The Comité Auguste Rodin under the direction of Jérôme Le Blay will include this work in their forthcoming Rodin Catalogue critique de l'oeuvre sculpté under the number 2012-3975B.
'I am sure no greater bust than Hugo has been done since antiquity,' the writer George Moore exulted over Rodin's Buste de Victor Hugo (Moore, quoted in F.V. Grunfeld, Rodin: A Biography, London, 1988, p. 160). Conceived in 1883, Buste de Victor Hugo is an early lifetime cast in bronze of one of the most important of Rodin's sculptures, and almost certainly the best-known of his portraits. By the time Rodin began to create his likeness of Hugo in 1883, the author was a titan, a great hero of the French republic, celebrated for both his writing and for the almost egalitarian, democratic passion that sang through so much of it.
Rodin was introduced to Hugo by the poet Edmond Bazire, who two years earlier had organised a festival dedicated to the veteran French author in which apparently a quarter of the Parisian population filed past his window while he looked down (see ibid., p. 152). Rodin had been encouraged by Bazire to create the portrait of one of the great figures of French life in part to emphasise that he was not using surmoulage, the accusation levelled against him of moulding the model of his exquisitely realistic L'age d'airain. Bazire probably could not have imagined how apt Hugo would be as a subject with this idea in mind: the writer had little interest in posing for the sculptor, who in the end had to resort to a number of ruses to create his portrait. Sometimes he would draw furtively on cigarette papers; family members in the Hugo household would ensure that he was seated at various positions at the table during meals in order to see the author from more angles. He also apparently kept clay on a wheel on the balcony and would duck out from his audience with Hugo to make adjustments. Sometimes, often because of behind-the-scenes persuasion of Hugo by various members of his entourage, he would consent to longer sittings. Eventually, though, Rodin had succeeded in creating a bust which eventually even gained the approval of its subject.
Rather than creating a mere likeness, Rodin aimed to capture the energy and spirit of Hugo both through his countenance and through the vigorous expressive modelling of the surface. 'He had an immense animal nature,' Rodin would recall, comparing him to 'something of a tiger, or an old lion' (Rodin, quoted in ibid., p. 156). It was this energy that Rodin sought to capture in his sculpture, rather than some simple likeness. That epic, heroic dimension would later be distilled into the various projects for monuments to Hugo that Rodin would create after the author's death. In most of them, the head of the author remains clearly derived from the model which has been immortalised here in this early cast of Buste de Victor Hugo.