Bohemianism and Counter-Culture

Victor Hugo and Bohemia


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Victor Hugo was not a bohemian, and his connections to Bohemia were tenuous at best. He was always a member of the bourgeoisie, and designated leader of of the Romantic movement. However, his involvement with the arts affected and influenced the Bohemian movement in three major ways.


  • As the leader of a Romantic salon (for more information on salons in general, click here), Hugo influenced many of the people who would emulate Romantic ideals, and these ideals would influence the artists and writers of Bohemia.
  • Having established his own salon, Hugo invited artists to join it, even though his society had been, up to that point, predominantly literary.
  • Finally, testament to Hugo's open-mindedness in relation to those who participated in the arts culminated in the wild production of his play Hernani, in which Bohemia played a major role.
Hugo's political and social beliefs and standpoints wavered from right to left throughout his life, and he was often virtually the definition of contradiction. André Maurois muses over this in his 1954 book Olympio: The Life of Victor Hugo:

"How came it that this prudent, economical man was also generous? That this chaste adolescent, this model father, grew to be, in his last years, an aging faun? That this legitimist changed, first into a Bonapartist, only, later still, to be hailed as the grandfather of the Republic? That this pacifist could sing, better than anybody, of the glories of the flags of Wagram? That this bourgeois in the eyes of other bourgeois came to assume the stature of a rebel? These are the questions that every biographer of Victor Hugo must answer."

We can only begin to answer these questions here, and to do so we'll look at Hugo's connections to Bohemia.

A Romantic Leader/Classical Rebel

Hugo established his own salon in 1827 after the publication of his play called Cromwell. The preface to this work heavily affected many young artists of the time, and it became a manifesto of the Romantic cause. In this preface, Hugo argued for "more vitality, variety, and local colour in the academic school of history-painting as well as in the drama" (Easton 44). Essentially what he was arguing for was a romantic rebirth of drama. This is a classic example of a school of art rebelling against its predecessor, (Romantics against the Classicals) and Hugo made a big impact on those who read this preface, and many of these artistic values were the kind held by the bohemian artists and writers. Bohemia naturally sprang from the Romantic movement, and thus Hugo was an influence.

A Leader to Artists and Writers Alike

Hugo also went against the grain by bringing painters into his salon, among a society which had been predominantly literary. These artists greatly admired Hugo, and Easton believes that "the compliance of the artist sprang from something deeper, from a long history of humility - and so from gratitude" (Easton 47).

  This is a picture of the salon of Nordier, which Hugo frequented before starting his own.
For too long, the world of the artist had been encompassed within "the libretto, the novel, and the pamphlet," and the writer had looked down upon him. Now, here was this outstanding, highly respected literary figure welcoming artists into his own salon and writing literature which provided new and exciting subject matter for the painters who based their work on it (Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris is a fine example of such a work).

The Battle of Hernani

Click here to read about the ultimate triumph of Romanticism over Classicism.

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