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Victor Hugo: writer, poet, artist

Updated: Jun 23, 2023



“It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.” ― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. I have always had a certain fascination with Victor Hugo. It started when I was a child, and I realised we shared a birthday (although a few centuries apart). I had read Les Misérables and couldn’t wait to see it on stage. An 18th birthday trip to London’s West End led to a lifelong love of musical theatre and, a few years later, the start of a long career in the arts. Theatre, contemporary dance, and visual arts are personal passions.

I hadn’t immediately realised when I found my apartment that I was following in the steps of Hugo, living just minutes from the house on the Place de Vosges where he wrote some of his major works, including a large part of 'Les Misérables, the crypt where he is buried - Le Panthéon (alongside Zola and Dumas), and the Roman arena (Arenes de Lutece) he campaigned to save.

A visit to the Maison Victor Hugo on the Place De Vosges could easily have turned into an essay on his life and works, but that is not the purpose of this blog. So, I thought I would briefly pick out some aspects of his life that stand out for me.

Victor the Politician

Victor Hugo’s works ranged from poetry to novels and theatre. Famous for books such as Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he was also known to have made great political speeches.


In 1829 he published a short novel called Le Dernier Jour d’un Condamné (The Last Day of a Condemned Man), which described the thoughts of a man condemned to death by the guillotine. Hugo had witnessed several people killed by guillotine and found the process crude and uncivilized. As such, he felt the death penalty should be abolished. The novel is an important and powerful read.


In 1843 his daughter Léopoldine died, and perhaps, as a way to deal with the grief, he began to take an active part in French political life. In 1848, he became the deputy for Paris.

With the downfall of the King the same year, Hugo voted with the Republicans against the death penalty and for freedom of the press. His opposition to Napoleon III in 1851 led to him being labelled a traitor. His remarks rendered him unwelcome in his homeland and forced him into exile. This lasted over 18 years, during which time he lived in Guernsey.


Poetry Whilst best known for his novels, he was barely twenty when he published his first volume of poetry. One that stands out for me is “Tomorrow at Dawn”, a short, touching poem dedicated to his daughter. Léopoldine , whose loss in a tragic boat accident, was the source of deep sadness throughout his life.

Demain dès l'aube" / "Tomorrow at Dawn"

Tomorrow, at dawn, at the hour when the countryside whitens,

I will set out. You see, I know that you wait for me.

I will go by the forest, I will go by the mountain.

I can no longer remain far from you.


I will walk with my eyes fixed on my thoughts,

Seeing nothing of outdoors, hearing no noise

Alone, unknown, my back curved, my hands crossed,

Sorrowed, and the day for me will be as the night.


I will not look at the gold of evening which falls,

Nor the distant sails going down towards Harfleur,

And when I arrive, I will place on your tomb

A bouquet of green holly and of flowering heather.


Victor the Artist

I was surprised to find out that Hugo had taken up drawing and that it had become his exclusive creative outlet from 1848–1851. How had I never heard this before? It started as a hobby but became more important shortly before his exile. He was drawn to abstract work and ideas, and during his lifetime, he made 4,000 drawings, 3,000 of which survive today. 700 of these are in the museum's collection.

Hugo wrote in a letter to Charles Baudelaire that it “renders more or less what I perceive in my eyes and above all in my mind.”


Many of Hugo's drawings use traditional pencil and ink techniques. He experimented with the effects of water on the paper to obtain chiaroscuro effects. In 1950 he set up a studio where he created works of fantasy and technical complexity.


Hugo kept his artwork out of the public eye, fearing it would overshadow his literary work. He did, however, share his drawings with his family and friends, often as ornate handmade calling cards, Delacroix is known to have shared the opinion that if Hugo had decided to become a painter instead of a writer, he would have outshone the artists of their century.


I

A visit to Maison Victor Hugo is a fascinating glimpse into the past. The journey through the house takes you through his life, evoking his writing through furniture, objects and works of art that belonged to him or that he created himself. It even includes the bed that he wrote and died in.


If you ever go, make time afterwards for a sunny stroll through the Place De Vosges and un café ou un chocolat chaud in one of the chic cafes surrounding the tree-lined square.


Maison Victor Hugo

6 place des Vosges

75004 Paris

01 42 72 10 16



 

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