Paris – The Place Des Vosges And Hugo’s House

HERE we  walk a little farther along the busy Rue St. Antoine towards the Place de la Bastille, we should come, on the left, a few yards past the church of St. Louis, to the Rue de Birague, at the head of which is the beautiful red gateway of which Mr. Dexter has made such a charming picture. This is the southern gateway of the Place des Vosges, a spacious green square enclosed by massive red and white houses of brick and stone which once were the abode, when the Place des Vosges was the Place Royale, of the aristocracy of France.

Before that time the courtyard of the old Palais des Tournelles was here, where Henri II. was killed in a tournament in L565, through an accident for which Captain Montgomery of the Scotch Guard, whose fault Catherine de Médicis deemed it to be, was executed, as we have just seen, in the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville.

Catherine de Médicis, not content with thus avenging her husband’s death, demolished the Palais des Tournelles, and a few years later Henri IV., to whom old Paris owes so much, built the Place Royale, just as it is now. His own pavilion was the centre building on the south side, comprising the gateway which Mr. Dexter has drawn; the Queen’s was the corresponding building on the north side.

Around dwelt the nobles of the Court — such at any rate as were not living in the adjoining Marais. Riche-lieu’s hotel embraced Nos. 21–23 as they now are. It was in front of that mansion that the famous duel between Montmorency-Bouteville and Des Chapelles against Bussy and Beuvron was fought. The spirit of the great Dumas, one feels, must haunt this Place: for it is peopled with ghosts from his brave romances.

The decay of the Place des Vosges began, of course, when the aristocracy moved over to the Faubourg St. Germain, although it never sank low. The Revolution then took it in hand, and naturally began by destroying the statue of Louis XIH. in the centre, which Richelieu had set up, while its name was changed from Place Royale to its present style in honour of the Department of the Vosges, the first to contribute funds to the new order. In 1825, under Charles X., Louis XIII. in a new stone dress returned to his honoured position in the midst of the square, and all was as it should be once more, save that no longer did lords and ladies ruffle it here or in the Marais.

The most picturesque associations of the Place des Vosges are historical; but it has at any rate three houses which have an artistic interest. At No. 1 was born that gifted and delightful lady in whose home in later years we have spent such pleasant hours — Madame de Sévigné, or as she was in those early days (she was born in 1626) Marie de Rabutin-Chantal. At No. 13 lived for a while Rachel the tragédienne. According to Herr Baedeker, who is not often wrong, she died here too : but other authorities place her death at Carmet, near Toulon. I like to think that this rare wayward and terrible creature of emotion was once an inhabitant of these walls. The third house is No. 6, in the south-eastern corner, the second floor of which, from 1833 to 1848, was the home of Victor Hugo. It is now a Hugo museum. Although Hugo occupied only a small portion, the whole house is now dedicated to his spreading memory. Let us enter.

There is nothing in England like the Hugo museum. I have been to Carlyle’s house in Cheyne Row; to Johnson’s house at Lichfield ; to Wordsworth’s house at Grasmere; to Milton’s house at Chalfont St. Giles; to Leighton’s house at Kensington ; and the impression left by all is that their owners lived very thin lives. The rooms convey a sense of bareness: one is struck not by the wealth of relics but by the poverty of them ; while for any suggestion that these men were pulsating creatures of friendship one seeks in vain. But Hugo — Hugo’s house throbs with life and energy and warm prosperous amities. Every inch is crowded with mementoes of his vigour and his triumphs, yes, and his failures too.

Here are portraits of him by the hundred, at all ages, caricatures, lampoons, play bills, first editions, popular editions, furniture by Hugo, decorations by Hugo, drawings by Hugo, scenes in Hugo’s life in exile, wreaths, busts, portraits of his grandchildren (who taught him the exquisite art of being a grandfather), his death-bed, his death-mask, the cast of his hands. Hugo, Hugo, everywhere, always tremendous and splendid and passionate and French.

Among the more valuable possessions of this museum are Bastien-Lepage’s charcoal drawing of the master ; Besnard’s picture of the first night of Hernani with the young romantic on the stage taking his call and hurling defiance at the gods ; Steinlen’s oil painting (there are not many oil paintings by this great draughtsman and great Parisian) “Les Pauvres Gens”; Daumier’s cartoon ” Les Châtiments “; Henner’s ” Sarah la Baigneuse” from Les Orientales; allegories by Chifflart; beautiful canvases by Carrière and Fantin-Latour; and Devambez’s ” Jean Valjean before the tribunal of Arras,” in which Jean is curiously like Gladstone in a bad coat; Vierge’s drawing of the funeral of Georges Hugo, during the siege; and Yama Motto’s curious scene of Hugo’s own funeral, of which there are many photographs, including one of the coffin as it lay in state for two days under the Arc de Triomphe. There are also a number of Hugo relics which the camelots of that day were selling to the crowds.

Hugo, it is well known, nursed a private ambition to be a great artist, and in my opinion he was a great artist. There are on these walls drawings from his hand which are magnificent — mysterious and sombre for-tresses on impregnable cliffs, scenes in enchanted lands with more imagination than ever Doré compassed, and some of the sinister cruelty and power of Méryon. Hugo was ingenious too : he decorated a room with coloured carvings in the Chinese manner and he made the neatest folding table I ever saw — hinged into the wall so that when not in use it takes up no floor-space whatever.

It is amusing to follow Hugo’s physiognomy through the ages, at first beardless, looking when young rather like Bruant, the chansonnier of to-day; then the coming of the beard, and the progress of it until the final stage in which the mental eye now always sees the old poet — white and strong and benevolent — the Hugo, in short, of Bonnat’s famous portrait.

On a table is a collection of literary souvenirs of intense interest : Hugo’s pen and inkstand, and the great Dumas’ pen presented to Hugo in 1860 after writing with it his last ” 15 or 20″ volumes (fifteen or twenty — how like him !) ; Lamartine’s inkstand, offered “to the master of the pen”; Georges Sand’s match-box for those endless cigarettes, and with it her travelling inkstand. In another room upstairs are the six pens used by Hugo in writing Les Humbles. Dumas!’ pen is not by any means the only Dumas relic here; portraits of him are to be seen, one of them astonishingly negroid. Had he too worked for liberty and carried in his breast or even on his sleeve a great heart that, like Hugo’s, responded to every call and beat furiously at the very whisper of the word injustice, he too would have his museum to-day not less remarkable than this. But to write romances was not enough : there must be toil and suffering too.

Dumas and Hugo were born in the same year, 1802: Balzac was then three. In 1809 came Tennyson and Gladstone; in 1811 Thackeray and in 1812 Browning and Dickens. What was the secret of that astounding period? Why did the first twelve years of the last century know such energy and abundance ? To walk through the rooms of this Hugo museum, however casually, is to be amazed before the vitality and exuberance not only of this man but of the French genius. “It is truly only the busy who have time. I wish none the less that there was a museum for Alexandre the Great. I would love to visit it: I would love to see his kitchen utensils alone. The generous glorious creature, “the seven and seventy times to be forgiven ” ! As it was, no one being about, I kissed the pen with which he had written his last ” 15 or 20″ novels (the splendid liar !).

I wish too that we had a permanent Dickens museum in London — say at his house in Devonshire Terrace, which is now a lawyer’s office. What a fascinating memorial of Merry England it might become and what a reminder to this attenuated specialising day of the vigour and versatility and variety and inconquerable vivacity of that giant ! Just as no one can leave Hugo’s house without a quickening of imagination and ambition, so no one could leave that of Charles Dickens.

In addition to this museum Hugo has his monument in the Place Victor Hugo, far away in a residential desert in the north-west of Paris, a bronze figure of the poet as a young man seated on a rock, with Satire, Lyric Poetry and Fame attending him ; while on the façade of the house where he died, No.124 Avenue Victor Hugo, is a medallion portrait. He figures also in a fresco in the Hôtel de Ville. Dumas’ monument is in the garden of the Place Malesherbes in the Avenue de Villiers. Doré designed it, as was perhaps fitting. The sturdy Alexandre sits, pen in hand, on the summit, his West Indian hair curling vigorously into the sky, with d’Artagnan and three engrossed readers at the base. It is not quite what one would have wished ; but it is good to visit. His son, the dramatist, the author of that adorable joke against his father’s vanity— that he was capable of riding behind his own carriage to persuade people that he kept a black servant — has a monument close by; and the gallant general of whom one reads such brave stories in the first volume of the Mémoires is to be set there too, and then the Place, I am told, will be renamed the Place des Trois Dumas’.