our vision of the Commedia. Planned by Doré as early as 1855, the Dante illustrations were the first in a series he referred to as the "chefs-d'oeuvre de la littérature." In addition to Dante, Doré's list of illustrated great works included Homer, Ossian, Byron, Goethe, Racine, and Corneille. The placement of Dante's Commedia at the top of this list reflects the poet's popularity within mainstream French culture by the 1850s. While France's initial interest in Dante was confined to the episodes of Paolo and Francesca (Inf.5) and Ugolino (Inf.33), the 19th century saw an expansion of interest in Dante's work which resulted in numerous translations of the Commedia into French, critical studies,newspapers, and specialized journals, and over 200 works of painting and sculpture between 1800-1930. Doré's choice of Dante'sInferno as the first of his proposed series of illustrated masterpieces of literature reflects the extent to which Dante had attained popular appeal in France by the 1860s.
Finding it difficult to secure a publisher willing to take on the expense of producing the expensive folio edition the artist envisioned, Doré himself financed the publication of the first book of the series, Inferno, in 1861. The production was an immediate artistic and commercial success. Buoyed by the popularity of Doré's edition of the Inferno, Hachette published Purgatorio and Paradiso in 1868 as a single volume. Subsequently, Doré's Dante illustrations appeared in roughly 200 editions, with translations from the poet's original Italian available in multiple languages.
Of Doré's literary series, few enjoyed as great a success as his Commedia illustrations. Characterized by an eclectic mix of Michelangelesque nudes, northern traditions of sublime landscape, and elements of popular culture, Doré's Dante illustrations were considered among his crowning achievements– a perfect match of the artist's skill and the poet's vivid visual imagination. As one critic wrote in 1861 upon publication of the illustrated Inferno: "we are inclined to believe that the conception and the interpretation come from the same source, that Dante and Gustave Doré are communicating by occult and solemn conversations the secret of this Hell plowed by their souls, traveled, explored by them in every sense."
Aida Audeh Associate Professor of Art History, Hamline University