The theme of the Vale of Tears, painted on a huge canvas, is inspired by St Matthew’s Gospel which recalls the words of Christ: “Come to me all you who labour and I will give you rest”. On the threshold of death, Gustave Doré summons up the light of faith which triumphs over the pain and death.
Suffering humanity turns towards the figure of the redeemer Christ carrying his cross. The light which radiates from his frail silhouette illuminates an arid, mountainous landscape. The crowds throng to these steep slopes: sovereigns and beggars, children and the elderly, men and women. Their clothes conjure up the Middle East, the cradle of Christianity.
A cradle Catholic with an anxious personality, Gustave Doré sought calm in his Christian faith. His fascination with Christ leaps out from the paintings in the Doré Gallery. This consists of some twenty large canvases commissioned from the artist in 1867, following the huge success of his illustrated Holy Bible. Like Manet, who was born and died in the same years, Doré was attacked by critics who did not understand either the unusual visionary nature of his work or the visual intelligence of his compositions. This work found a more appreciative audience in London with the opening of the Doré Gallery between 1869 and 1892, and then in the United States.
During its twenty-four year lifespan, the Doré Gallery and its twenty or so canvases received approximately 2.5 million visitors. In 1892, most of the paintings were sent to the United States to be exhibited in a touring exhibition lasting until 1898. They then sank into oblivion. They were rediscovered in 1947 in a Manhattan warehouse, sold at auction and split up.
Since 1985, three of the canvases have been part of the Petit Palais collections, including his final work: The Vale of Tears (1883). Like the other paintings in the Doré Gallery, this work is an extension of the Romantic sensibility and prefigures the Symbolist search for meaning.