Gustave Doré - Les Saltimbanques (Entertainers), 1874

Gustave Doré (1832-1883) – Les Saltimbanques (Entertainers), 1874


Several paintings of card readers tell fascinating stories. As tarot readers we work with the images in pictures as rich symbols of the human condition. It would be interesting to hear what story you see in this powerful and heartbreaking painting by Gustave Doré. Use the “Comments” to share with us what you think has just happened and what message the artist may have had. Refer to as many of the symbols as you can to tell us what their story is. As noted above, Saltimbanque, while a French word, is from the Italian saltare in banco, “jumping on a platform,” and signifies “tumbler, performer, entertainer.” Saltimbanques are a subset of acrobats, performing only on the ground.  I understand the word has a slightly perjorative connotation that includes buffoonery and charlatanism. Marilee reports in the Comments that the painting is also called “The Injured Child,” which suggests that all hope might not be lost. (Click on the picture to make it larger and then click again for one more zoom.)

UPDATE: In an 1874 interview with Gustave Doré for Appleton’s Journal (in England), Doré made his own intentions for this painting clear to the interviewer (this was the same year in which he painted the work):

[Interviewer:] Turning to that picture of ‘The Mountebanks,’ which had so struck me, I asked if the poor wounded child were going to die.

“Yes,” answered M. Doré, “he is dying. I wished to depict the tardy awakening of nature in those two hardened almost brutalized beings. To gain money they have killed their child and in killing him they have found out that they had hearts. . . . The English engraver wishes me to call it ‘Behind the Scenes’ but its French title will be I think simply ‘Agonie.'”

Why do you think the artist included playing cards in this scene? What do they represent?  Read this original story by ‘Helen’ inspired by the painting, which includes a brief reading of the cards.

Added: Here’s an enhanced close-up of the cards for those who would like to try reading them:Saltimbanques card spread

See this post for a couple of animoto videos of this picture.

Denver Museum of Art painting on the same subject.


Here the child is clearly dead, no animals are present, the cards are missing, and the father looks like an underworld denison—a demon from the depths. Striped down to raw emotion, Doré is letting the family themselves tell the story rather than through the symbolic accoutrements of the other work. The Virgin Mary-style robe of sky blue and gold stars of the prior painting has been cast aside to reveal a filmy dress of youthful, blossom-pink. It’s as if the child were posed between dawn and night. It seems that Doré himself trained as an acrobat and had a life-long fascination with common street performers. He was struck by a report of just such an accident in the papers and not only produced one of his scarce paintings, but actually poured himself into two versions, seeking to capture that moment of unspeakable grief. 

This version of the painting (curgently held by the Denver Art Museum) seems to have been executed first in 1873. It may be the painting that is referred to in the interview quoted above as the “agonie” is even more apparent. See also a preliminary drawing for the painting, found in the comments section.