Biography of Jean Metzinger
Jean Metzinger was born into a family of military prominence. His great-grandfather, Nicolas Metzinger, had served under Napoleon Bonaparte, whilst a street in Jean's birthplace of Nantes was named after his grandfather, Charles Henri Metzinger, a French general who conquered Madagascar. Following the early death of his father, Eugène François Metzinger, Jean Metzinger shunned his military heritage, choosing instead to follow in the steps of his mother, Eugénie Louise Argoud, who worked as a professor of music. Nevertheless, the art historian and curator Daniel Robbins proposes that this military background made Metzinger an "unusually sardonic" character.
During his childhood, Metzinger developed a keen interest in music, painting and mathematics, a grouping which would prove pivotal to his painting style. At the age of seventeen, Metzinger enrolled as a student at the Académie Cours Cambronne in Nantes. Here he attended the classes of the portrait painter Hippolyte Touront who taught in a traditional and academically rigorous manner.
Early Training and Work
In 1903 (after having completed his formal studies) Metzinger submitted three paintings to the (jury-free) Salon des Indépendants all of which sold. With the money he made he was able to move to Paris. Metzinger was warmly received in the Parisian art scene and exhibited regularly from the moment he arrived. Indeed, he participated in the first Salon d'Automne (like the Salon des Indépendants as an alternative, if slightly more selective, challenge to the "official" Paris Salon) exhibition of 1903. His works of this period were largely French landscapes and seascapes which he had painted around the regions of Caen, Le Croisic in Brittany, and Arromanches in Calvados.
Once settled in Paris, Metzinger started to experiment more and more with Neo-Impressionism, taking his lead from figures such as Georges Seurat and Henri-Edmond Cross. Indeed, Neo-Impressionism was enjoying a surge in popularity in France following a large Paul Signac exhibition in December 1904, a major Seurat retrospective at the Salon des Indépendants in 1905 and a successful solo exhibition by Cross at the Galerie Druet, also in 1905. Metzinger's more daring use of geometry and color soon caught the attention of the avant-garde art dealer Berthe Weill who become Metzinger's chief benefactor.
Metzinger's style soon evolved from the detailed Divisionist style towards the larger, freer brushstrokes and more simplified forms associated with the rise of Fauvism. His offering of eight paintings at the 1905 Salon des Indépendants confirmed this Fauvist shift and he quickly became associated with artists such as André Derain and Henri Matisse (even assisting the latter in the hanging of the Salon). In 1906 Metzinger was himself elected to the Salon's hanging committee, and then, in 1908, he cemented his growing reputation by exhibiting with the Fauvists at the Salon de la Toison d'Or in Moscow.
For Metzinger, the first decade of the twentieth century was defined by the contacts he made in Paris and the artistic experiments he undertook in the company of fellow avant-gardists. In 1906, for instance, Metzinger formed a close friendship with Robert Delaunay - who, through his faceted, vibrant, compositions, and their celebration and the idea of the belle époque, gave rise to the Orphism movement - painted each other's portraits. These pieces experimented with the color effects associated with Divisionism, and which, according to critics like Louis Chassevent, helped distinguish Metzinger's work from other Fauves and Neo-Impressionists.
Also in 1906, Metzinger met Albert Gleizes at the Salon des Indépendants and soon thereafter visited his studio in Courbevoie. This was the beginnings of a lifelong friendship with Gleizes who was also experimenting with fractured forms and new perspectives in painting. Metzinger exhibited again with the Berthe Weill gallery in 1907 with Robert Delaunay, and in 1908 with André Derain, Fernand Léger and Pablo Picasso. It was during this period he made the acquaintance of the poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire with whom he shared an instant intellectual connection. Metzinger rounded off this most successful of decades with his marriage to Lucie Soubiron on December 30, 1909.
In 1910 Metzinger presented his Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire and the Salon des Indépendants. The portrait was hailed by the sitter as the first ever Cubist portrait and he wrote of the artist: "Metzinger aims high. He undertakes - a little coldly perhaps - tasks from which not many masters would be able to extricate themselves". Metzinger's portrait was not, however, positively received by everyone who attended the 1910 Salon. The art critic Louis Vauxcelles wrote for instance that Metzinger, and his contemporaries Gleizes, Léger, Delaunay and Henri le Fauconnier, were "ignorant geometers, reducing the human body, the site, to pallid cubes".
Gleizes claimed that it was not until their coming together at the Salon d'Automne later in 1910 that this group "seriously discovered one another and understood what affinities brought us together". From this point onward the group regularly socialized and exchanged ideas, discussing, amongst other things, which artists of the past influenced them most and what the future of painting might hold for them. Favorites were Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Gleizes said of these meetings: "How many conversations took place among us apropos of these great ancestors, how many times we endeavored to guess at the genesis of their works!". In 1910 Metzinger published an article in the journal Pan about Picasso and Braque and their avant-gardist experiments with multiple viewpoints of a single object. It anticipated by two years one of the most important treatise in the history of modern art, Du Cubisme, written with his friend Gleizes.
In 1911 the group participated in the notorious Salle 41 at the Salon des Indépendants. Though confined to a single room (Salle 41) it was the first group exhibition of Cubist painters. It earned the group the name of the "Salon Cubists" (and did not feature works by Picasso or Braque who were bound by exclusive contracts to the influential art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler). The exhibition introduced Cubism to the general public and caused a scandal. The critic Phillip Barcio writes that following the Salle 41 exhibition, the Salon Cubists "began meeting formally in the Paris suburbs, either at the studio of Albert Gleizes in Courbevoie, or at the home of the Duchamp brothers in Puteaux. That second meeting place gave the Groupe de Puteaux, or Puteaux Group, its name. At these meetings, the group had deep discussions of what Cubism is and is not, and outlined both its roots and its goals".
Barcio adds that by 1912 Groupe de Puteaux had "a fully formed conception of their method [and] so to mark the moment they mounted the first ever major Cubist exhibition: La Section d'Or [at the Galerie de la Boétie in Paris]". It was as a supplement to La Section d'Or that Gleizes and Metzinger conceived of Du Cubisme; what Barcio describes as " the first - and only - explanation of Cubism written by early Cubist artists themselves".
Du Cubisme would make a significant impact on the art world and was later translated into several languages and illustrated by black and white reproductions by eleven artists - Metzinger, Gleizes, Picasso, Braque, Paul Cézanne, Fernand Léger, Marcel Duchamp, Juan Gris, Francis Picabia, André Derain and Marie Laurencin - all of whom had been influenced by, or had fully embraced, the Cubist philosophy. In the text itself, the authors mostly explained the principles and techniques of revealing a subject through multiple perspectives as a means of capturing time, movement, and fluidity.
But the authors also defended the will of the modern artist to test the boundaries of art: "That the ultimate end of painting is to reach the masses, we have agreed; it is, however, not in the language of the masses that painting should address the masses, but in its own language, in order to move, to dominate, to direct, and not in order to be understood. It is the same with religions. The artist who abstains from all concessions, who does not explain himself and who tells nothing, accumulates an internal strength whose radiance enlightens all around ... for the partial liberties conquered by Courbet, Manet, Cézanne, and the impressionists, Cubism substitutes a boundless liberty".
Following the publication of Du Cubisme, Metzinger was appointed to the faculty of the Académie de la Palette, which at the time was under the directorship of Le Fauconnier. Among Metzinger's students at the Académie were the Russian avant-gardists Varvara Stepanova and Lyubov Popova. The following year, Metzinger took on additional teaching positions at the Académie Arenius and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. He continued to exhibit in the principal salons of Paris and in 1913 joined part of the famous Exhibition of Cubist and Futurist Pictures (better known as The Armory Show), which toured the United States for a year, introducing American audiences to European modernism.
In 1913, Apollinaire wrote his own treatise on Cubism: Les Peintres Cubistes: Méditations Esthétiques. In the text, Apollinaire described Metzinger as "the third Cubist", after Picasso and Braque. Attributing four different types of Cubism - scientific, physical, orphic, and instinctive - Apollinaire placed Metzinger in the first category, as his work was characterized by a sense of purity, of "rigorous logic", and of art which extends deeper than conventional vision. Apollinaire wrote: "a painting by Metzinger always contains its own explanation...and is something unique it seems to me, in the history of art".
The First World War caused great disruption to the Parisian avant-garde as artists scattered internationally amidst the chaos: Gleizes initially enlisted in the French army before moving to New York in 1915; Matisse relocated to the French Riviera and Le Fauconnier to the Netherlands. Metzinger, on the other hand, remained and worked as a medical orderly, continuing to evolve his artistic work (as best he could, given the circumstances) throughout the war. He continued to exhibit (albeit irregularly) during the First World War. His most notable exhibition was at the Annual Exhibition of Modern Art at the Bourgeois Gallery in New York, organized by the critic Walter Pach, in the spring of 1916. This was one of the largest showcases of modern art in the United States and married the work of the burgeoning American avant-garde with paintings by key figures from Europe including Matisse, Picasso, and Marcel Duchamp.
During the war and post-war years Metzinger helped develop a style that would be later coined by the French poet and art critic Maurice Raynal as "Crystal Cubism". Characterized by larger overlapping and interweaving geometric planes, Crystal Cubism was a move away from the investigations into perspective which typified Metzinger's earlier work. It was a stripped down form of Cubism (and was given various other names including classical Cubism, pure Cubism, advanced Cubism and pure Cubism) that placed most emphasis on the flat surface and overlapping planes. In a letter to Gleizes dated July 4, 1916, Metzinger wrote of his strides forward in his theories of painting: "The geometry of the fourth space has no more secrets for me ... everything is number". He detailed the need to measure and reduce shape and space in order to render it comprehensible. These rules were suited to more than just painting, but to architecture, music, and the other visual arts too: "all lasting art is never anything more than a mathematical expression of the relations that exist between what is inside and what is outside, the self and the world", he told his good friend.
Metzinger signed a three-year "exclusive-rights" contract with the art dealer Léonce Rosenberg who already represented other Crystal Cubists - including Gleizes, Gris, and Henri Laurens - on similar contracts. Rosenberg was the proprietor of the newly opened Galerie de l'Effort Moderne, which, following the end of the First World War, quickly became the epicenter for modern art in Paris. The art historian Peter Brooke wrote: "As post-war reconstruction began, so too did a series of exhibitions at Léonce Rosenberg's Galerie de L'Effort Moderne: order and the allegiance to the aesthetically pure remained the prevailing tendency. The collective phenomenon of Cubism once again - now in its advanced revisionist form - became part of a widely discussed development in French culture. Crystal Cubism was the culmination of a continuous narrowing of scope in the name of a return to order; based upon the observation of the artists relation to nature, rather than on the nature of reality itself". Rosenberg organized a series of solo shows for his artists, including shows for Metzinger in January 1919 and February 1921. This success in Metzinger's post-war career was sadly not mirrored in his personal life. His wife Lucie died in 1918, and his daughter committed suicide shortly thereafter.
Once his three-year contract with Rosenberg expired, it was extended to a fifteen-year arrangement, the added financial security allowing Metzinger to be freer to experiment. Indeed, throughout the 1920s he began to include more realistic elements in his work, including depictions of still life, urban life, and direct references to technology. His love of experimentation saw his work incorporate elements of Surrealism, yet despite difficulties of fixing his work within a dedicated movement, Metzinger remained ever consistent in his use of bold color and concerns with geometry, perspective, and dimension. It was around this time too that he met the French artist Suzanne Phocas with whom he became romantically involved. The couple married in 1929 and continued to inspire one another's work throughout the decades (Phocas painted Portrait of Metzinger in 1926, and Metzinger painted Suzanne Phocas au sombrero in 1940, for instance).
In his later career Metzinger continued to exhibit as widely and as frequently as possible. His popularity in London, for example, can be seen in his solo shows at both the Leicester Galleries in 1930 and the Hanover Gallery in 1932. Following on from the group shows he had previously participated in in the United States, Metzinger also secured a late career retrospective at the Arts Club in Chicago in 1953. He ceased writing about artist theory in favor of poetry, and in 1947 published a collection titled Ecluses. In addition to developing and honing his own work, Metzinger carried on teaching late into his career, taking up a new position at the Académie Frochot in Paris in 1950. He died in Paris on November 3, 1956.
The Legacy of Jean Metzinger
In his essay accompanying the exhibition catalogue Jean Metzinger in Retrospect held at the University of Iowa Museum of Art in 1985, Robbins suggested that modern art history has been unkind to Metzinger by focusing too much on Braque and Picasso. Robbins noted that Metzinger's art should be considered in relation to his own theories and techniques, rather than through constant comparison to those artists not in his direct circle. The art historian Richard West agreed, citing a confusion between Cubism as a style of painting and as an aesthetic theory. He noted that it was "unwise ... to regard every deviation from the style of Picasso and Braque as a 'misunderstanding'".
Bearing this in mind, we can consider Metzinger's legacy as one of the defining founders of Cubism, both in his participation in the Parisian pre-war art scene, but also in his collaboration with Gleizes on Du Cubisme. Indeed, the curator Erasmus Weddigen describes Metzinger as "an artist who is central to our understanding of Cubism". His involvement in one of the most important art movements of the twentieth century has been recognized and celebrated both posthumously, but also at the time, in press reviews and in the writings of his friend and contemporary Apollinaire. Metzinger's dabbling with a range of art styles - including Divisionism, Post-Impressionism, and Surrealism - as well as his numerous teaching posts mark him as an artist who continually sought to express new ways of depicting objects in space, and new ways to challenge the viewer.
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Banister
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Banister
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
First published on 28 Apr 2021. Updated and modified regularly