Among my first archival visits was to the Maison de Victor Hugo on the Place des Vosges in Paris. This writer’s house is a museum, exhibition space, library and archive in one and stepping inside is like stepping back in time: Hugo’s apartment has been reconstructed with the original furniture and it is possible to see where the great author lived and worked between the years 1832 and 1848 (although the actual interiors date from later periods as well). The second level of number 6 Place des Vosges takes the visitor through the antechamber into the Salon Rouge, where Hugo would receive fellow writers and other distinguished guests. But there are also more private rooms, including a dining room, bedroom, and, of course, his study and workplace. Even if you are not interested in exploring the library and archive under the same roof (or higher, since they are located in the attic), the Maison de Victor Hugo is well worth a visit!
For those who do venture further up the squeaky wooden staircase into the attic, the library and archive contain well-known treasures and little-known surprises. I specifically came here to view one of the few remaining copies of Victor Hugo’s illustrated poetry collection Les Contemplations, published in 1856. The poems were written on the Channel Island of Jersey, during Hugo’s exile from France during 1852 and 1870 (imposed on him by the Coup d’Etat of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte in 1851). During the early years of his exile (1853-55) Hugo often sat for photography sessions: his two sons, Charles and François-Victor, together with Auguste Vacquerie took over 400 photographs, developing them in a dark room fitted next to the greenhouse of Marine Terrace, the temporary home of the Hugos and their entourage. At a time when both picture-taking and the development process of the images necessitated both time and skill, this number of photographs is quite remarkable. Not only the amount, but the quality, setting, and iconography of these images is astonishing.
In contrast to the majority of author portraits taken in the 1850s – and even up until the end of the 19th century – the photographs of Hugo taken on Jersey are all shot outdoors. They present the novelist, poet, and all-around man of letters in the immediate surroundings of Marine Terrace, including its glasshouse, as well as against the dramatic background of the island’s rocky shoreline. The significance of the images from the atelier de Jersey in terms of their setting, style, and pose is especially clear when compared to later images of Hugo, by even the most accomplished portrait photographers such as Étienne Carjat, Edmond Bacot, and Nadar – all great names in nineteenth-century French portraiture. Indeed, the far more conventional, stuffy, and staid academism of most author portraits of the era taken at professional studios suggests that the absence of a professional portraitist and the limiting confines of a studio contributed to the unparalleled dynamic character of the ‘amateur’ photographs taken on Jersey. But the arresting power of the images is undoubtedly also due to the sitter himself: despite never taking pictures, Hugo – also a talented visual artist who produced a large number of highly accomplished drawings during his exile – exercised a creative influence on the choice of setting, composition, and pose, that, at the time, only the medium of photography could accommodate.
The total of about seventy portraits of Hugo taken during 1853-5 represent a large corpus for the period, even if their compositional and iconographic differences are variations of the single theme, namely Hugo’s cultural status as a writer of genius in spite of his exile. Apart from a few isolated images of Hugo leaning on a table, or sitting with a book in his hand, the portraits fall into two main categories, related to their composition: bust portraits that isolate the sitter against a neutral background, and full-body portraits that depict him against the massive rock formations of the island. In the photographs focused exclusively on the sitter, Hugo is far from a passive object – let alone death personified, as Roland Barthes describes his own experience of having his picture taken in Camera Lucida (La Chambre claire) – but instead often looks at the camera with a vibrant, piercing intensity. The slight upward-facing angle from which many portraits are taken emphasizes the monument-like presence of the elevated author (often literally, perched on top of the rocks) and his air of authoritative self-assurance is present even when his gaze is directed elsewhere (or even inward, as in one photograph of Hugo with his eyes closed).
But, back to the archive on the Place des Vosges.
I came here to see the copy of the Contemplations, as I mentioned. When I entered the archive, the volume was waiting for me on the table (see my photograph on top of this blog entry). I knew of this photographically illustrated edition thanks to the 2011 edition published by Droz, the only one to-date published with photographs. Edouard Graham, in his brilliant postface, describes the six remaining copies of the two-volume poetry collection containing photographs that were inserted at the time by Hugo himself (as well as Auguste Vacquerie). The copy at the Maison de Victor Hugo belonged to Hugo’s wife, Adèle Hugo, and thus represents a particularly special edition of the book. The original publication is enriched with numerous photographic images, as well as original letters addressed to Hugo, and even a small aquarelle frontispiece painting. All of this additional material was inserted between the printed pages and bound together in a leather case, inscribed not with the author’s name, but the owner’s initials (AH), as was common at the time. This copy must be thought of as a kind of souvenir album, a special present to close family members and friends – even if it was also clearly conceived with an eye on posterity, a testament to the greatness of Hugo the writer and cultural icon
I was particularly interested in the ways in which Hugo’s own portraits entered into close dialogue with the poems in the collection. The well-preserved images – hidden away from damaging light between the usually closed book covers – are all sepia-tone paper prints, allowing for clarity of detail, while maintaining a softness typical of paper photographs. The ones showing Hugo are inserted at key moments in the autobiographical work, including one facing the preface, in which the author directly addresses his relation to posterity. Another image, depicting Hugo as a small figure on top of the rock formation along Jersey’s seashore (the famous Victor Hugo sur le rocher des Proscrits), is inserted after a poem which hails previous exiles as great historical figures. Hugo thus visually inserts himself into this genealogy, by placing his portrait at the end of the text. Even if the two-volume poetry collection was not officially distributed in this illustrated format by the publisher at the time, the remaining copies do speak to a remarkable foresight on Hugo’s part with respect to the visual construction and promotion of the author. Although Hugo’s expressed wish for a large-scale commercial dissemination of his portrait was hindered by the expense and the slow evolution of the photographic medium, as well as the illustrated press more generally, the illustrated copies of Les Contemplations testify to Hugo’s status as co-creator of his own image and demonstrate the evocative power of photographically illustrated literary works despite the technological limitations of the time.
(I have published an essay based on this research in LÉcrivain vu par la photographie.)