To call this etching by Gustave Doré (taken from the book A Pilgrimage to London) reminiscent of Dickens would be a cliché; but it is the most striking thing one can say about it. On the left stands a man with a top hat, tails, and a hooked nose. He may be kin to the Artful Dodger, representing temptation, or the perversion of the high life. To his right is a figure of indeterminate age and sex; perhaps a woman; perhaps a boy. He is enjoying an opium pipe and the only light in the scene seems to flow out from his pipe and across his chest. No other light penetrates the small room (decorated with various books, pipes and ephemera) in which the scene is set.
Doré made most of his living doing etchings for classical books, so its not strange that elements of that style would filter into his commercial work. Still, this image is remarkable for his pessimism. A group of dirty, shifty characters are gathering in an underground den. A boy is being leered at by an older man, and the homeless gather around him, predatory, waiting.
Opium Smokers shows a change in the representation of London from the idealized seashores and ferris wheels of earlier paintings to a more realistic, Dickensian view. In doing this, Doré draws not on painting but on literature. Doré was, by profession, an illustrator of various books (most notably Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost). He constructs his pilgrimage to London in the context of a journey, pledging to show both the good and the bad-- and include all in a celebration of the city.
The Opium Smokers does not condemn London any more then it celebrates it. It merely represents life it as Realist art should, showing the essential character of the inhabitants and their surroundings. This is a very specific image, etched to illustrate a specific moment in Whitechapel. In doing this, though, it strives for a certain universality. The Opium Smokers must somehow show ALL the opium eaters Doré has encountered on this journey; thus the iconic nature of their characters. The man on the left, with his hooked nose and exaggeratedly villainy contrasts with the innocent boy, seduced by the corrupting influence of the weed into a gentle narcosis. This narcosis is both prison and refuge, must like the small enclosure that locates the scene.
This enclosure is also a revelation. Other paintings of the time, perhaps because of the general tendency towards nature painting, focus on openness: on seasides, carnivals, long lanes of people. Here, Doré represents a more closed, hidden part of the city, something not normally seen by his middle class (for Doré was a popular illustrator) viewers. One could almost see this as an romanticized precursor to the later harem pictures. It is a glimpse of something hidden, something forbidden.
Doré's mission in London: A Pilgrimage is to represent those things that are both hidden and obvious. His eye is almost photographic, but it tries to capture the essence of things, not their strict reality. He achieves this through a slight exaggeration, something later practiced by the Impressionists. Still, the focus is on Realism. As Doré and his collaborator Blanchard Jerrold say in the introduction,
We have looked upon the Titan sick and hungering, and in his evil-doing; as well as in his pomp and splendor of the West, and in the exercise of his noble charities and sacrifices. We have endavored to seize representative bits of each of the parts of the whole.
This, then, is Doré's purpose: to show London as it is at this particular historical moment in all its squalor and splendor. The Opium Smokers is a triumph of Realism because it represents ordinary people in an ordinary setting; there is little that is exagerrated about it. It is etched by a man taking on both the guise of one of Baudelaire's flaneurs and that of an ordinary tourist. There is no Romanticism, no religious sentiment or lionization of nature. Such things are suggested, yes, but just barely. This engraving by Gustave Doré is firmly Realist: it represents firmly what Is.
A social agenda is implicit in the work. Though not a strict reformist, Doré is presenting a view of the city that calls out for a humanistic response. He is looking for charity, for somebody to help these unfortunates; and in the last chapter of the book London is not found wanting:
Charity knocks at nearly every household door in this, England's capital, and is not turned away empty-handed from many. The aged, the orphan, the halt, the blind, of London would fill an ordinary city. When the struggle for life is so severe as it is in England in the happiest times, the wounded and disabled and invalided must be in considerable numbers. The metropolitan charities attest, by their income and various forms, the zeal with which the Rich come to the side of the wounded in the fight.
The Opium Den stands at a cusp between Romanticism and Realism. It presents an ultimately realistic view of the city, stripped of artifice and glamor. It does this in the service of forcing the city of London to live up to its own ideals and principles. Doré's etching is thus the perfect illustration of the perils and promises of this new-blooming industrial city.
G Doré and B. Jerrold, Pilgrimage to London, Benjamin Blom Inc, New York, 1968