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Les Orientales – Maison de Victor Hugo

26-03-2010-58680-1 Text: Tiffany Tang

In 1829, Victor Hugo published Les Orientales, a collection of poems that paints an imaginary Orient al world which became a source  for Romantic masters, Géricault, Girodet and later Boulanger and Delacroix. Endowed with an abundance of colors, a richness in vocabulary and a variety of rhythms Les Orientales offers us a vision of the Oriental that is at once luminous and somber, powerful and captive, carnal and sensual. As Hugo notes in his preface, “L’Orient est devenu pour les intelligences autant que pour les imaginations, une sorte de préoccupation générale” (The Orient has become, for the intelligence as much as for the imagination, a sort of general preoccupation).

In the works of the Romanticists, we find a resonance of the vision and the ambience that Hugo has depicted for us. Endeavoring to show how writers in the nineteenth century, such as Hugo and other travel writers who visited the East, influenced and inspire d other artists the exhibition at Maison de Victo Hugo has drawn together over a hundred works of paintings, sculptures and drawings of the Romantic masters from museums in France and other countries.

The exhibition opens with the section Les précurseurs, which refers to poets, travelers, explorers and war conquerors whose experiences have defined the territory of the Orient for painters and writers of the time. Among those forerunners are Bonaparte and his expedition in Egypt, Chateaubriand's Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem, a journal recording his voyage from France to the East covering countries such as Greece, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Egypt, as well as the grand oriental epic of Lord Byron which inflamed the wild imaginations of painters and writers at that time. Glorifying the victorious military feat and imperial personages, this section displays works which depict famous war scenes of Bonaparte in the Egypt and portraits of Oriental kings.

Continuing on the theme of war and combat, En Grèce ! En Grèce ! centers the subject on the Greek War of Independence against the Turks. Paintings such as Boulanger's Le Feu du ciel, Delacroix's Épisode de la guerre de Grèce and Bouterwerk's Épisode de la guerre d'indépendance de la Grèce en 1827 offer vivid representations of the brutality in the scenes of battles and massacres, which resonate with vision created in sections of Hugo's poem characterized by the violence of words and vigorous rhythms.

The Orient - countries including Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Egypt - began to obsess both travelers, writers and artists at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but was in most instances, a subject that existed solely in their imagination without them having physically visited the places. In the case of Victor Hugo, in which his poetry is composed partly from his own fantasies, and partly from the image he conceived of the Orient through reading numerous stories and illustrations published at the time. Interestingly, Hugo added Spain into his references to the Orient, which could be related to his childhood experiences and memory. Featuring the section L’Orient des voyageurs is Hugo’s own depiction of his impression of the East as seen in Souvenir d’Espagne and Ville au pont rompu.

The section that follows - Une certaine grâce sauvage ­- turns to the theme of savage animals, a subject that is also well-represented in Hugo’s work, which at the same time echoes with the ferociousness of the war and battle scenes. Highlighting the section is Delacroix’s La chasse au lion, depicting a scene of lions devouring horses and human beings. Painted with loose brushstrokes, and using a palette of earth tone and a triangular composition that pushes the scene to a climax, Delacroix, renowned for his works of savage wildlife, has brought before the viewers a vivid scene of bestiality and savageness. Featuring this section are also works inspired by Lord Byron’s poem Mazeppa, among them are paintings by Vernet, Boulanger and Géricault.

The next section Captives, baigneuse, sultanes… takes us away from the bloodshed battle scenes and animal savages into the realm of feminine sensuality. Inspired by Hugo’s portrayal of the odalisques and female captives in harems, Oriental females and their secret resting places have become a subject that Romantic artists dote on. Highlighting the section are Théodore Chassériau’s Intérieur de harem ou Femme mauresque sortant du bain au serial and Alexandre Marie Colin’s Sara la baigneuse, inspired by a female captive figure portrayed in one of Hugo’s poems in Les Orientales named under the same title. The painting depicts a nude woman sitting in a hammock hung between the trees above a river, creating a scene of charm and sensuality.

The exhibition ends with the section Paris, which brings us to the reality of the gloomy and misty Paris - unveiled by the last poem in Les Orientales, November - the city where Victor Hugo composes his Oriental tales.

Les Orientales
March 26 – July 4, 2024
Maison de Victor Hugo
6 Place des Vosges
75004 Paris, France
Tuesdays to Sundays from 10 am to 6 pm. Closed on
Mondays and public holidays

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