Victor Hugo Also Created Dramatic Pen and Ink Drawings

The sketches, many done with pen and ink, are almost modern and surreal

victor hugo
Victor Hugo with friends during his exile to Guernsey Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

The French poet, novels and dramatist Victor Hugo is now best known for Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But his friends, family and even acclaimed artists of his time—Vincent Van Gogh and Eugène Delacroix—knew he had a talent for drawings. For the Paris Review, Dan Piepenbring writes:

He was an adept draftsman, even an experimental one: he sometimes drew with his nondominant hand or when looking away from the page. If pen and ink were not available, he had recourse to soot, coal dust, and coffee grounds.

Huge made more than 4,000 drawings, which range from moody, dark landscapes to caricatures to surprisingly abstract compositions. Some, like a sketch titled "Gavroche à 11 ans" (Gavroche at 11 years old), link to his writing. And the writing also might link back to art, at least in the case of the street urchin who joined the student revolutionaries in Les Misérables: Delacroix’s 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People does feature a young boy waving pistols. Delacroix apparently wrote to Hugo that if he had become a dedicated artist, he would have been one of the best that century. 

The Paris Review quotes Hugo’s son, Charles:

Once paper, pen, and inkwell have been brought to the table, [he] sits down and—without making a preliminary sketch, without any apparent preconception—sets about drawing with an extraordinarily sure hand: not the landscape as a whole, but any old detail. He will begin his forest with the branch of a tree, his town with a gable, his gable with a weathervane, and little by little, the entire composition will emerge from the blank paper with the precision and clarity of a photographic negative subjected to the chemical preparation that brings out the picture. That done, the draftsman will ask for a cup and will finish off his landscape with a light shower of black coffee. The result is an unexpected and powerful drawing that is often strange, always personal, and recalls the etchings of Rembrandt and Piranesi.

Now the works have passed into public domain; the Les Maisons De Victor Hugo and WikiArt have collections online of the sketches. Here are a few:

"Silhouette fantastique", ca. 1854 in Charcoal, stencil painted over with ink wash Victor Hugo/Public Domain via
Gavroche à 11 ans Victor Hugo/Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
The Hermitage Rock, St. Helier, Jersey amidst a fantastic landscape, 1855 Victor Hugo/Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
The King of the Auxcriniers, ca. 1864 Victor Hugo/Public Domain via
Octopus with the initials V. H., ca. 1866 Ink wash on paper Victor Hugo/Public Domain via

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