A name sometimes marks a life. The name Victor Hugo carries so much weight that his descendants have no alternative but to live under the crushing importance of their ancestor, either accepting that nothing they will achieve or think will compare, or trying rebelliously to emulate his achievements.
Jean Hugo, a great grandson of the patriarch would seem to have chosen an unusual path. Rather than struggling his way through life shackled by the heavy inheritance, or using it socially to his advantage, he chose to ignore it. He was remarkable in shrugging off promotion of his creative outlets. His talents, his exceptional list of friends and the circles in which he mixed, would have been sufficient to give him some Olympian stature. Picasso kept telling him “you do nothing for your fame!”.
One of his many friends, Gustave Thibon, summarizes distinctively his soul: “He was a strange being, admirable, a mystic, a lover, a great artist who no doubt sinned by his excess of modesty”. He had the artist’s temperament in his blood. As did his great grandfather, he sketched and drew relentlessly from an early age.
His life was sliced in two equal parts, like the plates of a diptych, each of them defined by a woman. In the first, against the backdrop of the tumultuous Paris of the twenties, he met his first wife, Valentine Gross, at the apartment of Madame Alfred Edwards, later better known by the name of her third husband, Misia Sert. He married her, having Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau as witnesses to the wedding. During this period, his work centered on the theatre, lending his talents to many Cocteau plays and collaborating with Satie, Poulenc and even Carl Theodor Dreyer in his film, “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. Yet, Jean was moving gradually away from the temptations of Parisian life. A mystic streak was stirring in his blood.
In 1931 his growing discomfort with urban pleasures and the failure of his ten-year marriage precipitated his move to the country. At Lunel, near Montpellier, in the property inherited from his grandmother, he began experimenting with oils and endowing his choice of colors with a powerful luminosity. His new wife, Lauretta Hope-Nicolson, bore him seven children. Both devout Catholics, they lived in an old-fashioned style, entertaining lavishly and encouraging friends to stay for long periods.
Jean Hugo’s art, much like a large part of his existence, had to do with searching for his own voice while staying away from the noise and influence of established currents. The exploration of his inner life emerged in his paintings and watercolors with a touch of innocence, almost primitive. Yet its subtle delicacy and crispness raises his work to a standard of prominence he never sought to cultivate.