Victor Hugo As Genius  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Christie's.

Victor Hugo was the most important 19th century author in France.  Playwright, poet, novelist, painter, architect, visionary, tortured genius and revolutionary socialist, Hugo seemingly covered all bases. 

Hugo was man full of contradictions but his writing stands as a testament to his unwavering gift with the pen.

It has been said that Hugo’s influence on French literature was second only to that of the bible.  When he passed away in 1885 the procession to his tomb was so large reports said it outnumbered the population of Paris.

Hugo was called the poet of French romanticism.  His style of free form writing emphasized strong feelings, the experiences of everyday people, and lots of passion.  His words are full of powerful rhythms and sounds.

Among Hugo’s best-known works are “Notre Dame de Paris” (“The Hunch Back of Notre Dame”) (1830) and “Les Misérables” (1862).  “The Hunch Back of Notre Dame” was an immediate success and the best known of his works in this country. 

Nowadays the book is a part of popular culture.  The story takes place in 15th century Paris and tells the story of a gypsy girl named Esmeralda and the deformed, deaf, bell ringer, Quasimodo, who loves her.

I can still conjure up images of the 1923 American film adaptation and the twisted body of Lon Chaney as he played the tormented bell ringer of Notre Dame.  More recently Disney immortalized the film in cartoon. 

Les Misérables” is probably the world’s most popular musical.  The book dealt with Hugo’s concern for the underprivileged.  More than a simple adventure story Les Misérables is a love story and mystery.  Hugo asserts in the end that love and compassion are the greatest gifts one can give another

When it was released, the book amazed readers with the scope of Hugo’s literary abilities.  His novels and poems have a way of mixing political and philosophical questions with the stories of his day.

Hugo was born in Besançonin, France in 1802, the son of a general in Napoleon’s army, who raised his son to admire the famous leader.  His parents separated when Hugo was young and he was raised by his mother in Paris, where the family settled when he was two.

By the time Hugo was 13 his poems were winning awards and he realized he would someday be writer.  He made his debut as a novelist with “Han D'Islande” (1823) and “Bug-Jargal” (1826).  In the 1830s he focused mostly on the theater. 

Hugo married Adèle Foucher at age 20 in 1822.  After problems in the marriage erupted with wife Adèle, Hugo began an affair with Juliette Drouet, an actress in one of his plays. The relationship lasted more than 50 years.

Hugo was man full of contradictions but his writing stands as a testament to his unwavering gift with the pen.

On April 5, the 210th anniversary of Hugo’s birth, Christie’s in Paris featured The Hugo Collection on the block.  The sale also included items from his descendants, Charles, Georges and Jean, four generations of his family.  There were nearly 500 books, painting, engravings, photographs, furniture and other personal items related to the life of Victor Hugo in the auction.

Victor Hugo

Prints; 7; Victor Hugo and his sons; one albumen print mounted on card and signed on image; 1860; 3 ¾ inches by 6 inches image size;  $3,133.  

Photograph Album; pictures after stage designs by Brion; inscribed by Victor Hugo to his son Francois-Victor;  $15,663.

Salt Prints; (paper-based photographic process for producing positive prints during the period from 1839 through approximately 1860) by Atelier Charles Hugo-Vacquerie; 1853-1855; 3 ¾ inches by 3 inches;  $39,306.

Autographed Love Letter; signed; to Adele Foucher his future wife; written during the 1820s;  $51,969.


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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