The Daily


Victor Hugo’s Drawings

February 26, 2015 | by


Victor Hugo, Octopus with the initials V.H., 1866.

Victor Hugo wrote poetry, novels, and drama—more than enough for any mortal—but he also made some four thousand drawings over the course of his life. He was an adept draftsman, even an experimental one: he sometimes drew with his nondominant hand or when looking away from the page. If pen and ink were not available, he had recourse to soot, coal dust, and coffee grounds. He didn’t publish his drawings for fear they would distract from his projects as a writer; instead, he drew for family and friends. His son, Charles, wrote of his process,

Once paper, pen, and inkwell have been brought to the table, [he] sits down and—without making a preliminary sketch, without any apparent preconception—sets about drawing with an extraordinarily sure hand: not the landscape as a whole, but any old detail. He will begin his forest with the branch of a tree, his town with a gable, his gable with a weathervane, and little by little, the entire composition will emerge from the blank paper with the precision and clarity of a photographic negative subjected to the chemical preparation that brings out the picture. That done, the draftsman will ask for a cup and will finish off his landscape with a light shower of black coffee. The result is an unexpected and powerful drawing that is often strange, always personal, and recalls the etchings of Rembrandt and Piranesi.

His drawings are collected in a 1998 book, Shadows of a Hand. Here are a few more:


The King of the Auxcriniers, ca. 1864.


Entre Classiques, year unknown.


Lace and Ghosts, ca. 1855–56.


Gavroche at Eleven Years Old, 1849.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.



  1. Tyler van Helden | February 26, 2015 at 10:54 pm

    This is why I love The Paris Review. I would doubt to have learned of this in any other way. Thank you.

  2. anton chapman | February 27, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    I wonder what Victor Hugo would have made of the puerile concept behind the term”non-dominant hand”…

  3. John | March 1, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    Several of Hugo’s pen-and-ink washes are displayed in the permanent collection of the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg museum in Berlin. The museum focuses on Surrealism and its precursors, and the works by Hugo are astounding. To describe them as “drawings” hardly does them justice; they are ink washes, the images elusive, almost abstract, and strikingly experimental for their day. To my eye, they are superior to the works shown above, and worth a trip to Berlin to see.

11 Pingbacks

  1. […] Lês en sjoch fierder by The Paris Review […]

  2. […] makes us feel hopelessly unaccomplished: Victor Hugo made some four thousand drawings, which he didn’t publish because he feared they would distract from his countless poems, […]

  3. […] Victor Hugo Drawings (writers as artists) […]

  4. […] writes The Paris Review‘s Dan Piepenbring, “made some four thousand drawings over the course of his life. He was an adept […]

  5. […] Victor Hugo’s Drawings ( […]

  6. […] Vault riscopre oggi alcuni articoli su questo aspetto del grande scrittore francese: qui un testo pubblicato su Paris Review nel febbraio 2015, e ancora una presentazione dei suoi disegni […]

  7. […] known for his way with words, but his artistic talents extended into the visual realm as well. As a Paris Review article from earlier this year […]

Leave a Comment