26 February 2006

Vincent on Victor

Victor Hugo, born on this day in 1802

From Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo:

The Hague, 20-24, February, 1883
Last week I again read Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, which I had already read, more than ten years ago...Probably most people who read Notre Dame have the impression that Quasimodo was a kind of fool. But, like myself, you would not find Quasimodo ridiculous, and, like myself, you would feel the truth of what Hugo says, "For those who know that Quasimodo once existed, 'Notre Dame' is now empty. For not only did he live there, but he was the soul of it."
The Hague, 30 March & 1 April 1883
I am reading Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. A book which I remember of old, but I had a great longing to read it again. It is very beautiful, that figure of Monseigneur Myriel or Bienvenu I think sublime.

You spoke in your last letter of "exerting influence" in connection with your patient. That Mgr, Myriel reminds me of Corot or Millet, though he was a priest and the other two, painters. ...You surely know Les Miserables, and certainly the illustrations which Brion made for it too, very good and very appropriate.

It is good to read such a book again, I think, just to keep some feelings allive. Especially love for humanity, and the faith in, and consciousness of, something higher, in short, quelque chose là-huat.

I was absorbed in it for a few hours this afternoon, and then came into the studio about the time the sun was setting. From the window I looked down on a wide dark foreground -- dug-up gardens and fileds of warm black earth of a very deep tone. Diagonally across it runs a little path of yellowish sand, bordered with greeen grass and slender, spare young poplars. The background was formed by a grey silhouette for the city, with the round roof of the railway station, and spires, and chimneys. And moreover, backs of houses everywhere; but at that time of evening, everything is blended by the tone. So viewed in a large way, the whole thing is simply a foreground of black dug-up earth, a path across it, behind it a grey silhouett of the city, with spires, and over it all, almost at the horizon, the red sun. It was exactly like a page from Hugo, and I am sure that you would have been struck by it, and that you would describe it better than I.
The Hague, April 11 1883
Don't you like this little poem -- it is from Les Miserables:

If Caesar had given me
glory and war,
and if I had to leave
the love of my mother,
I should say to Great Caesar:
take back your scepter and your triumphal car
I love my mother more.

In the context in which it appeared in the book (it is a student's song of the time of the Revolution of '30), the "love for my mother" stands for the love for the republic, or rather love for humanity, in other words, simply universal brotherhood.

It is my opinion that no matter how good and noble a woman may be by nature, if she has no means and is not protected by her own family, in the present society she is in great, immediate danger of being drowned in the pool of prostitution

...I am reading the last part of Les Miserable; the figure of Fantine, a prostitue, made a deep impression on me -- oh, I know just as well as everybody else that one will not find an exact Fantine in reality, but this character of Hugo's is true -- as, indeed, are all his characters, being the essence of what one sees in reality. It is the type -- of which one only meets individuals.


Jana Swartwood said...

How perceptive that Van Gogh would see these things in Hugo's work. I adored Les Mis (though I could have done without Waterloo), but I thought Grantaire and Javert were the most "true" characters: Grantaire for his extraordinary courage as a contrast to his disorderly, drunken life; Javert as an example of who I might also become were it not for the grace and mercy that I choose to cultivate in my heart.

Anyway, happy birthday to Victor Hugo!

amcorrea said...

Yes, I was also struck by how closely he connected with it, given what was happening in his personal life. And, of course, his perspective as a painter...quite lovely.