Victor Hugo’s Drawings Made with Coal, Dust & Coffee (1848–1851)

Hugo Octopus

If you know of Vic­tor Hugo, you most like­ly know him as the man of let­ters who wrote books like Les Mis­érables and Notre-Dame de Paris (bet­ter known in Eng­lish as The Hunch­back of Notre-Dame). If you know some­thing else about him, it prob­a­bly has to do with his pol­i­tics: King Louis-Philippe grant­ed him peer­age in 1841, and he became a mem­ber of the French Par­lia­ment in 1848. This posi­tion gave him some­thing of a pul­pit from which to speak on his pet caus­es: abo­li­tion of the death penal­ty, free­dom of the press, uni­ver­sal suf­frage and edu­ca­tion, and — lest any­one call the ambi­tions of his sec­ondary career minor — the end of pover­ty.


But this sen­si­bil­i­ty made Hugo no friend of Napoleon III, who took pow­er in 1851, and so the writer went into polit­i­cal exile in Guernsey. That year marked the end of a peri­od, begin­ning with his elec­tion to Par­lia­ment, dur­ing which Hugo put writ­ing aside in order to devote him­self ful­ly to pol­i­tics — well, almost ful­ly. Even as he laid down his writ­ing pen, he picked up his draw­ing pen, pro­duc­ing the images you see here and many, many more.


Hugo, writes The Paris Review’s Dan Piepen­bring, “made some four thou­sand draw­ings over the course of his life. 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.” The Tate’s Christo­pher Turn­er writes of rumors “that he used blood pricked from his own veins in his many draw­ings.” What­ev­er liq­uid sub­stance he used, in the draw­ing at the top we can see “a giant, men­ac­ing octo­pus, fash­ioned from a sin­gle stain [that] con­torts its suck­ered limbs into the ini­tials VH.”


A bold sig­na­ture indeed, but then, Hugo hard­ly played the shrink­ing vio­let in any domain. And yet, so as not to dis­tract from the rest of his career, he sel­dom showed his draw­ings to any­one but fam­i­ly and friends, com­ing no clos­er to pub­lish­ing any­thing any of his art than the hand-drawn call­ing cards he hand­ed vis­i­tors in his peri­od of exile. No less a painter than Eugène Delacroix, when he saw these draw­ings, thought that if Hugo had­n’t become a writer, he could have become one of the 19th cen­tu­ry’s great­est artists instead. I’d cer­tain­ly like to see what Andrew Lloyd Web­ber would have adapt­ed that octo­pus into.

via The Paris Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of Franz Kaf­ka: Draw­ings from 1907–1917

The Art of William Faulkn­er: Draw­ings from 1916–1925

Vladimir Nabokov’s Delight­ful But­ter­fly Draw­ings

The Art of Sylvia Plath: Revis­it Her Sketch­es, Self-Por­traits, Draw­ings & Illus­trat­ed Let­ters

Two Draw­ings by Jorge Luis Borges Illus­trate the Author’s Obses­sions

The Draw­ings of Jean-Paul Sartre

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture as well as the video series The City in Cin­e­ma and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Annelies van Dommelen says:

    I remem­ber see­ing ashow of his drawings,at the draw­ing cen­ter in NYC decades ago and have been inspired since

  • John B. Archibald says:

    Fas­ci­nat­ed by Vic­tor Hugo’s moody, chiaroscuro draw­ings. Giv­en his dour approach in lit­er­a­ture, this art work isn’t very sur­pris­ing. By the way, though no date is giv­en for the octo­pus piece, it’s entire­ly pos­si­ble that it rep­re­sents a crea­ture from Hugo’s nov­el, “The Toil­ers of the Sea” (1866), set in Guernsey, in which a hardy sailor bat­tles an octo­pus, among oth­er hos­tile ele­ments. Typ­i­cal­ly for Hugo, you shouldn’t expect a tra­di­tion­al­ly hap­py end­ing.

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