The Enigma – Paul Gustave Doré

I guess I can’t really ignore that it is Easter. Hopefully you are all enjoying a bountiful stash of chocolate eggs and celebrating in a befitting manner. Personally I am enjoying the fact that I get a couple of extra days off, but for those of you that have a deeper meaning to this weekend, Happy Easter.

I could have gone down the path of writing up about why we have chocolate eggs and bunnies in a celebration which sees someone rising from the dead (eggs are representative of the rebirth and bunnies from the pagan festivals indicating the start of spring and fertility), or I could have looked for a piece of art work which depicted the resurrection, but out of all the stories from the bible, I think that one is probably the best known, so decided to avoid it.

Instead, I settled on a request for a write up from a friend. I will admit, though a fan of Doré, as I have written about him before, I hadn’t seen this particular picture and my interested was instantly peaked.

Enigma means a person or thing that is mysterious or difficult to understand; and when first looking at this painting it can be really confusing as to what is happening in the painting, why it was named “The Enigma”and what the mythical creatures are doing there, but this is a beautifully tragic piece by an artist who was distressed over the events shown in the painting, using his imagination to represent the feelings of a nation.

Painted in grey tones, the picture show a burning city with plumes of smoke rising in to the sky. In the foreground bodies are strewn across the battlefield, with a broken canon, Amidst the dead bodies a sphinx sits on the hillside, with an angel pleading with it.

This was painted in 1871, and usually dates aren’t overly important to understanding the artwork itself, but on this occasion it is. In 1870 France was defeated in battle by Prussia, after a provoked war by Otto Von Bismarck, as part of his plan to create a unified German empire. This war lasted just over a year and signalled the rise of German military power and imperialism. Doré had lived through this war and was highly distressed at German’s rise in power and as a result create three monumental works – “The Enigma”, “The Black Eagle of Prussia” and “The Defence of Paris”. These three paintings were presented under the general title of “Souvenirs of 1870” when they were sold after Doré’s death.

“The Enigma” is the most telling about how devastating the battle was. The images of the dead are so close to the viewer of the painting, they are hard to ignore, and the smoke of a city destroyed dominate the sky line. The audience’s eye though is definitely drawn to the creatures on the hillside.

The sphinx, known in Egyptian and Greek mythology has varying meanings, in Egyptian was know as the Guardian of the underworld, where as Greek was a creature of torture and torment. In this painting, it seems more to lean towards the more compassionate sphinx from Egyptian tales, as the human head looks to the angel with an expression of placid contemplation. The angel on the other hand, is thought to be the embodiment of France, seemingly begging for either the war to end, or questioning why it started in the first place. Here lies the enigma. So many deaths and for what? An question that can never be truly answered. For Doré this echoes his earlier illustrations from “Dante’s Inferno”, with almost apocalyptic images, showing what would feel like the end of the world.

This painting took his inspiration for his artwork from a Victor Hugo poem “Ode to the Arc de Triomphe”:-

“What a spectacle! Thus dies everything that man creates!

A past such as this is a deep abyss for the soul!”

The painting is now housed in the Musee d’Orsay, and actually serves as an allegorical painting of humanity facing the horrors of defeat through self destruction.

I find that the tones of grey used in the palette of this piece adds to the desolate feeling surrounding it. Everything man made is dark compared to the natural lighter sky. The imagine is haunting.

What do you think of this painting? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?


13 thoughts on “The Enigma – Paul Gustave Doré

Add yours

      1. I’m doing a paper for school on this work, your insight has certainly been influential in my analysis, I’ll definitely be crediting you for all the help! I was wondering though, do you have any particular sources for the historical context? I’ve been looking through archives and have come up a bit short regarding Dore’s position prior to/during the period of time this was produced.


      2. I really suggest looking at the poem by Victor Hugo, and the Prussian victory. Also maybe concentrate on his religious beliefs rather than his political ones as they are not heavily documented where as his work concentrates a lot on his over arching devotion


  1. Great article. Even though i was studying Arts and Graphic Design, no piece of art i’ve seen in my life never provoked feelings and emotions until i saw this one scrolling down in my facebook, the feelings were instantaneous i have to admit. Now with the currents events such as the ukranian invasion this was the first thing to come to my mind, a picture in wich there are no winner’s. Greetings from Venezuela!

    Liked by 1 person

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