Published online by Cambridge University Press: 12 September 2012
Gustave Doré's (1832–83) illustrations and Dante's Divine Comedy have become so intimately connected that even today, nearly 150 years after their initial publication, Doré's rendering of the poet's text still accompanies, or even determines, our vision of the Commedia. Indeed, Doré's illustrations together with Dante's text have appeared in roughly 200 editions, with translations from the poet's original Italian available in multiple languages. Doré's fame as Dante's illustrator is worldwide, and the pervasiveness of his Commedia imagery is undeniable. Yet there was another side to Doré. He was also a prolific painter and sculptor with ambitions for acceptance in the world of the beaux-arts salon – ambitions he supported with substantial profits accrued from the literary illustrations for which he is best known.
The balance Doré sought to achieve – popular success with his illustrations, on the one hand, and esteem of artists and critics involved in the beaux arts for his painting and sculpture, on the other hand – was precarious and, ultimately, unsuccessful for him. The role Dante plays in this balance is unique, as Doré composed both popular illustrations and salon paintings based on his reading of the Commedia. However, it was his illustrations of Inferno that truly established his renown – renown which, for the most part, excluded consideration of his abilities as a fine artist. As Doré himself remarked, “My adversary is myself. I must […] kill the illustrator [to be] spoken of only as the painter.”