Posted by: wmellin | November 11, 2011

Re: The Lost Text of Doré

Olivia, thanks so much for finding and writing about the text for Doré’s images. In my limited viewing of the text (like Rachel I’ll peruse it more thoroughly later), it does not really change my mind about Doré’s images. For example, one of my favorite images is “Over London – By Rail,” number 116 in our book and about 120 on the Tufts site ( The text reads, “the massing of the poor…is at the root of all evils which afflict most of the great cities of Europe.” This statement is certainly true, but in this print I see people at work doing chores of the home and living in close quarters, not utter destruction as intense as “the root of all evils.” The extended caption pinpoints a theme in the image, but not one that I could not have picked out on my own.

The themes that stand out to me are neither mentioned in the text nor are they based in the actions the image depicts. Rather, they are embedded in the staging of the action. While a focus on the subjects alone provides insight about their lives, it neglects the fact that the images’ composition tells a story as well. Doré builds this image with intense that reminds me of Renaissance art and architecture: it is ordered and structured. The Roman arcade bridge that the train crosses in the background ironically suggests that the fascination during the Renaissance with geometry and structure has become the hyper-focus on the factory during the Industrial age. The train is moving forward while puffing smoke into the scene, hinting that the English have replaced the Romans in the tradition of innovation, empire, and “progress.” Further, the arch in the foreground of the print invokes a cathedral, with the thoroughfare as the nave, the chimneys forming a colonnade, and the bridge as the crossing. The viewer of course cannot see beyond the crossing to the apse, one of the most sacred parts of a cathedral.

This metaphor is rather odd, and probably is not mentioned in the text because the scene’s resemblance to a cathedral could be either circumstance or an observation Doré chose to develop. Olivia makes an excellent point that Doré’s illustrations only give the viewer “one side of the story,” for this image in particular that is not necessarily the case. The cathedral-like composition is an artistic element in the image, not a factual one. It could not really be included in the accompanying narrative because it is an opinion about the image, not a fact. Smith and Thomson drop their opinions here and there in their narratives, but they are a little easier to pick out because the viewer can try to ground them in the fixed images in the photograph.

I do not think that adding text to Doré makes it more comparable with Thomson because with or without supplemental narrative, the former images are sketches while the latter are photographs. Both mediums can tell their own stories without words, but Doré’s work more so than that of Thomson because he can elaborate on the objects he chooses beyond staging alone. In a way, the images are almost more “accurate” without an accompanying text because the highlighting of one element in an image automatically deemphasizes others. The word “accurate,” of course, is both charged and relative: Doré’s “Over London – By Rail” could be a perfectly accurate expression of the story he wanted to tell with this image, but said story and that of reality may not be (and probably are not) the same.

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