Which artist, William Blake or Gustave Doré, would Dante have chosen to illustrate the Inferno?

A compelling case can be made for either William Blake or Gustave Doré as the illustrator of Dante’s Inferno. Both artists created illustrations for the Divine Comedy. Putting oneself in Dante’s position requires considering his motivations in writing Inferno. One can then evaluate which artist’s themes and style seem most compatible with the author’s goals. Based on their relative popularity, one might favor Doré’s version of Inferno, which has become a standard for subsequent interpretations.

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If Dante had a time machine, he would have been able to see the illustrations that both William Blake and Gustave Doré created for the entire Divine Comedy, not just Inferno. He could then have chosen which artist’s vision most closely corresponded to his goals in creating the work. Neither artist tried to approximate the artistic style of Dante’s time and place. Therefore, Dante would have to adjust his preferences to two different nineteenth-century styles.

Color is one distinctive element that might influence Dante. William Blake’s illustrations are watercolors, while Doré’s are black-and-white lithographs. The use of color makes Blake’s images seem brighter than Doré’s and perhaps less despairing than Dante’s poetic vision. Blake also tends to fill the entire space, while Doré often situates the figures within a bleak expanse, which evokes an appropriate sensation of hopelessness.

When Doré’s Inferno volume was published in 1861, it was an immediate success and would eventually go into about two hundred more editions. Contemporary critics believed that the artist had perfectly captured the work’s essence. According to art historian Aida Audeh, that same year one critic wrote that the illustrated volume made them feel like Doré had actually been talking to Dante. It seemed

that the conception and the interpretation come from the same source, that Dante and Gustave Doré are communicating by occult and solemn conversations the secret of this Hell plowed by their souls, traveled, explored by them in every sense.

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