Focus

By: 
Greg Forrest Gallery Animator

Gustave Doré’s Landscape with the Pyrenees

Gustave Doré’s oil painting Landscape with the Pyrenees (c.1860) is a perennial favourite of visitors to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. The painting, with its impressive neoclassical revival gilt frame commands the entire end wall of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s Laufer Gallery. Despite its substantial gold frame, Landscape with the Pyrenees is an understated example of 19th Century Romantic landscape painting. Viewers apprehending the grandeur of mountain vistas, real or painted, are inspired to contemplate powers larger than themselves. Doré captures that ineffable feeling perfectly in this painting.

Doré was an avid mountaineer and known for his paintings of alpine scenes. Landscape with the Pyrenees is one of his most subtle works of this type. There are no menacing storm clouds or raging cataracts. There are no people to be seen, which is atypical of his art. The lightest part of the painting is the titular mountains seen from a peak across the valley during the transition between day and night. Without knowing the exact location, it is unclear if it is dawn or dusk, but Doré is known to have had a penchant for painting mountains near sunset. The tops of the snow streaked peaks are lit by a hint of sun. The sky above is pale blue with streaky clouds. The lower part of the canvas (the foreground) is the alpine landscape across the valley that is entirely cast in shadow. On a rocky outcrop near the centre of the painting are murky outlines that closer inspection reveals to be a family of deer. They are the only visible inhabitants of this vast panorama. To the right, steep tree-lined slopes descend into the unlit valley below. Doré has perfectly captured the fleeting moment of twilight on canvas.

The painting is approximately 1 meter vertical by 1.75 meters horizontal. It has the proportions of a large flat screen television. This scale is an important element for conveying a sense of awe in the viewer. If the painting were smaller or hung high on a wall the viewer could not have the same physical relationship to it. The painting reveals itself as one moves towards and away from it. Approaching the painting and intimately examining the brushstrokes, we see abstract pale pink blobs and scrawls against a taupe ground but as one moves back from the paint they suddenly snap into focus as economic renderings of high-altitude snow fields at twilight. From a distance the lower foreground is all rocks and vegetation until one moves nearer and a tiny detail reveals itself to be the aforementioned family of deer.

The painting depicts late spring or early summer. The winter snow caps have largely melted leaving scattered patches. The foreground and valley below are clear of snow. Deer usually fawn in late spring, so these clues suggest a time frame. This is a not unimportant detail because Doré was a religious artist. He frequently painted and illustrated Biblical and spiritual subject matter. The family of deer in spring suggest renewal, rebirth and the cycle of life.

The idea of alluding to spiritual and philosophical concerns in landscape painting is a hallmark of Romanticism in art. The theory of the sublime in art was put forth a generation before Doré by Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful in 1757. He described the sublime as the most profound effect on the mind that a work of art can produce. Burke was speaking of art that forces one’s emotions to overwhelm one’s rationality. The Age of Enlightenment brought forward a new scientific way of understanding the world and the Romanticists presented a counter narrative to it. Artists depicting storms like J.M.W. Turner or mountain vistas like Caspar David Friedrich aimed to replicate the humbling awe and terror of contemplating the vastness of creation and humankind’s fleeting, impotent relationship to it. Besides the sublime in art there was also the emerging understanding of the Picturesque. In the 18th Century, people with the means to do so, began to appreciate what we now call scenic spots or photo ops. At a time when the Industrial Revolution was changing the landscape, people began to place value on simply taking in the beauty of nature unspoiled by humanity. Doré’s painting Landscape with the Pyrenees is a hybrid of the Sublime and Picturesque. We may not exactly be left terrified of nature’s power but do feel the awe and reverence Doré sought to stir in us.

Gustave Doré was born in Strasbourg in the Alsace region of France in 1832. Coming from a place that was both French and German in character is reflected in both his name and his career, which straddled Europe’s borders. He was a renowned illustrator but also a painter, caricaturist, comics innovator, sculptor, and even acrobat. So pervasive was his work that he was posthumously cited as an influence on films such as King Kong, Snow White, and The Ten Commandments. He was the highest paid illustrator of his time, having produced over 10 000 illustrations for classics like Dante and Shakespeare and (then) contemporary writers like Dickens and Hugo. Mark Twain makes a casual reference to a Doré bible in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Despite the phenomenal success his graphic works garnered during his lifetime, Doré sought greater recognition for his work as a painter. Painting was considered a higher art form and the accolades Doré sought largely eluded him in life. Doré was 51 when he died in 1883 which is tragically young by present standards but was above the average life expectancy at the time.

An interesting side note about Landscape with the Pyrenees is that it has been signed twice by Dore, once in each lower corner. This was probably done after framing the painting partially covered the first signature.

Image Credit: 

Gustave Doré

Landscape with the Pyrenees, c 1860.
Oil on canvas, 95.3 x 179.5 cm.
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. S. T. Laufer, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1991. 1991.39