Gustave Doré was born in Strasbourg, and began to demonstrate a talent for drawing at an early age. When he was 15, his caricatures scaught the eye of Charles Philippon, the editor of Le Charivari in Paris, who promptly offered him a job. Doré, largely self-taught, also set himself the task of illustrating a selection of literary masterpieces, among them Dante's Divine Comedy, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Byron's Complete works. He gained renown as an illustrator and, later, as a painter, opening the Doré Gallery on New Bond Street, London, in 1868. His paintings, often large format, can be considered a link between Romanticism and Symbolism, and he explored such monumental themes as the fate of mankind and the horrors of war.
Doré is known to have painted several versions of this subject, the largest of which, measuring an impressive 20 x 30 feet, was exhibited at the Paris salon of 1876. The present painting, a preparatory sketch, is handled in a much freer and looser manner; a second preparatory sketch, in watercolor, was offered at Sotheby's in New York (23 May 1996, lot 453). Doré's composition was engraved by A. François.