drouet parlor victor hugo mansion

This startling room, obviously from the middle of the 19th century, belonged to an actress named Juliette Drouet, who wasn’t really that famous as an actress. Arguably she was more famous as a courtesan in Paris in the 1830s, and even more famous than that as the lover of French writer Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables. Drouet first took up with Hugo in 1833, and in the 1850s, when he entered self-imposed exile from France on two of the Channel Islands, Jersey and Guernsey, Drouet went to live with him. She also served as his secretary. This room was decorated for her in the mansion Hugo owned on Guernsey, which was known as Hauteville House. Hugo bought it and lived there from 1856 until 1870. After the deaths of Hugo and Drouet (she in 1883, he in 1885) the room was moved to another residence associated with Hugo, a mansion in Paris which today functions as a museum. This is where it is today, but it’s evidently very faithful to its original appearance from about 1864.

This room clearly shows the fanciful fascination that upper-class Europeans had with China and the Orient during the 19th century. “Orientalism” was definitely a Eurocentric and often racist way to view Asian culture, but importers and imitators made millions in the Victorian era by selling genuine and imitation versions of furniture, plates, clothing and artwork made in or inspired by items from China. Hugo himself is believed to have directed the decoration of this room. Note the matching plates on the right and the heavy use of lacquered wood in the fireplace, mantel and art panels surrounding it. There probably are many genuine antiques from late Qing Dynasty China (or perhaps even earlier) in this room, but my guess is that there are also European-made imitations as well. Upper-class intelligentsia at this time, especially women, liked to cultivate and air of exoticism and worldliness. Hugo and Drouet probably received guests in this room from time to time.

Amazing, once again, what you can learn from a simple picture of a room!

This photo was taken in 2012 by Wikimedia Commons user “Vassil,” but was donated into the public domain via Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.