A World of Endless Diversion and Victor Hugo’s Art

While reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast last year, I began to seriously ponder the amount of time the Internet sucks from my life. Learning about this great American author’s early days as a starving artist in Paris, I was struck by the simplicity of his existence. With a bare minimum of possessions and lacking money even to pay for fuel to heat his apartment, Hemingway spent his mornings toiling over manuscripts in one of the city’s unhurried cafés, where a cup of coffee could earn you the right to sit and spew ink for hours at a time. Coincidently, he filled his afternoons with drinks and friendly discourse, occasionally fitting in a trip to the racetrack. This he did with the same methodical regularity that he applied to his writing.

Thinking about Hemingway’s life, I was envious of a world with no phone, no text messages, no electronic notifications announcing the latest headlines, or a friend’s recent social media post, or the fact that someone had just read his latest article and liked (maybe even loved) it. No wonder the man was so productive. Hour after hour, after hour, was devoted to basically one of four activities: writing, reading (often the work of a friend), taking a circuitous walk through Paris to arrive at the next brasserie, and partying. Even later in life, when a steady income afforded the ability to travel, Hemingway maintained the same basic schedule, adding an occasional bullfight.

Steak while journaling
Emulating Hemingway—journaling between bites of bifsteck et frites, Paris, 2023.

As someone who enjoys reading, writing, fitness, nature, travel, gardening, cooking, gathering with friends, improving my French, and springing to my feet upon my family’s beck and call, I never find time to accomplish all that I’d like. Unlike Hemingway, I have access to hundreds of helpful and inspiring resources to aid my productivity. The trick, however, is to utilize the wealth of e-tools shimmering beneath my fingertips without a) becoming distracted from the task at hand, and b) losing touch with myself—my beliefs, my values, my goals.

Creativity on Steroids

With this dilemma percolating in the recesses of my mind, I’ve been struck repeatedly by examples of great masters who, despite the absence of numerous productivity-improving inventions, from ballpoint pens to WYSIWYG editing environments, from metal paint tubes to Photoshop, produced a crap ton (if you’ll forgive the expression) of quality art.

Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo

Such was the case while visiting Victor Hugo’s home in Paris last year. Bordering La Place des Vosges, La Maison de Victor Hugo (which, by the way, is free), had long been on my bucket list. In addition to seeing the restored dwelling where Hugo spent much of his 30s and 40s, I was expecting to learn more about his life—about his friends, professional rivals, mistresses, wife, and children; perhaps a timeline of his major works; excerpts of his prose and poetry; artistic renderings of his plays; a summary of his years spent in exile; an overview of the political leanings that made him an adored figure of the French public… And indeed, the museum regaled my curiosity with a rich assortment of memorabilia, works of art, audio clips, and informational plaques.

Une larme pour une goutte d'eau, scene from a Victor Hugo novel.
Une larme pour une goutte d’eau, scene from Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, by Luc-Olivier Merson, 1903.

What I did not expect to learn is that Victor Hugo, in addition to producing a vast oeuvre of written material, was an impressively talented visual artist. I would never have guessed, for example, that Hugo was an avid interior designer, dictating the decor of not only his home but also that of his mistress, Juliette Drouet. The lauded dramatist/novelist/poet even made furniture from disparate piece-parts of antique chests, many fine examples of which are housed in the museum.

Salon chinois de Juliet Drouet, designed by Victor Hugo.
Salon chinois de Juliette Drouet, designed by Victor Hugo.

But Wait, There’s More

Over the course of his life, Victor Hugo produced 10 novels, a dozen plays, more than 20 volumes of poetry, and mountains of correspondence. In addition to his interior design projects, Hugo spent considerable time drawing and painting. While he never sold any of these pieces nor participated in an exhibition, Hugo left us with over 3,500 examples of his visual art. The works range from sketches adorning his letters and manuscripts to sizeable illustrations made with ink, charcoal, pencil, and gouache. Hugo had no aspirations to share them with the public and his aesthetic talents remained hidden until after his death. In a letter to his publisher Hugo wrote:

« Mon Cher Monsieur Castel,

Le hasard a fait tomber sous vos yeux quelques espèces d’essais de dessins faits par moi, à des heures de rêverie presque inconsciente, avec ce qui restait d’encre dans ma plume, sur des marges ou des couvertures de manuscrits. Je crains fort que ces traits de plume quelconques, jetés plus ou moins maladroitement sur le papier par un bonhomme qui a tout autre chose à faire, ne cessent d’être des dessins du moment qu’ils auront la prétention d’en être. »
—Victor Hugo, 1862

“My Dear Mister Castel,

Chance has caused several of my attempts at drawing to fall beneath your eyes, created in the hours of nearly unconscious reverie, with what was left of my pen’s ink, in the margins or on the covers of manuscripts. I strongly fear that these random strokes of my quill, thrown more or less clumsily on the paper by a bloke who has many other things to do, will cease to be sketches of the moment from which they presume to spring.”
—Victor Hugo, 1862

What follows are some of my favorite examples of Hugo’s visual legacy.

Letter from Victor Hugo to his Son

Victor Hugo’s parents, as well as many of their peers, would often illustrate their correspondance. The practice was seen as one undertaken by people of an elegant and highly cultured social class. Hugo’s father was partial to landscapes while his mother created portraits and depictions of flowers. Hugo adopted this habit for his own letters and sent the letter below to his son Charles while voyaging on the Rhine River.

La souris, from a letter from Hugo to his son.
La souris, 1840. Drawn on the back of a letter that Hugo wrote to his son.

Marine Terrace aux initiales

I’ve written before about Victor Hugo’s lifelong mistress, Juliette Drouet, and their passionate love affair. Drouet was far from being Hugo’s only extracuricular paramour, but the longevity of their relationship, the fact that Hugo maintained a residence for Drouet that was never far from his own, and the volumes of correspondence that passed between them indicate that he cared deeply for her despite his many philanderings.

The picture below features their intertwined initials, ominously floating above the house in Jersey where Hugo spent the first 3 years of his exile. I think the pschoanalysts might have a lot to say about this piece. Drouet’s intials are formed from the writhing shape of a dragon, while Hugo’s blood-red V.H. lies helplessly trapped in the creature’s twisted torso.

Marine Terrace aux initiales, by Victor Hugo
Marine Terrace aux initiales, 1855.

Arbre couché par le vent

Like Hugo’s writing, his art often featured dramatic scenes of nature. Speaking of Hugo’s poetry, Charles Baudelaire once referred to him as le roi des paysagistes. Hugo’s scene below, of the wind toppling a great tree, rivals that of many of the great Impressionists who were the first to capture movement, such as shimmering water and fluttering leaves, on canvas.

Arbre couché par le vent, by Victor Hugo
Arbre couché par le vent, circa 1866.

« Les arbres n’étant pas plus calmes que les hommes ;
Tout sur terre est en proie, ainsi que nous le sommes,
Au souffle, à la tempête, au funeste aquilon.
—Victor Hugo, L’Aigle du casque

“The trees being no calmer than men;
All on earth are victim, as well as us,
To the breeze, the storm, the dire boreal wind.”
—Victor Hugo, Eagle on the Helmet

Ma Destinée

Hugo spent 18 years of his life in exile. His writing as well as his art during that period often depicted scenes of combat, solitude, peril, abandonment, and catastrophe. Awaiting his return to France on the islands of first Jersey and then Guernsey, Hugo contemplated man’s battle with the elements, especially the sea.

In the ink gouache below, a defiant vessel struggles against the crest of an enormous wave as it heads away from the shore and into the raging ocean. The words MA DESTINÉE appear at the bottom. The personal symbolism underlying this piece is abundantly clear.

Ma destinée, by Victor Hugo.
Ma destinée, 1867.

Le Phare des Casquets

Hugo’s novel Les Travailleurs de la mer includes several perilous sea voyages. Ancient lighthouses, emitting feeble rays hindered by the murky atmosphere, appear like the hand of providence guiding the disoriented ship captain to safety.

Hugo was clearly attached to these saltwater-weathered beacons, depicting them in prose, in poetry and in paintings.

Le Phare des Casquets, by Victor Hugo
Le Phare des Casquets, 1866.

Je suis fait d’ombre et de marbre.
Comme les pieds noirs de l’arbre,
Je m’enfonce dans la nuit.
J’écoute ; je suis sous terre ;
D’en bas je dis au tonnerre :
Attends ! ne fais pas de bruit.

Moi qu’on nomme le poëte,
Je suis dans la nuit muette
L’escalier mystérieux ;
Je suis l’escalier Ténèbres ;
Dans mes spirales funèbres
L’ombre ouvre ses vagues yeux.
—Victor Hugo, Je suis fait d’ombre et de marbre

I am made of shadow and marble.
Like the black roots of a tree,
I penetrate the night.
I listen; I am underground;
From below I say to the thunder:
Wait! make no noise.

Me who people call the poet,
I am in a speechless night
The mysterious staircase;
I am the Shadowed staircase;
In my deathly spirals
Shadow opens its hazy eyes.
—Victor Hugo

La Conscience devant une mauvaise action

My favorite Victor Hugo character is Jean Valjean, whose early life seems fated for hardship. After nearly 20 years of repeated incarceration, Valjean is again arrested after stealing silver tableware from a bishop. When the authorities lead him to the priest’s home to identify the stolen property, the bishop instead declares that he gave the silver to Valjean as a gift. Indebted to the bishop’s kindness, Valjean begins a new life, wisely investing his plunder-turned-prize to help the less fortunate.

Hugo strongly believed in the power of forgiveness and the possibility of redemption. He was an ardent opponent of capital punishment. In Hugo’s mind, unjust circumstances too often lay behind a person’s decision to commit crime. As such, an imperfect society had no right to end the life of one of its offspring. In the painting below, Hugo portrays a hand that seems to be reaching for a coveted item while at the same time frozen in guilty hesitation.

La Conscience devant une mauvaise action, Victor Hugo
La Conscience devant une mauvaise action, 1866.

In Closing…

Victor Hugo died at the age of 83, so perhaps we can attribute some of his plentiful output to longevity. Still, imagining an existence without the persistent distractions of modern life causes me to question my priorities. I wonder how much time is lost to meaningless activities that are forgotten almost as quickly as they are undertaken. If I check my smartphone, its usage stats might provide part of that answer, but before I reach them, I’m likely to check the weather, scan my email, play a game of Sudoku, and text 3 friends!

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about this little-known side of Victor Hugo as much as I have. Let me know your thoughts and if you have any good solutions for reducing electronic brain-drain, please share. I’ll be sure to put a like on your comments.


For an in depth foray into Victor Hugo’s art, I recommend Victor Hugo / Visions Graphique, by Danille Molinari, published by Paris Musées.

More on Victor Hugo

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. Hugo’s painting and drawing are awesome. Clearly his talents in that realm matched those of artists who became famous for those skills rather than for writing. Even the very simple works are strikingly expressive.

    With regard to the issue of distraction, the only possibly helpful comment I can offer is that I have never been on what are known as social media — Facebook, Twitter, and suchlike — and have never missed them. It seems to be social media which, for most people, waste a lot of time (and generate stress) while offering nothing of real value. They seem geared toward the superficial and do not offer anything for the mind, as longer-form writing (such as is found on the better blogs) does. I think it’s those kinds of sites, rather than the technology of the internet as such, that is the problem. It also helps that I don’t have a smartphone and refuse to get one. When I’m away from a computer, I re-engage with the physical world around me because the online world is not an option during those moments.

    Beyond that, your life and mine are obviously very different. To me, the blog and other writing projects, as well as reading (I have a huge collection of books on science and history as well as serious novels) are the valuable and productive part of life, of which distractions threaten to deprive me by eating up time. The primary distraction right now is the financial necessity of working a regular job, which produces nothing of any value at all to me except money.

    I would note, though, that it’s all too easy to idealize “simpler” times. Yes, Hugo was very productive even under harsh conditions, but he obviously had immense talent and an urge bordering on compulsion to be creative. The great majority of people who lived in poverty in those days produced no art or writing, and Hugo himself might have written even more and even better if he had had access to a modern word-processing system. Also, life before modern times was not free of time-consuming distractions. Things like cleaning and cooking took much more time and labor than they do now, while getting from place to place was slower and less convenient than with modern cars. Men, of course, often had women to do most of the drudge work for them, and the relatively few women who were able to become known as writers were often of a social class that enabled them to have servants. But the time-sucking distractions were there. They weren’t even things that could be avoided by willpower, as social media are.

    Incidentally, the translation of aquilon as “boreal wind” caught my attention and made me look up the word in my own dictionary to confirm that French does indeed have a word for a northern wind specifically. It made me wonder how such a specialized term arose. The only word that looked possibly related, aquilin offered no help, referring as it does to noses of the specifically southern (Roman) variety.

    • I agree that social media can be a terrible time waster. When I first had a Facebook account, more people posted articles and FB’s algorithm didn’t mind serving me such posts. But it slowly degenerated. Their engineers determined that they can’t serve you as many ads if you leave the site to read a longer story. I long ago became fed up with the feed that FB thought was best for me. I detest the platform now, to say nothing regarding its propensity for manipulation and misinformation. I had an early Twitter account but didn’t see the value and ignored it until a couple years ago when I began producing Tweets based on French trivia, art, and historic citations. Since I could easily embed the Twitter feed in my blog, it replaced my potpourri posts and had a better potential for reuse. I also put effort into finding French Twitter feeds that were valuable sources of information. It took a lot of time though and when Elon got involved, I gave up. While I’d done a lot to create a feed that served me pretty well, there was too much toxicity over there.

      However, even after doing away with social media, the Internet can suck a lot of my time, but you’re right, very few people throughout history have had the luxury of leisure that people have today. I really have no right to complain but as Joe Walsh said, sometimes I still do.

      Regarding aquilon, it comes from the Latin aquilo, -onis, meaning North wind. I didn’t know that, just looked it up. Ha! Thanks for reading so thoroughly.

  2. Glad you made it to Victor’s house. Quite unique is it not?
    Yes, he was a master sketecher. Ink. Ombres et lumières. One of the very first art books I ever bought was his sketches… Obscure castles perched on a dark hill. A man of many talents…
    Have you seen what is happening at Sciences Po?
    Be good.

    • Yes, Hugo’s home was very special, Brieuc. I plan to go back. There was so much to see in there and I went with friends who were very patient with me, but I’m a snail in such venues and felt rushed. Haha.

      Wow! That’s very interesting that one of your first art books held Hugo’s work. In general, do French people know that Hugo was an artist or do most only know him as an author/poet?

      I saw briefly that students at Sciences Po and the Sorbonne were holding pro-Palestinian demonstrations but nothing more than the headlines.

      • I don’t know what the French know any more, LOL. The younger generations seem so ignorant (I’m getting old ) I’d suspect polder generations and people in the literary/arts “milieu” do know.

  3. Wow, thank you Carol for introducing me to the Hugo’s passion for the visual arts. It makes sense, n’est-ce pas, when we see the vivid imagery in his novels, especially in the Hunchback of Notre Dame as he describes the Cathedral and the description of Quasimodo. It takes us right there. His obsession with the sea is also seen in his writings from his time in Guernsey. I love this! Thank you for writing.

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