A superb and rare example of Victor Hugo inner and romantic projections and worlds put in drawings. The present sheet dates from his most creative period, between 1850 and 1859. At this time, his method became a real “alchemy”: Hugo added to his ink powdered charcoal, coal, soot, even ground coffee, that he rubs, scrapes or shades off. He proceeded by spots, bends, application by ferns or laces. However Hugo never studied drawing. His graphic work is the mere fruit of a gift and an imagination outstandingly fertile and fruitful. It was during his annual journeys from 1834, through France and abroad, that he started drawing, as a rapid way to keep notes of seen sceneries. During his journey through the Rhine valley (1840), wash drawing became his second means for lyric expression, complementing his literary activity. From there, Hugo passed to visionary compositions of ruins, rocs, trees and castles where dream and reality intermingled. For the first time he illustrated one of his literary works, Le Rhin (1842). Drawing took a new meaning in Hugo’s life during his long years of exile, from 1855 to 1870 in the Island of Guernsey (Chanel Islands), he revisited some of his works or sketches to produce new masterpieces like the current The Abbey in ruins c. 1857-58. Hugo retained from his Rhine journeys an idealized and dark vision of obscure forests and haunted buildings and ruins that are present in several drawings. The Abbey in ruin is the romantic scene of a high poetic appeal par excellence. It recalls Caspar David Friedrich’s abbey drawings, even if, most probably, Hugo did not know them. These drawings are always a source of amazement for connoisseurs: Hugo was very discreet about them, minimizing this artistic dedication, and meanwhile he considered himself being more a painter than a writer (amazingly Goethe had the same hesitation thirty years earlier). Hugo’s genius and virtuosity as poet and draughtsman are multiple and inseparable, with no equivalent at the time.
The present sheet has a very exciting background. It was carefully chosen by the artist among his portfolios to illustrate an album of his works to be published in 1862, a year before the Misérables edition. In 1862 Hugo had not published for ten years; he daily helped needy persons and children in Guernsey, hosted up to twenty man and woman at his table at Hauteville House, but his finance were not high. In order to maintain his generosity, his close friend Theophile Gauthier suggested him to publish for sale an album with a dozen of drawings reproduced. It is said by Gauthier that Hugo made a choice among his favourite pieces; the present Abbey in ruins being the number twelve. The artist followed the reproductive process very carefully; he wrote letters full of recommendations to the publisher Castel, the printer Claye. They sent him in 1862 the proofs made on wood by a certain Mr Gérard for the vignette, Hugo refused eighteen of them and asked the printer to destroy the plates. For the illustration, he finally entrusted a middle-age printmaker, Paul Chenay (1818-1906), Hugo’s brother in law. Paul had married Julie Foucher, the youngest sister of Madame Victor Hugo. This is the reason why it is called the « Album Chenay ». The publication had some success in a circle of amateurs, including the very important collector Auguste Vacquerie who had already some drawings of the master.
Again, in the preface by Gauthier, Hugo tried to minimize the importance of the drawings in his artistic life: “simple délassement”, “croquis”… From the album, two others drawings have been located, only recently; one sold to the Maison Victor Hugo in Paris, one kept in a private collection. Ninety per cent of Hugo’s drawings were found in his studio at his death and were all given later to the French state by the heirs, they are now in the Maison Victor Hugo and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
It is worth mentioning the fine provenance of the present piece. Grace Whitney Hoff (1862- 1938) was the daughter of a rich Detroit industrialist; she married John Jacob Hoff in 1900, and together they left the United States for France which became their adopted country. Using her personal fortune for philanthropic work, she founded a retirement home in Peyrieu (Ain) for war widows and the construction of the Foyer International in France for American women studying abroad, still active. For her efforts and generosity she was awarded the Academic Palms in 1923 and the medal of the Legion of Honour in 1925.
There is an album kept at the Getty Research Institute and titled “Inventaire photographique des collections de Mme. Grace Whitney Hoff” gathered by a Parisian called Ernest Eymonaud. The album documents the Paris residence of Grace Whitney Hoff and displays the taste of an eclectic collector who mixed styles with a special predilection for the Medieval through the Baroque. The interiors were decorated with sculptures, architectural fragments, period furniture, and decorative art objects. The exterior of the residence was constructed in ashlar masonry and rubble stone work. Her still-famous collection of rare books has been catalogued in 1933 by Amédée Boinet (Bibliothèque de Mme G. Whitney Hoff. Catalogue des manuscrits, incunables, éditions rares, reliures anciennes et modernes, Paris, L. Gruel, 1933). See also Carolyn Patch, Grace Whitney Hoff: the story of an abundant life, (introduction by Chauncey W. Goodrich), Boston, Riverside Press, 1933.
As far as Hugo’s lavish-drawings are concerned, the present work is considered in fine and fresh condition, it has been backed on support sheet. Hugo used acid and corrosive inks that attacked nearly every sheet of his lavish-drawings, as perfectly noticeable from works in the Maison Victor Hugo and BNF collections. The present drawing is offered in its original frame, according to Pierre Georgel, the best connoisseur of Hugo graphic work since his oeuvre was rediscovered in the seventies. Hugo was a strong amateur of this kind of frame with Gothic arabesques.
Including the rare Album Chenay in the original edition.