Théophile Gautier, the writer and critic, observed in June 1837:
‘Victor Hugo is not only a poet, he is also a painter and one whom Louis Boulanger; Camille Roqueplan or Paul Huet would not disavow as a father…if he were not a poet, Victor Hugo would be a painter of the first rank…He excels in mixing in his sombre and wild fantasies the chiaroscuro of a Goya with the terrifying architectural effects of a Piranesi.’
Victor Hugo, the great French Romantic poet, novelist, and playwright, although best known today for his novels was in addition to his abundant literary output a prolific draughtsman, producing over 2,000 drawings during his lifetime. As opposed to his written work, published to great critical acclaim and known by a wide contemporary audience, Hugo considered his drawings as a private activity, created for his own pleasure and enjoyment, and not intended for public consumption although they achieved considerable fame amongst artistic circles in his lifetime. Despite Gautier’s public praise, most were unaware of Hugo’s drawings during his lifetime, as he never exhibited them publicly. The present work is a comparatively early and extraordinarily intense example, perfectly capturing the confluence of Goyesque-chiaroscuro and terrifying architecture of Piranesi, first noted by Gautier.
The first exhibition of Hugo’s drawings took place in Paris in 1888. Greater awareness has come with subsequent exhibitions in the 1970s and 1980s. The great majority of Hugo's drawings are today in the Maison de Victor Hugo in Paris and in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Hugo's drawings fall loosely into several different categories - the early caricatures; the naturalistic landscapes of the 1840s; the fantasy, or imaginary, landscapes of the 1840s and 1850s, often showing castles and towers; and the loose and abstract works, including ink-blots (taches), of the 1850s and 1860s. The present sheet, simply entitled, Landscape, is a relatively early and naturalistic work, signed and dated by Hugo, 1842. It depicts a real landscape, probably somewhere around Paris, where the artist was living at the time, developed into a Romantic fantasy.
In his 1837 essay, Gautier observed that: ‘when he travels [Hugo] he sketches everything that strikes him. The ridge of a hill, a broken-line, a strangely formed cloud, a curious detail on a door or window, a ruinous tower, an old belfry , these things he notes; then at evening, in the inn, he inks in his pencil sketch, puts in shadows and colouring, strengthens it, brings out an effect that is always boldly selected.’ This explication of Hugo’s working method gives a vivid idea of the combination of direct observation and emotional response to the landscape discernible in the present drawing. The richness in the application of ink and its skilled and assured handling are reminiscent of the landscape drawings of Rembrandt, whilst the areas of velvety texture and calligraphic lines suggest Hugo’s interest in etchings. The importance of our sheet to Hugo is evident in that it was one of four drawings he gave five years later, in 1847, to the engraver, Alfred Marvy, in order for Marvy to make etchings of the subjects to be used as prizes in a lottery. An etching of 1847 after the present sheet, in reverse and also entitled, Landscape, is in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. In technique – the summary yet confident execution – the present drawing places Hugo firmly within the orbit of other French Romantic painters of the period, particularly Paul Huet, whom Gautier had observed, would not ‘disavow’ Hugo as a father.
- T. Gautier, ed and trans. F. C. Sumichrist, The Works of Théophile, New York, 1908, 23, p.152-3.
- See Paris, Musée du Petit Palais, Soleil d'Encre: Manuscrits et Dessins de Victor Hugo, exhibition catalogue, 3 October 1985 - 5 January 1986, p. 95, figs. 107a, 107b, illustrated.
- For Hugo’s work of the 1840s, see: F. Rodari et al., Shadows of a Hand: The Drawings of Victor Hugo, exhibition catalogue, New York, The Drawing Center, 16 April - 13 June 1998, p. 14, fig. 7, illustrated.