19 November 1894
|Died||21 June 1984
Jean Hugo (19 November 1894 – 21 June 1984) was a painter, illustrator, theatre designer and author. He was born in Paris and died in his home at the Mas de Fourques, near Lunel, France. Brought up in a lively artistic environment, he began teaching himself drawing and painting and wrote essays and poetry from a very early age. His artistic career spans the 20th century. From his early sketches of the First World War, through the creative ferment of the Parisian interwar years, and up to his death in 1984. He was part of a number of artistic circles that included Jean Cocteau, Raymond Radiguet, Pablo Picasso, Georges Auric, Erik Satie, Blaise Cendrars, Marie-Laure de Noailles, Paul Eluard, Francis Poulenc, Charles Dullin, Louis Jouvet, Colette, Marcel Proust, Jacques Maritain, Max Jacob, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Marie Bell, Louise de Vilmorin, Cecil Beaton and many others.
Quotes about Jean Hugo
Jean Cocteau: "Jean Hugo mixed his almost monstrous calm into the tumultuous enterprises of our youth. He was, and remains the very image of that perfect humility of the illuminators, for whom daily truths trumpted decorative graces. His powerful hand, his big jupiterian eye, his olypism in a way, did not use thunder but little watercolours so vast that it seemed as if their size was the result of a phenomenon of perspective. Indeed, he seems to view the sea in Brittany from a distance, and the garrigue by the big end of the telescope, which does not prevent him from evoking around us the mysterious odour of seaweed and wild herbs. Jean Hugo, subtle peasant, medieval monk, chasses the angel from the bizarre through knowing all its tricks by heart."
Gustave Thibon: "I knew him intimately. He was a strange being, admirable, a mystic, a lover, a great artist, who no doubt sinned by excess of modesty. He had been a little tired of fame by his name, which was extremely heavy. [...] Jean Hugo spent his youth in that golden world of the big families of the Third Republic, the Berthelot, the Favre, the Renan, the Daudet, a world that he moved away from for a more isolated life in Lunel. His work is far better known, and valued, in America than in France, where he still suffers a little of being eclipsed by his name. I consider him a great painter, and a great painter that is relatively unknown. If he hadn't found others to look after publicising him, he would never have sold a single painting. Picasso, who was a good friend of his, used to say to him "you do nothing for your fame". And indeed he did nothing for it – others did it to him. Once again, he was a pure being. If the word innocence could be applied to anyone it was him. He was very handsome, and of prodigious vitality – dare I say Hugolian. He was detached enough not to install himself in his own name – while still showing unconditional admiration for the work of his great ancestor, that he knew in detail." Entretiens avec Gustave Thibon by Philippe Barthelet (Éditions du Rocher, Monaco, 2001)
Maurice Sachs: "Jean Hugo was calm, kind and generous. Life flowed calmly before him and we knew of no enemies of his. He carried the heavy burden of his family name with elegance. Like his father Georges Hugo he was a man of the world, a man of great distinction in heart and spirit, a kind friend, a man you would want to have in your life." La Décade de l'illusion (Paris, Gallimard, 1950 p. 14–16)
Jean Hugo was the great-grandson of the poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, visual artist, statesman, human rights activist and exponent of the Romantic movement in France, Victor Hugo. His grandfather, Charles Hugo was a journalist, pioneer of early photographic techniques and a campaigner against the death penalty, and his father Georges Hugo was a published author and a recognised painter.
His mother, Pauline Ménard-Dorian, was the daughter of Paul-François Ménard, conseiller général and député of the Hérault department during the 1870s–80s, by his wife Aline Dorian, daughter of Pierre Frédéric Dorian, minister of works during the siege of Paris.
Jean Hugo was married twice, first in 1919 to Valentine Hugo (née Valentine Gross, no children from this marriage) and then in 1949 to Lauretta Hope-Nicholson, daughter of Hedley Hope-Nicholson. Jean Hugo and Lauretta had seven children, several of whom have gone on to establish successful careers in the arts.
Pierre Hugo – son of François Hugo – is also a jewellery designer and has written a book about the artistic legacy of the Hugo family, Les Hugo – Un Temoignage (Rocher, France, 2007).
Hugo is predominantly known for his sketches and oil or gouache paintings, which are often executed in small formats. He also illustrated books, designed theatre sets and costumes and produced ceramics, murals, textile designs and stained glass windows. Hugo designed the sets and costumes for Carl Theodor Dreyer's film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). His paintings can be viewed at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, and are also present in collections in London, Tokyo, Toronto, Paris, Marseille, and at the Musee Fabre in Montpellier, France – where there is room dedicated to his paintings.
Le Bateau blanc, Sète, 1971
Jean Hugo's painting is unique in the artistic panorama of the first half of the 20th century and maintains an authentic originality while evoking certain avant-garde themes of magical realism or metaphysical painting. At the start of the 1930s, in between naïve and happy scenes and various theatrical projects – such as Jean Cocteau's Les mariés de la Tour Eiffel – he produced a series of masterful works in brooding, unsettling, tones (Solitude, 1933).
He showed an interest in forest scenes (L'Ermite de Meudon, 1933) and religious themes (La Cène, 1933). L'Imposteur (1931) and La Baie des Trépassés (1932) were produced in the same period. His painting were based on the sketchbooks that he had with him at all times. He used to say that "Inspiration comes naturally but one has to arrange regular meetings with it".
L'Imposteur (1931) concludes Hugo's first artistic period, which coincides with his move from Paris to the family property at the Mas de Fourques, Lunel, France, following the death of his grandmother. This imposing painting is a masterful assembly of the most important insights he had acquired thus far: the lessons of the Italian primitives, of Henri Rousseau, of Poussin and Picasso, sources of inspiration on which he is constantly drawing. The subject of the painting evokes the discomfort of the catechumen in the midst of the faithful, prevented from taking communion during Christmas mass at the Church of Saint-Francois in Montpellier. The painting is set in the countryside around Lunel, with its vineyards and low scrubland (garrigue). The tense and complex composition of the work is extremely well executed. No element, line, motif, nuance of colour or object is secondary. Each element contributes to the pictorial vision. The delicate volumes are bathed in an intense luminosity and stand out from the background. The figures are fixed in the space by superimposed connections, in the Florentine manner.
In the middle of the 1930s, he began using oil paints to create his larger compositions while continuing to paint with tempera. Le Mangeur au chandail rayé (autoportrait) (1940) shows the artist in his home at the Mas de Fourques. The motif of the stripes contrasts with the neat contours of the table, the chimney and the wall. In this homely setting, the figure seems surrounded by mystery and casualness. Although Hugo does not draw greatly on De Chirico, this work evokes the feeling of isolation and mystery that characterises the production of the latter.
Jean Hugo's work bears witness to his intention to work outside of current trends and fashionable theories. He never felt the need to participate in the artistic debates of his time and paid the price for it by never achieving wide recognition of his work by the general public.
His auction record is $US308,200, for Les Plaisirs et les Jours, set at Francois de Ricqlès' auction, Paris, on 26 November 1999.
Le Retour De L'Enfant Terrible: Lettres 1923–1966 by Jean Bourgoint, Jean Hugo, Jean Mouton (Desclée de Brouwer, 1975)
Avant d'Oublier (Before I Forget), autobiography (Fayard, 1976), was a humorous memoir of his family and a first-hand account of the 1920s French Surrealist movement.
Le Regard de la Mémoire (Actes Sud, 1983) – Jean Hugo's memoirs of the period from 1914 to 1945. These memoirs recount Jean Hugo's military service during World War I, and his life and friendships in the Parisian art scene during the interwar years.
Voyage à Moscou et Léningrad (Cercle d'Art, 1953, reprinted by Actes Sud, 1984)
Carnets, 1946–1984 (Actes Sud, 1994) – The Carnets, or Notebooks, carry on from where Le Regard de la Memoire left off in 1945. They are based on the detailed diaries Hugo kept up to his death in 1984. The entries are unedited and instinctive, as found in the original notebooks, with an elegant, ironic writing style. Through his diary entries Jean Hugo reveals the alchemy of his artistic work, and the eye he brought to bear on people and landscapes. The book conveys the philosophy of his later years, sometimes disenchanted and often delectable. "My illness", wrote Jean Hugo on the last page of his diary, "is called artérite périphérique, like the new boulevard around Paris." The book includes drawings and colour reproductions of Jean Hugo's paintings
Dessins des années de guerre (1915–1919) – Drawings of the war (Actes Sud, 1994)
Books and films about Jean Hugo
Avec Jean Hugo (Presses du Languedoc, 2002), by Robert Faure
The Art of Jean Hugo (Art Gallery of Ontario, 1973), by Richard Wattenmaker
Jean Cocteau – Jean Hugo, Correspondance (1995), by Brigitte Borsaro and Pierre Caizergues
- New York Times Obituary – June 23, 1984 "Jean Hugo, Artist, Dies at 89"
- Presentation of the Jean Hugo room at the Musee Fabre, Montpellier (in French)