Grandville, Visions, and Dreams – The Public Domain Review
The poet Charles Baudelaire greatly admired the graphic arts, writing several essays about the major caricaturists and illustrators of his day. He found something positive to say about each of them with one exception, the artist Jean-Ignace-Isidore Gérard, known simply as Grandville (1803–1847). And yet, despite Baudelaire’s antipathy, Grandville is arguably the most imaginative graphic artist of the nineteenth century, as well as the most influential on subsequent generations. Baudelaire was well aware of Grandville’s gifts, but his aversion was that of a true classicist:
There are superficial people whom Grandville amuses, but as for me, he frightens me. When I enter into Grandville’s work, I feel a certain discomfort, like in an apartment where disorder is systematically organized, where bizarre cornices rest on the floor, where paintings seem distorted by an optic lens, where objects are deformed by being shoved together at odd angles, where furniture has its feet in the air, and where drawers push in instead of pulling out.1
Baudelaire’s comments were perceptive: these are the very characteristics that, while making him uncomfortable, appealed to the next century’s surrealist artists and writers who saw in Grandville a kindred spirit who shared their interest in the uncanny, in the dream state, and in the world of imagination.
The work of a graphic artist was always collaborative, undertaken at the behest of a publisher. Graphic artists worked mostly on commission; paid by the piece, they considered themselves fortunate if contracted to produce all the drawings for one of the richly illustrated editions that were so popular with nineteenth-century audiences. The standard procedure was that the artist provided the drawing, which would then be translated into an incised wood engraving, printed and hand-colored by specialists. Grandville did his share of these commissioned works, producing illustrations for Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, and Robinson Crusoe, among others, but because of this expensive and time-consuming production process, graphic artists were rarely allowed to follow their own inclinations. Nonetheless, Grandville’s most inventive work did just that, departing from the conventional understanding of illustration as subservient to text; Grandville’s drawings stand alone.