Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: January 2011

Death Depicted as the Grim Reaper on top of the World

Back into the Tempest

I was recently reminded of the macabre brilliance of Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883) when I came across a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. On the front cover of the book was Death Depicted as the Grim Reaper on top of the World, one of his illustrations for Poe’s renowned poem The Raven. I’m sure I’ve only seen a tiny fraction of his oeuvre, but of the works I’ve seen, the Grim Reaper on top of the World, and Back into the Tempest are probably my favourites. They’re both from The Raven, and I’ve included them above.

Just from these two pictures, I think Doré’s talent for creating lasting images of dark, surreal beauty is obvious. His best works were probably those that were furthest away from prosaic reality, works which explored calamity, tragedy, loss, loneliness, triumph and bliss, in worlds foreign but familiar to our own. The influential American critic Edmund C. Stedman, a contemporary of Doré’s, described him in these words: “He was born a master of the grotesque, and by a special insight could portray the spectres of a haunted brain… Beauty pure and simple, and the perfect excellence thereof, he rarely seemed to comprehend.”

Even when he was depicting the real world, such as in his book London: A Pilgrimage, he couldn’t keep himself from focussing largely on the poverty of the vast majority of its inhabitants. I particularly like the image below- Over London by Rail, which is from that book. It seems to me to convey the fact that despite the technological advances of a booming metropolis, for many people, living in Victorian London was like living in a row of cages at a pet store. Even if they had most of the things they needed to survive, they would never escape their socioeconomic cages.


Over London by Rail (1870)

Most of Doré’s illustrations (and all of the ones included here) were either steel or wood engravings, which are both forms of printmaking. What that means is the artist didn’t create these works by drawing on paper with a pen or pencil- contrary to what I first thought when I came across works like this.

Instead, printmaking is achieved by first creating a matrix– for example, by engraving a desired pattern or picture on a block of wood. The matrix is then used to transfer ink onto paper, creating a single copy of the artist’s desired image, which is known as an impression. It’s a lot like using a stamp; and just like with stamps, one major advantage of printmaking is that a single matrix can be used to create a large number of identical impressions. This is, of course, particularly useful when one’s works are to be used in widely published books- as Doré’s were.

The monochrome palette of printmaking (in Western art- as opposed mainly to Japanese art- printmaking almost never used colour) makes Doré’s works even more dreamlike, and suited many of the books he illustrated extremely well- books of fantastic adventure stories, such as Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and of course, the Bible.

Critics have said that the quality of Doré’s pictures depended greatly upon the nature, and the quality of the literature he illustrated. As I consider the classic literary masterpieces I just mentioned, I can’t shake the feeling that Doré could have created something unforgettable if he had had the opportunity to illustrate one of my personal favourite works of fiction: The Lord of the Rings…

Anyway, here’s a few more Dorés:

Illustration for The Divine Comedy

Illustration for Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner'

Final illustration for The Raven