“Waiting for Hugo: Time, Death, and Representation”
Prof. Mary Hunter, Art History, McGill University
Wed., March 15, 2023
5pm in E51-095
On May 18, 1885, Victor Hugo’s family announced that the famed 83-year-old writer’s death was imminent. From the moment this was declared, the press waited outside his home for any tidbit of news, and published prints showing his loved ones waiting around his deathbed. Details of Hugo’s own experience of waiting for death were also shared with the adoring public. When he died 4 days later, twelve artists were quickly summoned to depict his dead body. A physician injected zinc chloride into Hugo’s veins to slow his bodily decay, while artists, armed with pencils, paints, pastels, plaster and cameras, rushed to capture his likeness. After 9 days of deliberation and political turmoil, Hugo’s funeral ceremonies began. His body was transported to the Arc de Triomphe, where people lined up to see his casket. The next day, over two million people waited to watch the grand funeral procession that carried Hugo through the streets of Paris to his final resting place at the Panthéon.
This paper argues that the temporal mode of waiting was central to the narratives and visual representations of Hugo’s death and its aftermath. By exploring the tensions between the slow time of waiting for death and the fast time of journalism, commerce, and bodily decay, it analyzes how waiting for Hugo – to die, to be portrayed, and to be buried – was experienced in different ways, from the profoundly intimate and emotional to the empty and commodified.
Mary Hunter is Associate Professor of Art History at McGill, where she specializes in nineteenth-century French art and visual culture and teaches classes on modern and contemporary art. This talk is part of her current book project Waiting: Slow Time in the Impressionist Era, which explores the varied and various experiences and representations of waiting in nineteenth-century France.