Hugo… illustrated
Many of Victor Hugo’s characters have taken shape in our imagination through the images created by the illustrators who contributed to the nineteenth-century popularity of illustrated publications. But the poet’s verses also inspired painters and sculptors. Largely put together by Paul Meurice who added items ordered for the museum, this collection now has no fewer than 600 works, paintings, drawings and sculptures...
The first illustrators of Victor Hugo’s work were primarily his friends Achille and Eugène Devéria, Louis Boulanger, Alfred and Tony Johannot and Célestin Nanteuil, members of the Romantic literary group around 1830. They worked not only on the first illustrated editions which saw a revival during the Romantic Movement, but also for Victor Hugo’s theatre productions, producing designs for stage costumes or settings as was the case with the monumental setting of the affront scene in Lucrèce Borgia by Louis Boulanger. Mr Boulanger was very close to the master and worked on preparatory watercolours for the print of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as well as lithography (Ghosts, The Ring of Sabbath) and painting (Fire of the Sky, the second version of The Ring of Sabbath). Hence the diversity of work found in the museum collections.
Victor Hugo had always objected to the original editions of his work being illustrated but he willingly allowed it for the second. One of the most striking phenomena was the genius of Gustave Brion who, once Les Misérables had been published, had the idea of disseminating his drawings by photography. The success of his albums led to depictions of the characters of the novel, similarly to the way the cinema popularised them later.
Every great novel by Victor Hugo included several illustrated editions. Among those which were successful were the ones by F.N. Chifflart for Toilers of the Sea. He also produced spectacular drawings for The Legend of the Ages. Georges Rochegrosse who illustrated The Man Who Laughs is another example. The editions which followed saw more collaborations, particularly with Daniel Virgin, before the multiple editions of the complete works became something of a business, reusing old illustrations or creating new ones. The museum collection is very interesting in this respect thanks to its varied content. It brings together original drawings and paintings, sometimes photos of sketches on wood, drawings using carbon paper or trial proofs, all in various states. Then there are the editions themselves.
Paul Meurice was regularly tasked by Victor Hugo with overseeing these editions and monitoring the illustration work. He therefore paid close attention to illustrations. When setting up the museum he sought to gather together the largest and most representative collection, with examples of paintings which were often in grisaille or camaieu, created by artists whose fame was used to promote Hugo’s work (Le Satyr by Cormon or Fantin-Latour, Le Titan by Cabanel, Le Sacre de la Femme by Baudry). Meurice also commissioned paintings for the opening of museums, images depicting famous characters or scenes from the work and life of Victor Hugo (The First Performance of Hernani by Albert Besnard, A Tear for a Drop of Water by Olivier Merson, The Burgraves by Rochegrosse…).
True to this example, the museum continues today to showcase the visual legacy of Victor Hugo’s works in cinema, theatre and comic books.