Over the course of the fall semester, I’ll be highlighting books from Falvey Library’s Distinctive Collections featuring the work of French illustrator Gustave Doré. This is in conjunction with the new exhibit Divine Inspiration: Revealing the Sacred in Biblical Texts and Imagery, now on display on the first floor of Falvey Library. Doré created over 200 biblical illustrations for an edition of the Bible published in 1866, and a case in the exhibit is dedicated to his work, as well as being included on the exhibit poster.
For this first entry in the series, we’re focusing on illustrations Doré created prior to his biblical illustrations with Doré Fairy Tales (formally titled “Popular Fairy Tales”), a 32-page volume that collects four stories, published in 1888. An author is not credited for the text, but Doré’s illustrations most likely derived from illustrations he created for Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, around 1862.
An artistic prodigy and enormously prolific, Doré earned acclaim for his book and newspaper illustrations while striving for acceptance in the traditional French art establishment. The majority of his illustrations were produced through wood engraving, a process where an image is carved into a block of wood by carving away the negative space of the image. Ink can then be rolled onto the carved surface and subsequently printed, though often metals plates were created from the blocks by means of electrotyping or stereotyping, allowing the images to be used in industrial printing, and for wider dissemination of the illustrations .
Doré was able to utilize the engraving medium to add a staggering level of detail to his illustrations, with expressive costuming, characters and locales. The illustrations have a strong grounding in realistic environments, but still leave room for the strange and fantastic, as seen in the illustrations for The Seven-League Boots. But these qualities are also due to the engravers who collaborated with Doré, as they were the ones who carved the woodblocks based on Doré’s drawings, thus bringing his visions to life. Doré often drew directly onto the woodblocks prior to carving, so not much evidence remains of his preparatory drawings prior to an engravers’ tools .
In many cases, the engraver’s signature would be included on the illustrations along with Doré’s, as can be seen in the bottom left corner of a Blue-Beard illustration. However, for many of the illustrations in this particular edition, Doré’s signature is the only one that is prominent. This could be due to the way the illustrations were formatted for this particular edition, or how the printing plates were disseminated to the publisher.
One final aspect I’ll note is the paper used for this edition. The paper has a significant texture or “tooth” to it that is detectable when reading, and brings a unique character to the illustrations. But it also creates an uneven surface for the ink to rest upon, which may account for spots where it appears the ink has been rubbed away. This is a reminder that every variable in printing will impact a book and its contents, and will be a factor in its preservation.
Doré Fairy Tales may be viewed in Falvey Library’s Rare Book Room by appointment. Internet Archive includes a number of editions with Doré fairy tale illustrations, and you can learn more about the importance of engraving to Doré’s process by visiting The History of Art.
 Schaefer, Sarah C., ‘The Good News’, Gustave Doré and the Modern Biblical Imagination (New York, 2021; online edn, Oxford Academic, 18 Nov. 2021), https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190075811.003.0003
Mike Sgier is a Distinctive Collections Coordinator at Falvey Library.