After Victor Hugo’s death, and before the publication of his letters (many of which remain unpublished), Paul Maurice published Memoirs of Victor Hugo. This was not chronological autobiography but was, as Maurice remarked,
“A sort of haphazard chronique in which only striking incidents and occurrences are brought out, and lengthy and wearisome details are avoided. VICTOR HUGO’S long and chequered life was filled with experiences of the most diverse character—literature and politics, the court and the street, parliament and the theatre, labour, struggles, disappointments, exile and triumphs. Hence we get a series of pictures of infinite variety.”
In writing about some of the people we knew, Hugo gave us a glimpse into the lives of ‘forgotten’ people like the artist and sculptor Antonin Moyne, who suffered with mental health issues his whole life and finally ended it in February 1848.
Antonin Moyne, prior to February, 1848, was a maker of little figures and statuettes for the trade.
Little figures and statuettes! That is what we had come to. Trade had supplanted the State. How empty is history, how poor is art; inasmuch as there are no more big figures there are no more statues.
Antonin Moyne made rather a poor living out of his work. He had, however, been able to give his son Paul a good education and had got him into the Ecole Polytechnique. Towards 1847 the art-work business being already bad, he had added to his little figures portraits in pastel. With a statuette here, and a portrait there, he managed to get along.
After February the art-work business came to a complete standstill. The manufacturer who wanted a model for a candlestick or a clock, and the bourgeois who wanted a portrait, failed him. What was to be done? Antonin Moyne struggled on as best he could, used his old clothes, lived upon beans and potatoes, sold his knick-knacks to bric-à-brac dealers, pawned first his watch, then his silverware.
He lived in a little apartment in the Rue de Boursault, at No. 8, I think, at the corner of the Rue Labruyère.
The little apartment gradually became bare.
After June, Antonin Moyne solicited an order of the Government. The matter dragged along for six months. Three or four Cabinets succeeded each other and Louis Bonaparte had time to be nominated President. At length M. Leon Faucher gave Antonin Moyne an order for a bust, upon which the statuary would be able to make 600 francs. But he was informed that, the State funds being low, the bust would not be paid for until it was finished.
Distress came and hope went.
Antonin Moyne said one day to his wife, who was still young, having been married to him when she was only fifteen years old: “I will kill myself.”
The next day his wife found a loaded pistol under a piece of furniture. She took it and hid it. It appears that Antonin Moyne found it again.
His reason no doubt began to give way. He always carried a bludgeon and razor about with him. One day he said to his wife: “It is easy to kill one’s self with blows of a hammer.”
On one occasion he rose and opened the window with such violence that his wife rushed forward and threw her arms round him.
“What are you going to do?” she demanded.
“Just get a breath of air! And you, what do you want?”
“I am only embracing you,” she answered.
On March 18, 1849, a Sunday, I think it was, his wife said to him:
“I am going to church. Will you come with me?”
He was religious, and his wife, with loving watchfulness, remained with him as much as possible.
He replied: “Presently!” and went into the next room, which was his son’s bedroom.
A few minutes elapsed. Suddenly Mme. Antonin Moyne heard a noise similar to that made by the slamming of a front door. But she knew what it was. She started and cried: “It is that dreadful pistol!”
She rushed into the room her husband had entered, then recoiled in horror. She had seen a body stretched upon the floor.
She ran wildly about the house screaming for help. But no one came, either because everybody was out or because owing to the noise in the street she was not heard.
Then she returned, re-entered the room and knelt beside her husband. The shot had blown nearly all his head away. The blood streamed upon the floor, and the walls and furniture were spattered with brains.
Thus, marked by fatality, like Jean Goujon, his master, died Antonin Moyne, a name which henceforward will bring to mind two things—a horrible death and a charming talent.