Stalking Victor Hugo: Bon Vivant, Famous Writer, and Secret Interior Decorator
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
"To err is human, to stroll is Parisian" -- Victor Hugo
If you're obsessed with Victor Hugo and the grandeur of Les Miserables, you aren't alone. To the French, Hugo is the equivalent of Shakespeare and is the "Father of the French Republic."
The first stop for any romantically-inclined Hugophile in Paris is undoubtedly the writer’s pied-à-terre, now the Musée Victor Hugo. It's an off the beaten path hidden gem in a usually busy Paris. It's on the second floor of the Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée on the elegant Place des Vosges in the Marais district.
Hugo lived there from 1832 to 1848. The museum is an impressionist form of academic preservation. The house is reconstituted from several of the writer's residences and that of his mistress, Juliette Drouet.
Still, it's a romantic place, like the swashbuckling and romantic author. And, surprisingly, it reveals that Hugo was not only a prolific writer and womanizer, but had a sub-speciality in interior design.
Victor Hugo: A Short Biography
Much like the characters that inhabit his overwrought romantic novels, Hugo led a loud, libidinous, and tumultuous life. As a teenager, Victor fell in love with Adele Foucher. They married in 1822 and had children. Despite both of them having affairs, their marriage lasted.
Hugo's longest affair, 50 years, was with the magnetic Juliette Drouet, a famous beauty and bedmate of the Paris elite. Though discrete, the love affair was one of the worst kept secrets in Paris. Hugo ended up supporting a spendthrift Juliet, draped in expensive jewelry, the rest of his life. He signed letters to her from "your husband."
Hugo also had a 7 year affair with the passionate Lenie d'Aunet. He was still married and Juliet was his "official" mistress at the time. Adele even welcomed her, as the enemy of her enemy. The Hugo Museum does have an engraving of Lenie, but it's too fragile to display.
Accordingly to the recent BBC adaptation of Les Miserables (starring Oivia Coleman and Dominci West), Hugo once may have bedded 200 women in 2 years. He even seduced his son's lover, the beautiful Alice Ozy, perhaps his most startling conquest.
The man definitely led a technicolor existence. He was a randy man with large appetites, famed for his serial adultery and messy personal life, not unlike other artists. At one point:
"Adele and two kept mistresses were all living within 200 yards of each other. As he grew older, Hugo hired prostitutes, groped the servants, fondled society grandes dames, enjoyed casual sex with the daughters of old friends (e.g., Judith Gautier), slept with his own son's girlfriend, and may even have impregnated the actress Sarah Bernhardt. During the siege of Paris, Hugo -- a year short of 70 -- had 40 partners in five months, averaging almost one sexual encounter a day. By then he was so famous that groupies would wait outside his doorway at night, pleading with him for a baby."
Hugo enjoyed throwing enormous dinner parties where he was the center of attention. At his dinner parties, in narcissistic fashion, Hugo "would list the reasons why he was superior to Balzac, Racine, and while he was at it, all other French writers."
Hugo's first successful novel was The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a novel which featured and helped save a then semi-ruined Notre Dame. After that, he pursued fame, fortune, and women as fervently as Javert pursues Valjean in Les Miserables. He was a workaholic.
Hugo also had a social agenda. He fancied himself a champion for the downtrodden and the poor. In 1851, when the republic toppled and Napoleon III came to power, Hugo denounced him as a "traitor to France." Not surprisingly, this landed him in hot water with the royalists and nationalists.
Shortly thereafter, Hugo decamped to the remote Channel Island of Guernsey, proclaiming "When freedom returns, so shall I." He took Drouet with him, then proceeded to have a 6 year affair with Drouet's maid, Blanche.
He spent 18 years in exile. During that time, his daughter drowned in the Seine and two sons died. Another daughter was institutionalized.
In 1862, after working on the novel for 20 years, Hugo published Les Miserables, one of the most successful romantic novels of all time. The novel follows Jean Valjean's quest for redemption after being jailed for stealing bread. Les Miserables explored politics, poverty, justice, and moral philosophy.
The weighty tomb, more than 1500 pages, was issued simultaneously in Paris and 10 other cities. Hugo collected a record paycheck. (Perversely, though he defended the poor, he liked to make money.)
To work through writing blocks, Hugo would don nothing but a gray shawl. He:
locked away his clothes to avoid any temptation of going outside and was left with nothing to wear except a large gray shawl. He had purchased the knitted outfit, which reached right down to his toes, just for the occasion. It served as his uniform for many months.
Hugo described the novel as "a sort of planetary system, making the circuit about one giant mind that is the personification of all social evil." It was immediately popular and is now of course one of the most beloved Broadway musicals of all time. I just went to my fifth performance of it.
In 1870, the illustrious literary exile returned to Paris when the reviled Second Empire was overthrown. He lived in Paris on Avenue Victor Hugo, idolized by the people as a national hero. He issued poems, records of his past life, letters, and dissertations on various subjects of public interest.
Hugo was a prolific poet, author, playwright and intellectual. In his lifetime, he produced 7 novels, 18 volumes of poetry, and 21 plays. He may well be the most revered and influential Frenchmen of all time.
Victor Hugo: Writer & Interior Decorator
But back to the museum. Hugo moved to the Place des Vosges when he was 30, after publishing his wildly successful novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. When Hugo wrote the novel, the cathedral was an eyesore, crumbling and half ruined after the French Revolution.
Hugo used the cathedral as the setting for The Hunchback, a novel that was a potboiler but also a historical-sociological event. He devoted nearly two chapters to describing the beauty of the cathedral. His conservation efforts were clear.
Hugo galvanized the public and won over their hearts. He set in motion a massive rescue operation led by famed gothic revivalist architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. Hugo sat on the board that hand picked him.
In his Paris apartment, Hugo slaved away on many of his major works, a large part of Les Misérables and the beginnings of La Légende des siècles and Les Contemplations.
Hugo was actively involved in decorating both his Paris apartment and his home in Guernsey. His decors are full of poetry, humor, symbols, and references to his work and philosophy. In a letter to a friend, Hugo declared: "I missed my vocation, I was born to be a decorator." His son Charles described his father's decorating bent as “education of the mind in the form of a house."
In his Hauteville House in Guernsey, Hugo structured the three main floors of his house as Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. His wife and daughter lived in Hell, his sons were allotted Purgatory, and Hugo reserved Heaven for himself.
Highlights of the Victor Hugo Museum in the Marais
The museum is intended to give visitors a sense of what Hugo's daily existence might have looked like. Thematic rooms are arranged with furniture and works of art that Hugo created or are from his personal collections.
The curators imagined the museum as a chronological journey across Hugo's tumultuous life. It's organized into three main periods: "before exile," "exile," and "after exile."
You'll see first editions of his books, family portraits, photographs, sheet music, and 350 drawings by Hugo, as well as paintings and sculptures that were created in his honor.
The decorating is actually a mishmash of florid styles. British novelist, Charles Dickens described Hugo’s home as a “most extraordinary place, looking like an old curiosity shop, or the Property Room of some gloomy vast old Theatre.” Hugo was certainly a DIY design enthusiast.
Behind the large entrance porch of the Hotel de Rohan-Guéménée, a beautiful staircase leads to a series of rooms reserved for temporary exhibitions, then to the apartment of Victor Hugo, located on the second floor.
The apartment visit begins with the Antechamber, which evokes the childhood and youth of Hugo. It has beautiful limestone floors and a unique corner window to look out on the Places des Vosges. It contains numerous family portraits.
You then continue into the Red Lounge, which is a large room with almost blinding red damask walls, intended to invoke the Romantic Period. The room served as a salon for men of letters, arts and politics: Théophile Gautier, Franz Liszt, Alphonse de Lamartine, Alexandre Dumas, Mérimée, and the sculptor David d'Angers.
The room shows off Hugo's portrait collection and also his Chinese porcelains. There is a handsome bust of Hugo by David D'Angers.
The third room is the Chinese Room, circa 1864, and represents Hugo's exile in Guernsey. It was conceived as a "total work" covering the floor, the walls, and the ceiling. Here, we see Hugo's flamboyant style as an interior decorator.
Hugo designed and hand painted much of the startling room for his mistress Drouet. Though it looked odd to me, the room showed the fanciful fascination that upper class Europeans had with Asia during the 19th century. There's a colorful hanging lantern and an elaborately wrought fireplace with a Venetian mirror and porcelain figures.
The room is scattered with romantic allusions to Drouet. On close inspection, you can see the initials VH and JD in several places. There's also an interesting table built by Hugo himself. He took an existing Louis XIII table and modified it to showcase the names, inkwells (with pens touched by their own hands), and framed letters from four writers: himself, George Sand, Dumas, Lamartine.
The dining room reflects Hugo's taste for dark Gothic and Renaissance furniture. It is also based on Drouet’s Guernsey residence and furnished with pieces Hugo re-designed using found items. He loved to transmogrify furniture. In his world, a door became a table, chests become sideboards or benches, and table legs became columns.
I'm not sure how Gothic and Chinoiserie paneling mix. But, well, Hugo appeared to like the incongruity.
The Small Study was a writing room. It's also known as the "Return From Exile Room." This small, narrow room boasts a copy of the famous portrait by Leon Bonnat and the celebrated green marble bust by sculptor Auguste Rodin, dedicated "to the illustrious master." It's probably the museum's finest piece -- a nice distillation of pathos and grandeur.
Hugo hating poses for pictures. Rodin was forced to hid in a corner at Hugo's dinner parties and surreptitiously make sketches of the great man in the dark. Or follow the restless man around, sketchbook in hand.
The Red Bedroom is a faithful recreation of Hugo's bedroom at 130 avenue d’Eylau, where Victor Hugo spent the last seven years of his life. It was in this Gothic-style bed, made of dark heavy wood, that Hugo died on May 22, 1885, aged 83. A painting on the wall depicts the final moments of Hugo's life, the bed strewn with flowers.
Of particular interest here is the tall writing table, assembled from two separate wooden tables, based on Hugo's own design. Hugo was way ahead of the times. Like Ernest Hemingway, he liked to write standing up. This was where he wrote Les Miserables and other novels and poems.
Victor Hugo's Death
Hugo died in 1885. That day, the Paris brothels closed down in his honor. After lying in state beneath the Arc de Triomphe, Hugo was brought to the Pantheon for interment. Rather an odd place for a man who disliked "pretentious" Neo-Classical architecture.
The lampposts and flags of Paris were draped in black. Eleven wagonloads of flowers preceded the hearse. Two million people followed the procession.
Hugo was a genius in the grand style of the Romantic Period. He had energy, exuberance, and eccentricity overflowing the bounds of convention. For 60 years, he dominated French literature and politics.
Making a pilgrimage to his house brings a certain joyful clarity. And you learn all his secrets, including the fact that he may not have been the best interior decorator.
Practical Information & Tips for Visiting the Victor Hugo Museum
Address: 6 place des Vosges 75004, Paris Entry fee: permanent collection free, audio guide €5 Hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm
Closed on 1 January, 4 April, 13 April, 1 May, 8 May, 1 June, 23 May, 21 May, 14 July, 15 August, 1 November, 11 November and 25 December
Metros: St. Paul or Bastille
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