Summary of Raymond Duchamp-Villon
Raymond Duchamp-Villon was, if not the first, then certainly the most successful, in applying Cubist principles to three-dimensional works. His sculptures employed geometric forms that brought his figures - human and animal - to the brink of pure abstraction. Through his fluid contours, Duchamp-Villon also succeeded in achieving a sense of dynamism and movement that was redolent of both the Cubists and the Italian Futurists. He enjoyed a close working relationship with his brothers, Marcel Duchamp, and Jacques Villon, and as a key member of the Puteaux Group, Duchamp-Villon was one of the most important practitioners and advocates for Cubism as it was introduced to the world in the early years of the 20th century. Indeed, shortly before his career and life was cut short by a combination of war and disease, he played a key role in two of the most important and influential exhibitions of the entire twentieth century: the Section d'Or, in Paris (1912), and the Armory Show, in New York (1913).
- While his early works were modelled in the naturalistic style of the great French modernist, Auguste Rodin, by the 1910s, Duchamp-Villon was engrossed in experiments with the Cubist technique of representing figures, not naturalistically, but rather through geometric shapes and conclave surfaces. His reduction and modification of the fluid sculpted form allowed him, in his words, "to compress an idea [and] to add to its strength".
- As a co-founder of the Puteaux Group, Duchamp-Villon, was at the forefront of the landmark cultural event, the Salon de la Section d'Or exhibition of 1912. Dissatisfied with the limited "brown" palettes of Picasso and Braque, the Puteaux breathed new life into Cubism with a more expansive, more animated, take on the movement. He was a member of a select cadre of artists - who became known collectively as the Salon Cubists - that helped make Cubism palatable to a wider audience; especially so in America where he featured a year later in the world-famous Armory Show of 1913.
- Throughout the development of his short career, Duchamp-Villon moved increasingly closer towards full abstraction; his crowning masterpiece being Horse (1914). Not only did he hone his skill at reducing forms to their geometric essence, and to fold space into the mass of the figure, Horse - a hybrid of animal and machine - also conveyed a tangible sense of dynamism and mechanical movement that saw him likened to the influential Futurist Umberto Boccioni.
- Duchamp-Villon simplified human figures saw him compared to his contemporary, Constantin Brâncuși (the Romanian referred to by some as the "patriarch of modern sculpture"). The comparison is made because both men, as well as placing emphasis on geometric line and balance, were inspired by Primitivism (as were their kindred spirits in the Fauve and Cubist movements). Duchamp-Villon's last work, Portrait of Professor Gosset (1918), shows this influence most clearly in its close resemblance to an African death mask, the like of which were allowing the avant garde to look beyond western influences.
The Life of Raymond Duchamp-Villon
Duchamp-Villon was an idealist at the forefront of the burgeoning avant-garde: "The sole purpose of the arts is neither description nor imitation", he said, "but the creation of unknown beings from elements which are always present but not apparent".
Important Art by Raymond Duchamp-Villon
Head of Baudelaire
Duchamp-Villon made five versions of this bust of the famous French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire. The poet was much admired by his literary friends at Puteaux, and Duchamp-Villon imbued his sculpture with an intensity befitting of Baudelaire's towering reputation within French cultural life. The historian Louis Hautecoeur compared the sculpture to an Egyptian bust "in which all detail has been suppressed". Indeed, Duchamp-Villon has rendered Baudelaire with simplified features, blank eyes, and a neutral yet intense expression that succeeded in capturing the poet's character more than model a close resemblance. The Philadelphia Museum of Art says of the bust: "The figure's blank eyes suggest the writer's visionary imagination, while the large, bulbous cranium references his enormous intellectual capacity", while the American art historian Judith Zilczer adds that Duchamp-Villon has "transformed the physical likeness of the [...] poet into an arresting symbol of intellectual power".
While the sculptural bust is primarily figurative, it does exhibit a degree of abstraction which was to become more of a feature in Duchamp-Villon's later sculptures. This piece shows that even at this early stage in his career, Duchamp-Villon was beginning to draw inspiration from Cubist paintings. Moreover, the sculpture represents a departure from his earliest works which were clearly influenced by the work of great French modernist, Auguste Rodin. Indeed, it has been argued that this sculpture may have been intended as a riposte to Rodin's more naturalistic and delicate rendering of the same subject (Rodin's Head of Baudelaire of 1898).
As a footnote, The Philadelphia Museum of Art states that: "Jacques Villon kept this plaster sculpture in his studio long after [his brother] Raymond's death in 1918. The severe geometric composition must have evoked fond memories of the many discussions it inspired among the Salon Cubists after the work was completed. Villon later recalled, 'I remember that about 1911 we sometimes used to say . . . that if Baudelaire's bust were to explode, it would do so along certain lines of force'". Meanwhile, Elsen wrote: "Duchamp-Villon's interest in Baudelaire must be fathomed from the sculpture itself. Was there a mutuality based on their both being visionaries, putting passion at the service of intellect and disciplined craft, and common aspirations for a modern art?".
Bronze made from plaster casts - Minneapolis Institute of Art & Philadelphia Museum of Art
Historian Albert Elsen writes that the "durability [and] excellence" of Duchamp-Villon's work "was the result of a hard won intellectual effort for which his earlier art does not fully prepare us". Maggy is a bronze bust depicting a human face with a confrontational expression. The woman's features are rendered through prominent lines, curves, and shapes. The deep sculptural carving of the figure's eyes showing Duchamp-Villon interest in the rendering of undulating, contrasting, and concave surfaces.
The bust is a portrait of Maggy, the wife of the painter Georges Ribemont-Dessaigne. It is significant as it marks the precise moment when Duchamp-Villon began creating Cubist works. As author Benedict Ajac writes, it shows Duchamp-Villon "[evolving] towards a more archaic stylization". Duchamp-Villon has begun to simplify the sculptural forms even further than in his previous sculptures. Here, he has reduced everything to volumes and undulations that imbue the portrait with a lively and energetic feel which might encapsulate the sitter's personality. His conscious reduction and modification of form conversely infuses the sculpture with more character. He himself once said that "to compress an idea is to add to its strength".
The Swedish nature and arts institution, Marabouparken, says of Duchamp Villon, that he "propagated for sculpture in close alliance with architecture and maintained public sculpture to be the most important and the most interesting" adding that he saw "sculpture as the ultimate form of architecture". Commenting specifically on Maggy, which forms part of the Institution's garden exhibition, it states: "The artist has peeled off all the details of the head and refined its features to formalized shapes. It is in the interaction between concave and convex shapes that Duchamp-Villon's own architectural interpretation of Cubism emerges".
Bronze with black patina - Dean and Goodwin Galleries
The Lovers features a sculptural motif with roots in classical mythology that regained popularity in sculpture of the late nineteenth century (as seen for example in Rodin's Kiss). The plaster relief, assumed to be the last of five works Duchamp-Villon produced on this theme, and one of several medallion reliefs of birds and animals that he had designed for architectural locations, is composed of two passionately embracing figures rendered through convex forms against a concave, hollowed-out outline. The Philadelphia Museum of Art says of The Lovers that by "Taking an erotic subject that is both timeless and universal, Duchamp-Villon transforms the pair of lovers into an abstract composition that subordinates detail to sweeping rhythms and harmony".
Duchamp-Villon's composition was in fact inspired by Aristide Maillol's relief Desire (1905-07), which similarly depicts a kneeling woman and man in a turbulent embrace. However, Duchamp has transformed Maillol's solid figurative lovers into abstract shapes and forms. This work thus fully demonstrates Duchamp-Villon's conversion from naturalism to Cubism, and having reduced the figures to geometrical components, he has managed to attain a sense of dynamism and fluidity in the swirling contours of the figures.
This unique blend of abstraction and vitality was what singled him out amongst modern French sculptors. As the PMA writes "The Lovers is a dramatic exploration of Cubist principles in the arena of sculpture. Its volumes and rhythms contain echoes of the Western tradition carried from antiquity to nineteenth-century artists such as Auguste Rodin, and the erotic subject matter is both timeless and universal. But its starkly chiseled forms and deliberately awkward grace make the sculpture unmistakably modern. Duchamp-Villon transformed the pair of lovers into an abstract composition that subordinates the elaboration of details to a sense of balletic harmony".
Plaster relief - Philadelphia Museum of Art
This sculpture depicts a nude figure perched on a base. The figure's knees are bent, one higher than the other, and the figure's left arm covers her chest. Her torso exhibits a noticeable twist which imbues the sculpture with great fluidity and movement. The figure's limbs can almost be characterised as geometrical shapes, and the figure's face is a blank smooth surface. No features are visible, apart from the subtle hint of a nose.
While the sculpture depicts a human figure, it is an incredibly simplified rendering which echoes the work of several of Duchamp-Villon's contemporaries, including Constantin Brancusi. As critic Judith Zilczer points out, this sculpture shows Duchamp-Villon progression as an artist, as it depicts him "[projecting] the formal reduction of his relief composition into sculpture in the round". Duchamp-Villon himself is recorded as having stated, "putting on gold [...] gives this piece its definitive appearance as I conceive it". The statement supports the view that Duchamp-Villon assigned careful attention to the effects that colour, surface, and material were able to have on a work of art.
Bronze - Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven
Duchamp-Villon worked on this piece, on and off, for some four years and while on leave from serving in the army. When seen from certain angles, this metal sculpture resembles the shape of a galloping horse. Hints of a horse's snout, mane and hoof can be discerned amongst the mechanical looking shapes and forms. For example, the horse's face is rendered through a clustering of rounded forms. From most angles, however, the sculpture appears purely abstract, featuring a complex interlocking of geometric shapes and forms. The National Sculpture Center of Dallas called Horse "a dynamic hybrid of horse and train [that] incorporates strong diagonals and simplified geometric forms to evoke a new era with the advent of the Industrial Revolution".
This is undoubtedly Duchamp-Villon's most celebrated work and exhibits a drastic new approach in his style that, as well as being influenced by his experiences on the battlefield, shows his interest in the overlap between Cubism and Futurism. Indeed, the sense of motion and dynamism echoes the style of the Italian artist Umberto Boccioni who Duchamp-Villon knew personally. As historian and curator Lucy Flint writes: "The visual movement of the pistons, wheels, and shafts of this sculpture turns a creature of nature into a poised mechanical dynamo". Preparatory sketches for the sculpture show in fact a more naturalistic rendering of a horse; with cavalry replaced by machine guns and armoured tanks, Duchamp-Villon transfers this into the transformation from horse into a conglomeration of abstract shapes.
Duchamp-Villon said of the burgeoning technological age: "The machine's power is obvious to us and we hardly conceive of living beings without it; we're strangely moved by the rapid contacts of people and things and unconsciously we grow accustomed to perceiving the force of one through the forces subdued by the other". Elsen argued, in fact, that "Horse is one of the true creations in the history of sculpture. Its original version and evolution through several studies is still one of the great events of modern sculpture. In 1913, several months after the 1912 Futurist exhibition in Paris, Duchamp-Villon wrote to Walter Pach about how 'the power of the machine imposes itself upon us and we can scarcely conceive living bodies without it.' But until the Horse mechanical reference did not even implicitly enter his work as it did in the paintings of [his brother] Marcel Duchamp".
Bronze - Collection of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., New York
Portrait of Professor Gosset
The bust is composed of sculpted geometric shapes and forms that suggest a human face. Two eyes are connoted by two concave spheres; cheekbones are rendered through undulating raised surfaces; and a mouth is represented by a slight concave recession. This sculpture was produced during Duchamp-Villon's battle with typhoid fever and the last work he ever made. It is in fact a portrait of one of the surgeons who treated him while he was fighting at the front during World War I. This sculpture is by far the most sharply reduced of all of Duchamp-Villon's sculptural portraits. Zilczer writes that Professor Gosset has been reduced "so drastically" to the extent that the sculpture "resembles a death's head".
Elsen wrote: "All through the treatment of heads [Duchamp-Villon] denied the existence of the iris as if it were something not appropriate for sculptural distinction apart from the eyeball; hence the affinity of his faces with those of Egyptian, Archaic Greek and early medieval sculpture. The Philadelphia Museum of Art adds that: "Jacques Villon kept this plaster sculpture in his studio long after [his brother] Raymond's death in 1918. The severe geometric composition must have evoked fond memories of the many discussions it inspired among the Salon Cubists after the work was completed".
Bronze - The Art Institute of Chicago
Biography of Raymond Duchamp-Villon
Pierre-Maurice-Raymond Duchamp was born on November 15, 1897, in Damville, Eure, in the Normandy region of France. He was the second of six children in a tight knit family and, by his own account, enjoyed a happy, peaceful, and financially comfortable upbringing. Raymond - with Marcel, Suzanne, and Jacques - was one of four Duchamp siblings to leave their mark on the early-twentieth century artworld. Their father, Eugene Duchamp, was Notary in the provincial town of Blainville, but it was from their mother, Lucie Duchamp, herself an accomplished musician and amateur painter, that the children inherited their love of art. It is likely Duchamp-Villon was also encouraged by his maternal grandfather, Emile Frédéric Nicolle, who was a printmaker of considerable repute within the local port-town of Rouen.
Early Training and Work
Duchamp-Villon had originally planned to pursue a career as a doctor. Indeed, in 1894 he moved to Paris to study medicine at the prestigious Sorbonne University, but when he contracted rheumatic fever in 1898, he was obliged to withdraw from the University and to terminate his studies. While in recovery, he started experimenting with plastic art and sculpture. Around 1900, he made the decision to dedicate himself to sculpture, altering his name to Raymond Duchamp-Villon to distinguish himself from his siblings, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Villon and Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti. Duchamp-Villon's father objected to all his children's pursuit of artistic professions. But, to his credit, he put his objections to one side by providing each with a small stipend.
Through practice Duchamp-Villon became very skilled in woodcarving, as well as in stone and bronze sculpture. In 1901 he settled in Paris and began regularly exhibiting his work. It was so well received, he was admitted to the Salon of the highly respected Societé Nationale des Beaux-Arts later that year. He continued to exhibit work at the Salon until 1903. In 1905, Duchamp-Villon exhibited alongside his brother, Jacques Villon, at a joint exhibition at Galerie Legrip in Rouen. These small-scale pieces betrayed a variety of stylistic influences, including the linearity of Art Nouveau and, most of all, the rugged naturalism of Auguste Rodin. But, as art critic Albert Elsen observed, "Like many other intelligent and alert young sculptors in their twenties and in Paris after 1900, Duchamp-Villon was highly susceptible to new ideas, particularly those that provided alternatives to naturalism or the 'cult of nature', and 'surface beauty' in sculpture [and in addition to] Rodin's exhibited work, he witnessed the discoveries and early development of Maillol, Nadelman, Brâncuși, Archipenko, Lehmbruck, Boccioni, and may have known Derain's stone sculptures of 1906 and 1907".
In 1907, Duchamp-Villon, and his wife Yvonne, left the centre of Paris and moved to the suburb of Puteaux to set up a studio close to Jacques (Duchamp) and the painter Frantisek Kupka. Marcel (Duchamp) was living in the nearby city of Neuilly and would often visit his brothers. Over the following years, Duchamp-Villon's style became slowly but progressively more abstract. He began to reduce and simplify his sculptural forms and to replace textured surfaces with abstract shapes. His stylistic evolution was no doubt due to his increasing awareness of modernist forms which he gained (in part) while working as a juror of the sculpture section at the Salon d'Automne (a position he was awarded in 1907).
Duchamp-Villon was very likely inspired by Rodin's Walking Man which, as Elsen explains, "was the clou or central attraction of its public exhibition [in Paris] in 1907". He writes that Duchamp-Villon's preference for "depriving the human form of some of its parts and learning for himself that completeness in sculpture need not presuppose the whole figure".
In the quieter environment of Puteaux, meanwhile, Duchamp-Villon became much closer to Jacques (Villon). They would meet frequently with other artists, including Kupka, Albert Gleizes, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia, and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The group would meet on Mondays at Jean Metzinger's studio in nearby Courbevoie, and on Sundays at Puteaux, at Jacque's residence. Far from central Paris, the Puteaux Group (as they later became known) would debate the on-going artistic developments in Paris and discuss new innovations. As The National Sculpture Center in Dallas states, "Their topics of discussion kept pace with the rapidly changing landscape of the time regarding art, photography, philosophy, poetry, literature, math and science [and] Duchamp-Villon adopted themes in his sculptures to reflect the new century's ideas".
The Puteaux Group was generally well disposed towards Cubism but critical of the dour "brown" palettes preferred by Picasso and Braque (neither of whom ever joined a Puteaux meeting). The Puteaux members started discussing the stylistic and conceptual possibilities for taking this avant garde practice of Cubism forward. But, as Elsen comments, "Duchamp-Villon did not want a complete break with tradition - only what he felt were outworn, restrictive conventions. There were conventions in which he was willing to participate. Like thousands of sculptors [in the years prior to the Great War] he knew that sculpture literally had a home in the modern apartment and garden, or in public buildings, squares, parks and museums". It was in this mindset that Duchamp-Villon began to formulate artistic theories concerning the very essence of sculpture. In both unpublished manuscripts and published articles, he expressed several radical ideas concerning the function and exhibition of sculptural works of art. In 1912, for example, he criticised elitist French museum culture and expressed a fervent desire for sculpture to be integrated with its surrounding architectural or environmental surroundings.
In October 1912, Duchamp-Villon and his brothers co-organised the famous exhibition of Cubism - Section d'Or exhibition - at the Galerie de la Boetie in Paris. It proved to be the most important Cubist exhibition to date and, with its preference for a more expansive color range, brought it closer to public recognition and acceptance. This group became known as the "Salon Cubists" (as opposed to Picasso and Braque who were the dubbed the "Gallery Cubists"). The following year, Duchamp-Villon and his brother Marcel were given the opportunity to exhibit at the renowned Armory Show in New York, the event that effectively introduced the European avant-garde to the North American continent. That same year (1913), Duchamp-Villon exhibited at the Galerie Andre Groult in Paris, and at the Galerie S.V.U. Manes in Prague and, in 1914, the Strum Gallery in Berlin. Between them, these exhibitions confirmed Duchamp-Villon as one of the most gifted of the modern sculptors.
Duchamp-Villon's Cubist experiments were interrupted with the onset of World War One when he enlisted as a medical officer in a cavalry regiment. He was posted to a hospital in Saint Germain before being transferred to the front in 1915. While on leave, Duchamp-Villon continued to work on what would become his most celebrated sculpture, Horse; a mechanical and abstract rendering of a horse in motion that encapsulated the powerful new machine age (that Duchamp-Villon was experiencing first hand on the front).
Duchamp-Villon had started to research the dynamics of the horse before he enlisted in the army. Magnificent creature though it is, for the artist the horse became less an animal and more a symbol of strength. He was especially focused on the sheer power of the horse's gallop and envisioned this as a symbol of twenty-first century man and, for him, the piston was the machine equivalent to the horse's leg muscle. Elsen writes: "How much the sculptor's experience as a doctor attached to the Eleventh Regiment of Cuirassier's, which improved his horsemanship, influenced changes in the sculpture is not clear. In retrospect the Horse seemed to have evolved from a disciplined, elegant but immobilized subject trained for sport and show into a generalized metaphor not of speed but of latent power". And speaking of the success of the finished work, Elsen added, "Though firmly anchored to the ground it is a creature capable of articulated, variable and graceful movement [...] The posture alone makes the Horse unique in the history of equestrian sculpture".
Duchamp-Villon's last work was a bust entitled Portrait of Professor Gosset (1918). It was a portrait - closer in style, in fact, to a death head - of one of the surgeons treating him for typhoid fever and proved a fitting swansong for an artist cut down in his prime. It was the most geometrically reduced bust of his career that carried the influence of Egyptian, Classical, and medieval sculpture.
Duchamp-Villon contracted typhoid fever in late 1916 while stationed at Champagne. The disease would result in his death on October 9, 1918, in the military hospital at Cannes. His early death, aged just 42, meant that many of his plaster moulds were never cast in bronze. The duty befell his friends, family, and heirs who helped preserve his legacy by casting his works. Jacques Villon in fact donated many of his brother's plaster works to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, making the Museum a center for Duchamp-Villon's work in the United States.
The Legacy of Raymond Duchamp-Villon
The National Sculpture Center in Dallas says of Duchamp-Villon that he was "Driven by a strong intellect, an artistic family, and the quest to assert a new mode of sculpture [and] was an emerging master when he died at the age of 42 of strep infection contracted during his wartime service as a medical underofficer". Duchamp-Villon's career was indeed brief, but, nevertheless, highly impactful; making him one of the iconic early twentieth century sculptors. Together with his siblings, moreover, he made vital contributions to the modernist movement that significantly altered the course of world art. While Marcel is perhaps justly regarded the most influential of the Duchamp siblings, Duchamp-Villon's importance as a pioneering sculptor should not be overlooked in the recording of the Duchamp family legacy.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art writes that Duchamp-Villon's "choice of a deep relief format reflects his embrace of Cubism as a program for a complete environment, leading beyond painting to sculpture and architecture. He wed the avant-garde notions of his artistic circle with the classical ideal of the integration of the arts into daily life [He] was committed to the development of a practice of monumental public sculpture as well as the modernization of ornamental carving for architectural interiors and facades". Elsen adds that Duchamp Villon "was one of the first sculptors, along with Brâncuși and Archipenko, to become 'shape' conscious, as we use the word today ... [and that] ideals of precision and economy presupposed a distillation of possibilities for form rather than starting from a simple geometrical shape". Duchamp Villon himself likened his working process to the art of constructing written sentences, "The sculptures our minds prefer", he said, "express most in the least time".
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Raymond Duchamp-Villon
- Raymond Duchamp-VillonOur PickBy George Heard Hamilton
- Duchamp-Villon: Collections du Centre Georges Pompidou, Musee national d'art moderne et du Musee des beaux-arts de RouenBy Centre Georges Pompidou-Ircam
- The Brothers Duchamp: Jacques Villon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Marcel DuchampBy Pierre Cabanne
- European Painting and Sculpture, Ca. 1770-1937, in the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of DesignBy Daniel Rosenfeld