The collections at the Maison de Victor Hugo, as might be expected, are particularly well endowed with originals of illustrations for Hugo’s writings and, among them, there are many grisaille paintings. They are divided between three important illustrated sets of works: Le Livre d’or de Victor Hugo published in 1883, and two editions of the complete works, the Hugues edition (1876-1897) and the Edition Nationale (1885-1896). All three have illustrations by the great artists of the period. Over and above details of the representation, these paintings, which were done with engraving in mind, make great play of light and shade in anticipation of the black and white of the printer’s ink. They make quite clear that to provide an image for a literary text is not necessarily a minor art and that painters and writers meet in the shared world of the imagination
The 19th century was a great producer of images. With the illustrated press, which took off in the early 1830s, and the revival of book illustrations, it was a century, it would seem, that would only believe what it could see.
Victor Hugo’s works spanned the entire period and, as a result, enjoyed the three great phases of that frenzy of images that adorned 19th century literature – from the blossoming of the romantic vignette, to the flood of popular editions, and the swansong of those collectors’ editions celebrating the glories of the Third Republic.
Illustration was a work of collaboration between the artist, who usually provided a drawing as a model, and the engraver’s workshop, where the engravers would make a plate of the drawing.
It was a technical revolution that enabled publishers to gain a foothold during this period of industrial revolution. By using the wood’s end grain – i.e. cutting the wood across the trunk rather than along the grain –, it was possible to composite the images alongside the movable type of the text, thus avoiding costly fold-outs that had to be bound separately. The strength of the blocks also made it possible to produce very long print runs. However the invention of electrotyping very soon made it possible to transfer the woodblocks onto copper. The long, cheap print runs of illustrated texts made books more attractive and more accessible and were one of the main reasons for the growing mass appeal of literature. Victor Hugo’s hugely successful works were emblematic of this democratisation of reading.
There was another technical revolution that probably favoured the production of grisaille paintings. In the 1880s, the use of photography to transfer an image to the woodblock made for subtler shades of grey from the painting itself, although some engravers were sorry at the disappearance of the dark blacks and strong whites.
But, when you compare works with their reproductions, this explanation is not always convincing; Georges Rochegrosse, for example, used both drawing and grisaille for the same illustration and the plates are aesthetically similar. Some parallel phenomenon must have played a part in this.
Illustrators, like cartoonists, were tainted by the industrial and commercial aspect of the process and its affinities with the press, and they consequently found themselves relegated to the bottom of the scale in the hierarchy of artistic recognition.
During the Third Republic, however, things moved on. Famous artists working within the ‘official’ framework began to be sought after to illustrate books intended for collectors. Even Eugène Hugues’s edition of the complete works of Victor Hugo, which was a popular edition, used artists who had exhibited at the Salon. Grisaille came to be a way of affirming one’s status as a painter rather than as a mere illustrator.
It went hand in hand with the higher artistic demands that came about with the decline of mass-market editions – in spite of this, artists continued to complain that their work was compromised by mediocre printers – or poor quality paper! The colossal new edition of the complete works of Victor Hugo, which was launched in 1885, is a brilliant example of the use of etching, a medium that was undergoing a revival at the time and was beginning to be used in collectors’ editions with fine engraved plates.
The Victor Hugo Livre d'or
This book was published in celebration of Victor Hugo’s 80th birthday after the great events that were organised to mark the date. It consists of a biographical chapter, followed by chronological chapters presenting Hugo’s works, then a section devoted to ‘Victor Hugo as artist’, and finally a reminder of the 80th birthday celebrations on 27 February 1881.
It was a prestigious book and was the first model for a collectors’ edition with an ambitious artistic programme; it contained two types of illustration.
In the text, the vignettes, the borders, the ornamental initials and the tailpieces were entrusted to professional illustrators; in the first place to Gustave Fraipont, but also to Jules Adeline, Alexandre Fernandinus, Paul Kauffmann, and Ernest von Liphart. The museum holds nearly seventy of the original drawings.
But the top-flight artists (l’élite des artistes) announced in the book’s title were invited to make illustrated plates to be scattered throughout the book; they both described and paid homage to the life and work of Victor Hugo. Their contributions were either independent works that had already been produced for the Salon, which was the case for Cormon’s famous depiction of Cain (Caïn), or they were specially done for the book. They were not strictly illustrations and for the most part reproduction was by photogravure. The two grisaille paintings by the Mélingue brothers Gaston and Lucien – done in honour of their father the actor – are traditional illustrations, whereas Paul Baudry’s Ève, which was his response to ‘The Consecration of Woman’ (‘Sacre de la femme’) in La Légende des siècles, demonstrates how any painting inspired by a literary work now found itself, since the advent of Romanticism and the urge to revive history painting, hovering between genres.
The Mélingue family divided their life between the theatre and the artist’s studio. Etienne Mélingue, the father, had trained as a sculptor but his passion for the theatre drove him to become an actor. With the help of Marie Dorval, who introduced him to Alexandre Dumas, he was launched on a brilliant career in Romantic drama. In 1838, he married Théodorine Thiesset, the actress who created the role of Guanhumara in Victor Hugo’s Les Burgraves, in 1843. He, however, did not act in a Hugo play until the reprise of Lucrèce Borgia in 1870.
The marriage produced a daughter and two sons, Gaston and Lucien, who both became painters. Gaston and Lucien carried on living with their parents in the large house their father had bought in the Rue Levert in Belleville, and they each had a studio there. They both specialised in scenes from modern history.
Etienne Mélingue was the first actor to take the title role in Benvenuto Cellini by Paul Meurice. He encouraged Meurice to come to Veules-les-Roses, where, like Mélingue, he bought a villa. In summer, at the end of his life, Victor Hugo was a guest at Meurice’s villa.
So, not surprisingly, there is work by both brothers in Le Livre d’or de Victor Hugo – two theatrical subjects, one of which, Don César, was a part played by their father. Lucien also contributed illustrations to the Hugues Edition and the Édition Nationale.
The Hugues Edition
The edition of the complete works of Victor Hugo, launched by Eugène Hugues, was spread over a number of years (1876-1897). It began life with the title Edition populaire illustrée or Nouvelle édition illustrée. But when Monaque took over from Hugues the name was changed to Victor Hugo illustré.
It was a popular edition that appeared as a partwork costing 10 centimes. There were 1,383 parts in all, consisting of 33 volumes. When all the parts of a volume had been published, a number of them were bound in book form. The paper was thin and of mediocre quality, but deluxe copies were printed on Dutch paper and China paper. As was usual with popular editions, the text was printed in two columns and copiously illustrated and, as was also common at the time, for reasons of economy, pictures from previous editions were re-used, complemented with new illustrations. In this fashion, several volumes were illustrated in twos: Les Travailleurs de la Mer (‘Toilers of the Sea’) re-used many of François Chifflart’s drawings (for Hetzel and Lacroix, in 1869), adding new drawings by Daniel Vierge, while L’homme qui rit (‘The Man who Laughs’) added illustrations by Georges Rochegrosse to Vierge’s drawings.
Because it began to appear relatively late and was a long time in the making, the Hugues edition also reflected developments in illustration, to the point where one might call it a transitional edition rather than a popular edition in the strict sense of the term. And indeed as the years went by, it not only called on the services of professional illustrators, but also of artists from the Fine-Arts schools who had already made a name for themselves at the Salon. This was the case for Georges Rochegrosse and Tony Robert-Fleury, for example, but also for Jean-Paul Laurens who had taught several of the other artists. It was an incontrovertible sign that the cards had been shuffled and re-dealt, and that painters had adopted a new attitude towards illustration, and to the appreciable money they could earn doing it.
The museum has a particularly good collection of pieces relating to the Hugues edition: apart from nearly ninety original works, paintings or drawings there are a considerable number of ‘fumé’ impressions, which are proof copies of engravings; and their quality does justice to the work of the illustrators, who were often let down by the poor quality paper of ordinary publishing.
Although the illustrations are unequally distributed among the books, the Hugues edition probably has the greatest number of Hugo illustrations, in all their diversity.
Mention should be made of Georges Rochegrosse, since the museum has a set of thirty-eight pieces by him, including eight grisaille paintings that were used as illustrations in several volumes of the Hugues edition. They are the main representative of this kind of illustration and Rochegrosse is one of the best represented illustrators in our collections.
Rochegrosse’s illustrations were used for poems and plays, as well as novels – particularly Han d’Islande (‘Hans of Iceland’) and L’Homme qui rit (‘The Man who Laughs’). He did all the illustrations for both. The Rochegrosse collection has been in the museum since it first opened, although it is not known whether they were the result of separate or grouped purchases through the engraver Fortuné Méaulle, or from Rochegrosse himself. Paul Meurice was certainly in contact with him; he commissioned a painting from him, Les Burgraves, for the opening of the museum.
Rochegrosse did not find himself illustrating Victor Hugo by chance. He was encouraged and supported by his stepfather Théodore de Banville, himself an admirer and friend of Victor Hugo’s. It was Théodore de Banville who launched Rochegrosse’s career when he asked him to illustrate his collections of poems. And the atmosphere in their home, rather than their connections, must have fostered Rochegrosse’s understanding of the Hugo texts and enabled him to capture their spirit.
After a formal academic training and twice failing to win the Prix de Rome, Rochegrosse began his career at the 1882 Salon, where he quickly made a name for himself as a history painter. He later turned towards Orientalism and spent most of his time living in Algeria. But he was at the beginning of his career, between 1883 and 1886, when he received his first commissions and was asked to illustrate the two Victor Hugo novels Han d’Islande (‘Hans of Iceland’) and L’Homme qui rit (‘The Man who Laughs’). He continued to work as an illustrator throughout his career.
The L’Homme qui rit volume was typical of publishing practice at the time. It re-used most of the drawings Daniel Vierge had done in 1877 for the first illustrated edition at the Librairie Polo, but in a larger format, which was made possible by additions at the sides. The commissioning of Rochegrosse, who brought his prestige as a painter rather than illustrator to the job, was a new departure in that it saw the introduction of large plates. The museum has twelve original drafts from this work: eight oil paintings and four large drawings, as well as an almost complete set of ‘fumé’ impressions – test proofs of the engravings. We can see that Rochegrosse varied his techniques. He chose grisaille for the shipwreck of the comprachicos (Le Naufrage des comprachicos), but above all, for the gallery of portraits to illustrate the introductory chapters: his depictions are remarkable character studies.
While remaining exceptionally faithful to the text and showing great accuracy and balance, Georges Rochegrosse’s illustrations avoid the dangers of mere ‘illustrations in costume’ and take us into the dark side of the novel.
Georges Antoine Rochegrosse (1859-1938)
In the year of Victor Hugo’s death, a ‘definitive edition’ of his complete works began to appear with the title ‘Edition Nationale’. It was described as ‘artistic and monumental’ and ‘with the collaboration of our leading painters, sculptors and engravers’ or, in the words of the contract between Victor, Lemmonyer, and Richard, dated 14 January 1884, ‘illustrated by the luminaries of contemporary art’.
The project was launched with great ceremony at a grand banquet given on the eve of Victor Hugo’s birthday on 25 February 1885. The poet was presented with a commemorative medal engraved by Oscar Roty (who, incidentally, created the symbolic figure of a female sower – la Semeuse – that still appears on some French coins). The event was widely reported in the press with much quotation of statistics. Forty quarto volumes were announced (in the end, forty-three, were published), two hundred and fifty engraved plates and two thousand five hundred vignettes, with three thousand copies printed in all, comprising: ‘fifty on Japan paper at Fr.6000; 50 on China paper at Fr.3000, [etc.]’ The press even announced, after the list of artists to be engaged, that the total budget for illustration, ‘drawings and engravings’, amounted to Fr.1,500,000, out of a total investment of Fr.2,500,000. The expected profit was Fr.3,750,000. But it is doubtful whether this was achieved.
The operation seems to have run into difficulties quite soon, as can be seen by the changes that took place in the partnership that gave rise to the project, which was between the bookseller-publisher J. Lemonnyer, the printer, G. Richard, and Émile Testard, who owned a family bookbinding firm. The first volumes Poésie I to Poésie III appeared in 1885, and were credited to ‘J. Lemonnyer éditeur, G. Richard et Cie imprimeur’; the 4th, 5th and 6th volumes appeared in 1886, with the description ‘J. Lemonnyer éditeur, E. Testard directeur’; while volume 7 and the first volume of La Légende des siècles indicated only Émile Testard’s name. These different credits show the enterprise going bankrupt. Testard put it back on its feet by selling his bookbinding company and founding his own publishing house, which also published, amongst others, Molière, Mérimée, and George Sand. These difficult beginnings were rewarded with success and several awards in the great international expositions; the enterprise was completed in 1895. ‘Edition Nationale’ originally described the edition of the complete works of Victor Hugo but, later, the phrase referred to Émile Testard’s publishing house itself.
The edition was intended for book collectors: large (28,5 x 22,5 cm) volumes up to 10 centimetres thick, fine paper, beautiful, well-spaced typography in a single column, title vignettes and full page plates by famous artists and etchers, printed in two states. These criteria distinguished it from a popular edition, as the first article of the contract made explicit: ‘M. Victor Hugo reserves the right to make a cheap, illustrated popular edition in this format; this edition, in fact, is in course of publication’. This referred to the Édition Hugues.
The artistic aspect was expressly stated and it was placed at the heart of the project. The Edition Nationale was an explicit follow-up to the Livre d’or de Victor Hugo par l’élite des artistes et des écrivains contemporains and intended as a celebration. With the death of the great man a few months after its launch, the edition was effectively seen as the first funerary monument to Victor Hugo.
As might be expected, the original works produced by artists as models for the engravers took on considerable importance. They remained the property of the publisher and Émile Testard, astute businessmen that he was, did not fail to exploit them. As early as 1885, two original works had already been loaned by Lemmonyer, who was one of the organisers of an exhibition called the ‘Musée Victor Hugo’ in the foyer of the Théâtre des Nations, during the run of Notre-Dame de Paris (‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’). But Émile Testard seems to have been the one who exhibited the collection most. In 1889, during a brief period when the house where Victor Hugo had lived at the end of his life (Avenue d’Eylau, later called Avenue Victor Hugo) was open to the public, Testard’s collection was an important part of the exhibits. The works he owned were presented in the veranda, the room before the library and the dining room. This ‘series of paintings, watercolours, drawings, and sculptures’ is listed in the catalogue as numbers 401 – 503. After that, in 1891 and again in November 1892, he organised an exhibition of the collection at the Galerie Georges Petit, for which he published the catalogue himself:
‘[…] drawings, paintings, watercolours and engravings by leading modern artists for illustrations in works by Molière, Victor Hugo, Balzac, George Sand, prosper Mérimée, etc.’
– some two thousand works in all. The same gallery, one of the most prestigious at that time, was used for the sale and dispersal of the collection in 1896.
The number and nature of the illustrations was laid down from the beginning: four or five full-page engraved plates and as many vignettes or borders as there were poems, chapters or acts in the respective works. But the principle for allotting illustrations seems to have changed during the course of publication. When the first three volumes came out, Le Matin newspaper explained on 30 March 1885:
‘For the 250 engraved plates, the publishers insisted on asking each illustrator for just one drawing, so that this magnificent work would be a repository of such a collection of artists that they would represent, as it were, the absolute personification of French art in our time.’
But, in actual fact, the first volumes are fairly disparate. Odes et Ballades, for example, contains four etchings of works by Gervex, Bayard, Leroux and Garnier, while the title vignettes are divided between Régereau (almost all of whose drawings are held by the museum), Hervier, Petiau and Fraipont – and even these are more historiated ornamentation than illustrations. The public had to wait until Les Chansons des rues et des Bois for the borders to become an integrated part of the illustration. We might conjecture that Émile Testard, since he was the person in charge of the enterprise at that point, had wanted to harmonise the illustrations in each volume and sometimes had them done by a single artist, even though this was a departure from the original idea. The new arrangement produced some fine results, like the work of Luc-Olivier Merson for Notre-Dame-de-Paris or, to mention two from the museum’s collection, Georges Jeanniot’s illustrations for Les Miserables and Henri Martin’s for Angelo, Tyran de Padoue. Even so, isolated works like Cabanel’s Titan, Cormon’s Le Satyre or Dagnan-Bouveret’s Aimons toujours, aimons encore are fine examples of what the great artists of the late 19th century contributed to this grand project of Hugo illustrations, with its wonderful blend of tradition and modernity.
Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)
Le Titan was Cabanel’s only contribution to the Edition Nationale project. He had already treated at least one subject from Hugo’s works, Albaydé, 1848 (Musée Fabre), the subject of a poem in Les Orientales. It is not certain whether his biblical Ruth et Booz, circa 1868, was an illustration for Hugo’s poem Booz endormi from La Légende des siècles; only the sketch is extant (Musée Fabre). As a painter who had carved out his entire career under the Second French Empire, which had feted him, Cabanel’s presence here suggests either assimilation or, at least, the persistence of academicism into the Third Republic.
Nonetheless, what the painting was first intended for remains uncertain. The museum actually holds two copies of a version engraved by Méaulle, in a folder entitled ‘unpublished fumé impressions’. They are among the engravings from the Hugues edition, which is where La Légende des siècles was published in 1885. The date 1884, inscribed by the artist on the grisaille, would seem to confirm this hypothesis. It is highly likely that the Edition Nationale captured this project, originally destined for Eugène Hugues, in order to bag a prestigious name for themselves. As a matter of fact, Cabanel worked with Testard again on his album Les Mois, which was published like this volume of La Légende des siècles, in the same year, 1886, once again engraved by Jacquet, his favourite engraver.
The composition is extremely close to the preparatory drawing now held at the Musée Fabre, apart from the fact that the Titan is seen more from the back – his face in the shadows increases the sense of mystery about him, giving the picture greater dramatic intensity. Cabanel has chosen the most intense moment in the poem, the ending, and has inscribed the last lines at the bottom of the painting:
Ayant l'immense aspect des sommets foudroyés
Et la difformité sublime des décombres,
Regarda fixement les Olympiens sombres
Stupéfaits sur leur cime au fond de l'éther bleu,
Et leur cria, terrible : Ô dieux, il est un Dieu !
[Massive, immense, like those thunderstruck peaks
And the sublime deformity of the scree,
He stared hard at the dark Olympian gods
Bewildered on their peak in the azure sky,
And called out: O ye gods, there is one God!]
To give expression to this revelation of monotheism, the painter uses both the disproportionate size of the Titan, towering over the tiny Olympian gods and also his gesture, pointing outside the space of the canvas to the inexpressible immensity of God.
Fernand Cormon (1845 – 1924)
Cormon, who was a pupil of Cabanel, first exhibited at the Salon at the very end of the Second Empire and attained recognition under the Third French Republic, where his ‘archaeologism’ was well-suited to the regime’s pedagogical intentions for painting, under the influence of such historians as Michelet, Taine and Renan. Cormon’s best-known work, and also the most famous of all the Hugo illustrations, with its reference to the poem La Conscience from La Légende des siècles, is of course his Caïn, 1880 (Musée d’Orsay). The artist revived biblical painting by imbuing it with prehistoric imagery.
We have here a scarcely idealised, almost ‘naturalist’ vision of Olympus, particularly in the figure of Hercules and emphasising the grotesque of the faun. The scene corresponds to the last two lines of the prologue of this major poem,
Hercule l'alla prendre au fond de son terrier,
Et l'amena devant Jupiter par l'oreille.
[Hercules caught him in the back of his lair,
And dragged him before Jupiter by the ear.]
At the same time, it shows the vision of the assembled gods in the background that the satyr will discover at the beginning of the first part of the poem.
Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1852 – 1929)
Dagnan-Bouveret joined Cabanel’s studio in 1869 . His career began at the same time as the French Third Republic and continued through it. He was more inclined towards bucolic and naturalist subjects, like his friend Jules Bastien-Lepage. He never really achieved success until after Bastien-Lepage’s death in 1884. It was during this period, in fact, that he was commissioned to illustrate the poem from Les Contemplations.
In his illustration for this poem Dagnan-Bouveret used a slightly more modern style than was usually possible in illustrating Hugo; artists were generally constrained by the historic settings of the novels and the dramas. But the nature of the poems in Les Contemplations favoured a different style. The varying shades of monochrome contribute to the pared down quality of the composition and help focus on his use of light, the modernity of which is highlighted by the contemporary motif of the oil lamp with its accentuation of contrasts and the shadows.
Albert-Guillaume Démarest (1848-1906)
The museum also holds two grisailles by Jean Geoffroy (1853-1924). Geoffroy was a pupil of Léon Bonnat and won several awards at the Salon. He was known for genre scenes, which he painted in a naturalist and sentimental vein. His paintings showed a predilection for ordinary people and childhood, subjects that he had been well placed to observe when he had lodgings in a school, at the beginning of his career, with a schoolteacher couple. He invented a whole set of imagery for schools, reflecting the ideals of public education established by Jules Ferry under the French Third Republic. In the mid-1870s, he caught the attention of Hetzel, who invited him to illustrate books for young people. For these he used the pseudonym Géo.
Neither of these images – one an illustration for Les Miserables, the other for the poem Petit Paul in La Légende des siècles – featured in any of the illustrated editions of Victor Hugo’s works. Dominique Lobstein, a specialist in this artist, has suggested that the paintings may have been done at the instance of a ‘school images commission’ that the painter was a member of. The brief of the commission was to ‘select engravings or photographs to be distributed as prizes, certificates of merit, or rewards for good marks and behaviour’. Nevertheless, among the fumé impressions for the Hugues Edition in the Museum’s collections, a version of Petit Paul, engraved by Méaulle, was found in a folder labelled ‘Unpublished fumé impressions’. So it is possible that Petit Paul was painted and engraved for the Hugues Edition but, for some unknown reason, eventually rejected in favour of Louis Mouchot’s version. As for the bucket episode in Les Miserables, it was actually illustrated by Adrien Marie. These images are perhaps simply an example of the random fate that could befall the work of illustrators on big projects.