Jean Hugo, French (1894 - 1984)

Jean Hugo (19 November 1894 – 21 June 1984) was a painter, illustrator, theatre designer and author. He was born in Paris and died in his home at the Mas de Fourques, near Lunel, France. Brought up in a lively artistic environment, he began teaching himself drawing and painting and wrote essays and poetry from a very early age. His artistic career spans the 20th century. From his early sketches of the First World War, through the creative ferment of the Parisian interwar years, and up to his death in 1984. He was part of a number of artistic circles that included Jean Cocteau, Raymond Radiguet, Pablo Picasso, Georges Auric, Erik Satie, Blaise Cendrars, Marie-Laure de Noailles, Paul Eluard, Francis Poulenc, Charles Dullin, Louis Jouvet, Colette, Marcel Proust, Jacques Maritain, Max Jacob and Carl Theodor Dreyer - Jean Hugo designed the sets and costumes for The Passion of Joan of Arc) - Marie Bell, Louise de Vilmorin, Cecil Beaton and many others.

« Jean Hugo was calm, kind and generous. Life flowed calmly before him and we knew of no enemies of his. He carried the heavy burden of his family name with elegance. Like his father Georges Hugo he was a man of the world, a man of great distinction in heart and spirit, a kind friend, a man you would want to have in your life.” Maurice Sachs, La Décade de l’illusion (Paris, Gallimard, 1950 p. 14-16)

Jean Hugo was the great-grandson of the poet Victor Hugo. His grandfather, Charles Hugo was a journalist, pioneer of early photographic techniques and a campaigner against the death penalty, and his father Georges Hugo was a published author and a recognised painter.

Jean Hugo was married twice, first in 1919 to Valentine Hugo (née Valentine Gross, no children from this marriage) and then in 1949 to Lauretta Hope-Nicholson, daughter of Hedley Hope-Nicholson (Obituary of Lauretta Hugo from The Independent, 2005). Jean Hugo and Lauretta had seven children, several of whom have gone on to establish successful careers in the arts.

Jean Hugo's half-brother Francois Hugo designed limited-edition jewellery interpretations for Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Max Ernst and Coco Chanel during the '20s Modern period.

Pierre Hugo - son of Francois Hugo - is also a jewellery designer and has written a book about the artistic legacy of the Hugo family, Les Hugo - Un Temoignage (Rocher, France, 2007)

Jean Hugo is predominantly known for his sketches and oil or gouache paintings, which are often executed in small formats. He also illustrated books, designed theatre sets and costumes and produced ceramics, murals, textile designs...His paintings can be viewed at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, and are also present in collections in London, Tokyo, Toronto, Paris, Marseille, and at the Musee Fabre in Montpellier, France.

Jean Hugo’s painting is unique in the artistic panorama of the first half of the 20th century and maintains an authentic originality while evoking certain avant-garde themes of magical realism or metaphysical painting. At the start of the 1930s, in between naïve and happy scenes and various theatrical projects - such as Jean Cocteau’s Les mariés de la Tour Eiffel – he produced a series of masterful works in brooding, unsettling, tones (Solitude, 1933).

He showed an interest in forest scenes (L'Ermite de Meudon, 1933) and religious themes (La Cène, 1933). L'Imposteur (1931) and La Baie des Trépassés (1932) were produced in the same period. His painting were based on the sketchbooks that he had with him at all times. He used to say that “Inspiration comes naturally but one has to arrange regular meetings with it”.

L'Imposteur (1931) concludes Jean Hugo first artistic period, which coincides with his move from Paris to the family property at the Mas de Fourques, Lunel, France, following the death of his grandmother. This imposing painting is a masterful assembly of the most important insights he had acquired thus far: the lessons of the Italian primitives, of Henri Rousseau, of Poussin and Picasso, sources of inspiration on which he is constantly drawing. The subject of the painting evokes the discomfort of the catechumen in the midst of the faithful, prevented from taking communion during Christmas mass at the Church of Saint-Francois in Montpellier. The painting is set in the countryside around Lunel, with its vineyards and low scrubland. The tense and complex composition of the work is extremely well executed. No element, line, motif, nuance of colour or object is secondary. Each element contributes to the pictorial vision. The delicate volumes are bathed in an intense luminosity and stand out from the background. The figures are fixed in the space by superimposed connections, in the Florentine manner.

In the middle of the 1930s, he began using oil paints to create his larger compositions while continuing to paint with tempera. [[

Jean Hugo’s work bears witness to his intention to work outside of current trends and fashionable theories. He never felt the need to participate in the artistic debates of his time and paid the price for it by never achieving wide recognition of his work by the general public.

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