Behold Gustave Doré’s Illustrations for Rabelais’ Grotesque Satirical Masterpiece Gargantua and Pantagruel

When François Rabelais came up with a cou­ple of giants to put at the cen­ter of a series of inven­tive and rib­ald works of satir­i­cal fic­tion, he named one of them Gar­gan­tua. That may not sound par­tic­u­lar­ly clever today, gar­gan­tu­an being a fair­ly com­mon adjec­tive to describe any­thing quite large. But we actu­al­ly owe the word itself to Rabelais, or more specif­i­cal­ly, to the near­ly half-mil­len­ni­um-long lega­cy of the char­ac­ter into whom he breathed life. But there’s so much more to Les Cinq livres des faits et dits de Gar­gan­tua et Pan­ta­gru­el, or The Five Books of the Lives and Deeds of Gar­gan­tua and Pan­ta­gru­el, whose endur­ing sta­tus as a mas­ter­piece of the grotesque owes much to its author’s wit, lin­guis­tic vir­tu­os­i­ty, and sheer brazen­ness.

Nor has it hurt that the books have inspired vivid illus­tra­tions from a host of artists, one of whom in par­tic­u­lar stands out: Gus­tave Doré, whom Richard Smyth calls “one of the most pro­lif­ic — and most suc­cess­ful — book illus­tra­tors of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry.”

Here at Open Cul­ture, we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured the art he cre­at­ed to accom­pa­ny the work of Dante, Cer­vantes, and Poe, each a writer pos­sessed of a high­ly dis­tinc­tive set of lit­er­ary pow­ers, and each of whom thus received a dif­fer­ent but equal­ly lav­ish and evoca­tive treat­ment from Doré.

For Rabelais, says the site of book deal­er Herib­ert Ten­schert, the 22-year-old artist pro­duced (in 1854) “100 images that oscil­late between the whim­si­cal and the uncan­ny, between real­ism and fan­ta­sy,” a count he would expand to 700 in anoth­er edi­tion two decades lat­er.

You can see a great many of Doré’s illus­tra­tions for Gar­gan­tua and Pan­ta­gru­el at Wiki­me­dia Com­mons. The simul­ta­ne­ous extrav­a­gance and repug­nance of the series’ medieval France may seem impos­si­bly dis­tant to us, but it can hard­ly have felt like yes­ter­day to Doré either, giv­en that he was work­ing three cen­turies after Rabelais.

As sug­gest­ed by Herib­ert Ten­schert, per­haps these imag­i­na­tive visions of the Mid­dle Ages — like Balza­c’s Rabelaisian Les con­tes dro­la­tiques, which he also illus­trat­ed — “res­onat­ed with Doré because they remind­ed him of the mys­te­ri­ous atmos­phere of his child­hood, which he had spent in the mid­dle of the medieval city of Stras­bourg.” What­ev­er his con­nec­tion, Doré cre­at­ed images that still bring to mind a whole range of descrip­tors: somber­ly joc­u­lar, rig­or­ous­ly volup­tuous, com­pelling­ly repel­lent, and above all pan­ta­gru­elist. (Look it up.)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Gus­tave Doré’s Exquis­ite Engrav­ings of Cer­vantes’ Don Quixote

The Adven­tures of Famed Illus­tra­tor Gus­tave Doré Pre­sent­ed in a Fantasic(al) Cutout Ani­ma­tion

Gus­tave Doré’s Dra­mat­ic Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy

The Dro­lat­ic Dreams of Pan­ta­gru­el: 120 Wood­cuts Envi­sion the Grotesque Inhab­i­tants of Rabelais’ World (1565)

Gus­tave Doré’s Mag­nif­i­cent Illus­tra­tions of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1884)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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