“Our gentleman was approximately fifty; his complexion was weathered, his flesh scrawny, his face gaunt.” That’s Miguel de Cervantes’s description of his immortal hero. But it was Gustave Doré who took the Spanish writer’s words and gave Don Quixote a countenance. It is Doré’s image that springs to mind when we think of the ‘impossible dreamer’ who rushed around Spain in a suit of armor, “righting all manner of wrongs.” The artist with pen and ink brought us into Quixote’s world, into Quixote’s mind, making tangible the Spaniard’s flights of chivalrous fancy and at the same time reflecting Doré’s own unfettered imagination, which included two tiny knights, each galloping on a mouse.
In 1862, at the age of thirty, Doré was the very first artist to illustrate Cervantes’s great novel. He traveled to Spain to get a glimpse of the life, the people and the landscape for reference, and fell in love with what he saw. His drawings transcended the reality, and captured the fantasy and the satire, the humor and the sadness of Don Quixote’s quest. The book and the illustrator, according to his friend and biographer Blanchard Jerrold, couldn’t have been better matched.
Doré like his subject was a romantic—from early childhood, he only wanted to be a painter. He hungered for fame not as an illustrator but as a painter; he longed “to be immortal on canvas.” Up before six he spent his mornings doing illustrations for publishers and for money, his afternoons painting for himself. He painted works that largely involved mythological or religious allegory and the occasional landscape. But the French Academy dismissed his paintings and the other artists scoffed. They ridiculed him for not being associated with any particular school, for being a sloppy technician, for lacking nuance in tone, and for simply painting too fast—“talent facile.” And though Doré became despondent—his youthful exuberance and his incisive wit long gone—and defiant over all the criticism, he never gave up painting. The comeuppance, of course, lies in the fact that many of the painters from whom Doré had sought acceptance are no longer remembered, whereas today Doré is regarded as the greatest illustrator of the nineteenth century.
Sources: Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, translated by Edith Grossman, 2003; Blanchard Jerrold, The Life of Gustave Doré, 1884.
(image, and detail, reproduced for non-commercial use only)