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A golden opportunity to see great art: Gustave Doré at the NGC

By John Olsthoorn on July 21, 2014




It’s not really a question of “why do you have to see” the Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883) Master of Imagination exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, but more a statement that “you just have to see it”. Simply put, there’s something here for everyone.

With close to 100 different illustrations, sculptures and paintings on display, the exhibition, if anything, highlights Doré’s diversity and underscores his influence on art, on film and popular culture including Walt Disney and Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame), and on the comic strip and graphic novel, as well.

Doré’s career started as a caricaturist when he was 15 years old. He became a professional illustrator, creating illustrations for close to 100 books during his life including such classics as Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Perrault’s Fairy Tales, Shakespeare, and the Bible, to name a few.

His truly monumental works are his paintings and sculptures. This special exhibition brings them together and is organized in seven uncomplicated thematic areas curated by Paul Lang (National Gallery), Édouard Papet (Museée d’Orsay) and Philippe Kaenel (University of Lausanne).

"Frolic" (Leapfrog) by Gustave Doré. Photo by John Olsthoorn.

“Frolic” (Leapfrog) by Gustave Doré. Photo by John Olsthoorn.

The art pieces themselves come from a wide range of sources including some from private collections. The “biggest” loan (from the de Young Museum in San Francisco) would have to be the immense bronze sculpture, “Poème de la Vigne” (Poem of the Vine). One of the smallest sculptures is the most playful if not somewhat sarcastic bronze “Frolic” or Leapfrog (1881).

The “Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of Hell” (1861) oil on canvas painting with the striking chunks of ice, cold, shining like diamonds, shows Dante and Virgil larger-than-life size yet they seem sparse, unmoving in almost diaphanous robes. It makes you wonder: What if Doré were around today? What would his 21st century interpretations of Robert Pinksy’s modern verse translation of Dante’s Inferno be like? How would he illustrate any of Malcolm Gladwell’s or Steven King’s books?

"Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of Hell" by Gustave Doré. Photo by John Olsthoorn.

“Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of Hell” by Gustave Doré. Photo by John Olsthoorn.


And indeed, there is a part of the exhibit that asks viewers to share these thoughts, and other hands-on activities when visiting the exhibition (perhaps making it a little more or less frightful for the children to see the works).

Doré’s art often broke tradition in many of his paintings. In “The child moses on the nile” (1866), the baby Moses is in the floating basket at night on a rather rough Nile with angels hovering above instead of the traditional moment of when Bithiah finds the child. Another break from tradition can be seen in the painting “Christian Martyrs in the Coliseum” or “night at the circus” (1871) of the nocturnal aftermath with the lions lingering about the corpses of the martyrs, and not the massacre itself when the Christians were killed by the lions.

That’s the hook with Doré. If it isn’t the grandeur, it is the twist or at least a different take. And then there are the landscapes. They are just stunning. You could take a whole half-day to soak them in and transport yourself to the Highlands of Scotland [see image at top] and elsewhere.

If you are an art nut, you already know about this exhibition, have seen it or plan to before it closes. And if you are someone who is only mildly curious about art and are a consumer of popular culture (and who isn’t), here is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a fine collection of work by someone whose influence is still being felt today.

Those who feel ambitious and inspired, plan a whole day (with a lunch break, of course) to explore the Master of the Imagination. Your ticket to this special exhibition also gives you access to the Gallery’s permanent collection. Make it art day.

Gustave Doré’s Master of Imagination runs until September 14, 2014 at the National Gallery (380 Sussex Drive). Tickets are $16 for adults, $14 for seniors and students, $7 for youth aged 12-19, and $32 for families. For more information on the Gustave Doré exhibition, gallery hours and upcoming exhibits, click here.