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We are inundated with questions regarding Salvador Dali’s woodcuts for the Divine Comedy - and with good reason. These popular woodcuts have been sold around the world since they were published in 1960. This guide covers most of the questions you could think to ask about these fantastic woodcuts - but if there is something we left out, feel free to send us a question through eBay. We have separated the guide in easy to read sections. In the guide we include photographs and examples of many of the items discussed as validity or proof for our comments. The information below was compiled from both Reference catalogs for Authentic Salvador Dali Graphics, Auction house records, Appraisals, expert authentications and our own experience.
1. History of the Divine Comedy
2. Woodcut Process
4. Paper, Watermarks, and Appearance
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri remains today one of the pillars upon which the European literary tradition has been built. Originally titled simply Commedia, Dante's masterpiece was written at the end of his life and finished just before his death in 1321. Presented in the edition published by Les Heures Claires is Salvador Dali's interpretation of the wonderful and intense imagery that Dante formed through spinning a web of words both exciting and exhilarating.
To celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante's birth, the government of Italy planned to issue a special edition of The Divine Comedy. For this issue, Dali created 101 watercolors between 1951 and 1960. In 1954, La Libreria della Stato published a brochure with seven of the paintings reproduced full size as lithographs, together with sample pages of the text. The prints are 16 1/2 inches x 11 inches with narrow margins. Due to the opposition these prints created, the Italian government dropped the project and postage stamps were issued instead. Several years later, Joseph Foret, in Paris, who had previously published other Dali suites such as Don Quichotte, started production of the prints by wood engraving. Master engravers worked from 1959 - 1963 to carve 3500 separate wood blocks for the 100 prints. The Divine Comedy project was then taken over and completed by Jean Estrade of Les Heures Claires. (See below for edition information)
2. Color Woodcut Process
Historically, woodcut is the most important of the relief printing processes. The design is drawn directly onto the surface of the wood block which is cut parallel to the wood grain ('plank' as opposed to 'end grain'). The parts which are to print white are cut away, leaving the black lines in relief. The tool usually used is a Knife, the block is then printed on a relief press. Printing from woodblocks was known in China from around 800 A.D. in Europe as early as the twelfth century, but originally only for stamping designs on textiles. the earliest surviving prints on paper cannot be dated before the last years of the fourteenth century (1370 found in Eastern France). Since woodblocks can be printed together with type, this was for many years the favored method of book illustration. Wood engravings were first developed in the eighteenth century. A very hard wood such as boxwood is used, which is always cut across the grain. the tool used is a version of a burin or graver, the handle of which is held against the palm and the blade pushed before the hand, making a clean incision into the wood. Wood engravings are printed in relief in the same way as woodcuts. The wood engraver is able to produce much more detailed work than the woodcutter and characteristically achieves an effect of closely worked lines that print white against black. Thomas Bewick of Newcastle (1753 - 1828) was the first great exponent of wood engraving, which was much used in the nineteenth century for book illustration. Wood engraving can be used for color work. Separate blocks are generally cut for each color area. In the instance of Salvador Dali's early woodcut engravings, "The Divine Comedy (1952-1964), up to thirty five woodblocks were used in the printing. many of these progressive proof impressions taken from the blocks survive giving a vivid visual history of the build up of the final image from multiple blocks.
Someone savy or skeptical might ask, but how do you know for sure that the woodcut engravings from the divine comedy are indeed woodcuts? Can you prove it? Well as a matter of fact, some of the deluxe editions were issued with suites of decomposition images or progressive proof images showing the buildup of a particular woodcut from start to finish. ACTUAL EXAMPLES FROM A DIVINE COMEDY DECOMPOSITION SET FOR ENFERNO 34. The decomposition set included an impression from each indiviudal block and the buildup of the blocks to from start to the final or completed woodcut.
In the divine comedy edition information listed below you will find reference to some of the deluxe suites having a set of copper engraved images. This guide is only discussing the color woodcuts issued in the Divine Comedy suite.
Picture above is a complete set in French slipcases.
The Woodcuts for the French, German, and Italian editions of The Divine Comedy were all printed in France. The woodcuts are on BFK Rives paper and measure app. 10 1/4 inches x 13 inches. The bottom edge is deckled.
Joseph Foret Edition
Joseph Foret is responsible for the deluxe edition of the Divine Comedy. The Deluxe edition of the Divine Comedy consists of a total of 33 sets. Twenty-one of the thirty-three sets are on Japon paper, the other twelve are on BKF Rives paper. Out of the 12 sets on Rives, 2 were for the artist and the other 10 were for named persons. The sets consisted of the following:
Set "I" had 9 original watercolors by Dali and 3 inked plates, a suite on silk of the copper plate engravings, a suite on Rives of the copper plate engravings, a suite on silk of the woodcut engravings, and a suite of decompositions of one illustration.
Set "II and III" had 6 original watercolors by Dali and 1 inked plates, a suite on silk of the copper plate engravings, a suite on silk of the woodcut engravings, and a suite of decompositions of one illustration.
Set "IV-VIII" had 3 original watercolors by Dali and 1 inked plates, a suite on silk of the copper plate engravings, a suite on silk of the woodcut engravings, and a suite of decompositions of one illustration.
Set "IX-XXI" had 1 original watercolors by Dali, a suite on silk of the copper plate engravings, a suite on silk of the woodcut engravings, and a suite of decompositions of one illustration.
These suites were presented in six satin-covered slipcase boxes. Each "set" also contained a color lithograph of the Danse or Les Servantes (1960), published by Foret but not part of the book edition, a photographic portrait of the artist by P. Almasy, a print on Lyon Satin attached to an illustration and three copper plate engravings.
Jean Estrade - Les Heures Claires
The edition most familiar with the market is the French edition of The Divine Comedy published by Jean Estrade of Les Heures Claires, Paris. The total edition size is 4765 sets. Due to some of the sets having twos suites, there are a total of 5346 prints of each woodcut. The sets contained the following:
Sets "1-15" had a suite on Rives of the woodcut engravings and1 inked plate, a suite on Rives of the copper plate engravings, a suite on Rives of the woodcut engravings, and a suite of decompositions of one illustration (being a total of six sets of decompositions, one for each slipcase). The early sets of the Divine Comedy were issued in 12 slipcases boxes rather than six. The extra boxes held the extra suites of prints and decompositions. I have seen both twelve uniform size boxes and also six thicker than regular size boxes and six boxes that are about half the thickness of the regular boxes.
Sets "16-165" had a suite on Rives of the woodcut engravings and a suite on Rives of the copper plate engravings, a suite on Rives of the woodcut engravings, and a suite of decompositions of one illustration (being a total of six sets of decompositions, one for each slipcase).
Sets "166-515" had a suite on Rives of the woodcut engravings and a suite of decompositions of one illustration (being a total of six sets of decompositions, one for each slipcase).
Sets "866-4765" had a suite on Rives of the woodcut engravings.
Each volume is presented in a slipcase. Two volumes for enferno in cream slipcases with red swirling accent lines, two volumes for purgatory in cream slipcases with purple swirling accent lines, Two volumes for paradise in cream slipcases with blue swirling accent lines. The woodcuts and French text are loose. I have seen some sets where a master binder has bound the sets in fine leather with gilt tooling (this binding was not as issued but can be very suave nonetheless.
The German edition of The Divine Comedy was published by Les Heures Claires and was limited to 1000 sets. Out of the 1000 sets only 386 or so were completed. Each print was matted in a paper sleeve. The prints bear watermarks, (two of every four) and the only difference between these woodcuts and the regular French edition is the addition of a block signature. Each print, with the exception of Enferno 1 and Purgatory 9, which already bear a plate signature have an added block signature in the image area. It is not clear whether this edition is in addition to or part of the 5346 mentioned above. I have seen many of the higher tirage number French sets with varying numbers of Block signed prints. I have seen some sets with all of the prints bearing a block signature (with the exceptions noted above), I have also seen French sets with as few as five or six block signed prints in place of the unsigned prints. Most of the French sets issued, were issued unsigned or without the additional block signature.
100 woodcuts without block signatures (with exception of enferno 1 and purg 9 which always have a signature in the image), issued in 6 boxes with modern Italian text. According to Field, 3188 sets for the Italian edition.
As for the watermarks, you will find one of the following three instances. The woodcut can bear a BFK Rives watermark, a Les Heures Claires watermark, or no watermark at all. The watermarks appeared only twice per sheet of four woodcuts, two out of every four are without a watermark. The woodcuts can be either forward or backwards and can be viewed by placing the print between you and a light source. The watermark will be visible along the lower edge if there.
I have heard the question, are the divine comedy woodcuts legitimate prints. Some dealers have the tendency to bastardize the Divine Comedy suite or try to belittle it because of the edition size. The facts about the Divine Comedy are really pretty simple. The woodcuts for the Divine Comedy are listed in both of the reference guides for Salvador dali prints. Major auction houses including Sotheby's and Christies sell and have sold for years suites of the Divine Comedy. One of the leading Dali Appraisers in the world and the now passed away world expert Albert Field, say that the woodcuts from the Divine Comedy are authentic Dali prints. I don't know what else needs to be said about authenticity.
Value is always a question that is one of the hardest to answer. In the end, value is determined by the market and what the market is willing to pay for an item. Some dealers have said that the Divine comedy has little value and others state that is has a high value. My opinion is that value is often dependent on the market demand and where you are seeing the price ( i.e. ebay, gallery, auction house, consignment shop, garage sale, etc...). My discussion of value really has nothing to do with whether I think the prices are low or high but simply to show some facts.
The Divine Comedy suite has been and is sold in major auction houses around the world. For example, Sotheby's and other auction houses have sold the set in the sales listed below. The sales listed below are just to give actual examples of actual sets selling. The Divine Comedy suites have sold 100's of times in auction, perhaps many hundred's of times and three sales results and one appraisal can't and shouldn't be used to calculate an average value.
Sotheby’s SALE N08193, 28 Apr 06, lot 99, 10-15k estimate, 12K with buyer's premium.
Sotheby’s SALE N08123, 28 Oct 05, lot 174, 10-12k estimate, 16,800 with buyer's premium.
European auction - 2002 - $3,600 w/o premium
I have included photographs of an appraisal from one of the world's leading Dali appraisers that valued a divine comedy set in 2001 at $60,000
The divine comedy suites have been sold for less and for more over the years and the venue they are sold in determines how high or low it might be. Generally, there is an auction price (which is supposed to be wholesale but usually is not) a wholesale price, a retail price, and an appraisal value. These numbers are often quite different and fluctuate depending on the venue you are in. Often times, there are what I consider to be average prices for sets and suites and prints and these numbers are reflective of what different markets are willing to pay on average for the sets and prints. I like to take the middle road of provable sales results, appraisals, and gallery prices when I am considering value.
The question of value is still a bit fuzzy because it is based on both demand, the day it is selling and where it is selling. To further complicate the idea of value for the woodcuts is the fact that there are 100 woodcuts in the divine comedy and when you are talking about the suite it is easier to determine a value than it is with the individual woodcuts. All of the woodcuts are not equal - Some are exceptional images and others are dogs. The dogs sell a lot slower and a lot of times for less than the exceptional images.
Reprints for the Divine Comedy have come in many forms. The sets popularity even prompted the publisher to issue an anniversary set of the Divine Comedy. They are a different size than the originals. I think it would be easier to describe an original Divine Comedy woodcut than all of the reprints. An original woodcut will be on BFK Rives paper, with or without the watermarks listed above (unless it is from the Foret edition on Japon or silk). It will measure approximately 10 1/4 inches x 13 inches. The bottom edge will be deckled (unless trimmed for some reason). The back may have a chalky backing (added on some of the woodcuts because the ink density was too thick for the paper) and possibly a chant number printed on the reverse (the Italian sets have chant numbers on the reverse). The woodcuts will not have a facsimile signature outside of the image area, will not be numbered of 500 and will not be offset lithographs.
References for authentic graphic works by Salvador Dali are listed below. These reference guides can be ordered online and are the standard reference guides used by collector's and dealer's for Salvador Dali prints.
Michler/Lopsinger Catalogue Raisonne volumes 1 and 2, published by Prestel. Isbn no. 3-7913-1279-0 and 3-7913-1602-8
Field, Albert The Official Catalog of the Graphic Works of Salvador Dali, Isbn no. 0-9653611-0-1