Valentine studied painting in Paris, and in 1919 married French artist Jean Hugo (1894–1984), great-grandson of Victor Hugo. She collaborated with him on ballet designs including Les mariés de la tour Eiffel (1921), and in 1926 executed 24 wood engravings after maquettes by Jean Hugo for Jean Cocteau's production of Roméo et Juliette.
She met the surrealists around 1928 and actively participated in the movement between 1930 and 1936. She joined the Bureau of Surrealist Research and created the Objet à fonctionnement symbolique (1931), which was shown during the Exposition surréalistic in 1933. She took part in other exhibitions throughout her time with the group, including an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936.
She was primarily known for her drawings, where a fine line against a dark background created and abundance of decorative volutes and superimposed elements. Her portraits of the leading surrealists and her illustrations for texts by Rene Char and Paul Eluard and for the edition of Achim von Arnim's Strange Tales prefaced by Breton in 1933 are particularly interesting. After the war, she went back to stage design for choreography, while continuing to create her paintings "in secret," saving "the haunting element of surprise and chance for the end."
Several of her illustrations are:
- Comte de Lautréamont's Les Chants de Maldoror (1933)
- Achim von Arnim's Contes bizarres (1933)
- Arthur Rimbaud's Les Poètes de sept ans (1939)
- Paul Éluard's Les Animaux et leurs hommes (1937)
- Roger Peyrefitte's Les amitiés particulières (1946)
A retrospective exhibition of her work was held at the Centre Culturel Thibaud de Champagne, Troyes, in 1977.
Other exhibitions of her work have been at: Tenerife (1935), Copenhagen (1935), New York (1937), Tokyo (1937).
- "Valentine Hugo: An Inventory of Her Papers in the Carlton Lake Collection". Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. Retrieved February 15, 2012.
- Lake, Carlton (1990). Confessions of a Literary Archaeologist. New York: New Directions. p. 90. ISBN 0-8112-1130-4.
- "Valentine Hugo - AWARE". AWARE. Retrieved 2017-04-20.
- Durozoi, Gerard (2002). History of the Surrealist Movement. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 675. ISBN 0-226-17412-3.
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