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Jacques Villon Photo

Jacques Villon

French Painter, Illustrator, and Printmaker

Born: July 31, 1875 - Damville, France
Died: June 9, 1963 - Puteaux, France
Movements and Styles:
Salon Cubism
Synthetic Cubism
"I want to reduce everything to the absolute."
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Jacques Villon
"Painting is my second existence. My first one was graphics. As a matter of fact, one should have four existences."
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Jacques Villon
"I have always been, fundamentally, a figurative painter. I follow nature, taking certain liberties, I will admit, but it has always been reality that I seek to express."
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Jacques Villon
"We paint to discover ourselves, to explain our deepest nature."
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Jacques Villon
"If I am to complete all the pictures I’ve been thinking about, I must hurry on with it, you know."
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Jacques Villon

Summary of Jacques Villon

Villon had established himself as a leading printmaker working within the Belle Époque style long before devoting his considerable talents to painting. He was, with brother Raymond, co-founder of the influential Puteaux Group and he named, and helped stage, the 1912 Salon de la Section d'Or, a seminal exhibition in the history of the Cubism and Orphism movements. His own style of painting was driven by mathematical theory through which he married the flat geometric forms of Cubism with a luminous color palette that saw him referred to by some as the "Cubist-Impressionist". Indeed, his preference for a more expressive palette is credited with helping widen the appeal of Cubism amongst a somewhat sceptical public. As his career developed, he experimented extensively with color theory, and dabbled with pure abstraction, before devoting himself to landscapes and prestigious limited-edition print projects.


  • Not satisfied with the limited "brown" color palettes of the earliest forms of Cubism, Villon experimented with truncated forms and planar shifts which incorporated comparatively saturated colors and thick chromatic contrasts. Associated with the so-called Salon Cubists, his more expansive, more animated, take on Cubism helped make the movement accessible to a wider audience; especially so in America where he featured prominently in the famous Armory Show.
  • Early in his career, Villon stated that he saw painting both as "a method of prospecting, a manner of expression. With color as bait." His pre-Cubist paintings sat thus somewhere between Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism in a way they married Villon's youthful inclination towards loose brushwork with a more considered engagement with scientific theories in color and optics.
  • Before dedicating his life to painting, Villon made his name as an illustrator and multi-color intaglio printmaker working in the Belle Époque style that had been made famous by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec a decade earlier. These works, which captured the ambience and gaiety of life in Montmartre, brought an added element of refinement and sophistication to printmaking making him hugely popular with the Parisian public.
  • As his career progressed, Villon became more-and-more absorbed with the idea of "a science of colors". In his abstract works, he applied blocks of pure colors - predominantly red, blue, and yellow - to flat surfaces as a means of redefining pictorial depth. His abstractions were the product of a method he devised whereby figurative works (such as horses and riders) were systematically distilled until they were transformed into pure geometric compositions.

Biography of Jacques Villon

Jacques Villon, undated

Despite his various generic detours, Villon never renounced the principles of Cubism: "I begin from studies of nature", he stated shortly before his death, "But from them I make emerge a construction, a play of arabesques and rhythms".

Progression of Art


The Game of Solitaire (Les cartes)

Having arrived in Paris for a second time (following a break for military service) in 1895 Villon studied at the Montmartre atelier of Fernand Cormon. Here he created his first lithographs and earned his living selling illustrations to Parisian newspapers and satirical journals such as Le Chat Noir, Gil Blas, Lassiette au Beurre and Le Courrier Franqais. He also produced numerous posters and prints in the Belle Époque style popularized by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1890s. With the backing of the printer Eugène Delâtre, and the publisher Edmond Sagot, he had produced a little short of 250 multi-color and single-color intaglio prints by 1910.

Capturing the street-life of the "bohemian village" of Montmartre, Villon chose to depict a woman playing the game of Solitaire (as the title confirms). Against a red background, the woman is laying on a red bed and, although she is supposed to be playing on her own, the subject (possibly a prostitute or courtesan) invitingly gazes out at the viewer, with a hand placed defiantly on her hip. She is semi-naked and is (a little incredulously perhaps) sporting an oversized yellow hat. A Jack Russell terrier provides her with loyal companionship.

The precision and lightness of Villon's draftsmanship confers a great sense of vivacity on this print. The bold use of color creates a warm and gay atmosphere with Villon employing nuances of red - ranging from light pink to bright red - in a single plate. Villon uses here the aquatint and etching technique with an element of watercolor. In 1904 he became a founder member of the Salon d'Automne, at which he regularly exhibited his own prints. Historian Bill Lieberman suggested that Villon's Belle Époque prints had "the boldness and brilliance of Toulouse-Lautrec touched with the elegance and charm of [the French pastel artist] Paul-César Helleu".

Aquatint and etching, ed. 25 - Museum of Modern Art, New York



Although he claimed that he never properly appreciated its theoretical principles, this painting sits closest to the sphere of Neo-Impressionism and shows Villon's natural inclination towards intellectual enquiry and artistic self-expression. Moving away from the free spontaneity of the Impressionist landscape, the Neo-Impressionists were concerned with modern urban life and scientific developments in optics and how colors are perceived by viewers. Neo-Impressionism was in fact considered the beginnings of modernism's gradual move towards abstraction. But although Villon would become absorbed by color theory, and would go on to produce abstract pieces of his own, by his own admission he could never fully abandon his commitment to the figurative. It is significant too that he chose to represent himself in a bad mood. The young Villon seems unsatisfied, the image of an artist in search of a solution to his creative impasse.

In his self-portrait, Villon uses stripes of colors to create space and volume; the different directions and sizes of the brushstrokes conferring a sense of motion across the composition. "Til about 1910", he once declared, "I painted as the birds sing, following my instinct, without thinking too much". Yet this painting, while retaining some of the freedom and gaiety of Impressionism, shows Villon already contemplating a new language through which to express himself. The Pointillist influence of Seurat (that is an art based on mathematical rules) is visible here, and it is significant, when looking at how his career developed from this point forward, that Villon would be more impressed by Seurat than by, say, (the Impressionist) Monet. Indeed, like Seurat, Villon is starting to deconstruct his image, drawing attention to each unnatural color applied with a thick brushstroke. It was a style that the art historian Miguel Orozco called "a new vitality [that] came from the mind".

Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Little Girl at Piano (Fillette au piano) (c. 1912-14)
c. 1912-14

Little Girl at Piano (Fillette au piano)

This painting was included in the first exhibition of the Section d'Or group in 1912 and, the following year, it was shown at the Amory Show in America. It is formed of concentric lines around the figure of the girl playing the piano in the center of the frame. The bent lines create an effect of curvature and fluidity. The forms are broken into pyramidal planes and triangular shapes of different sizes and colors according to the details of the figure. The triangles are smaller in the face but larger for the dress. Villon's repetition of the triangle sequence for the hands creates a sense of movement. He also wanted to free Cubism from the severe planes and lines in tones of blacks, grays, and ochres. Here they are replaced with rich blues and greens.

The artist indicated that for portraits of these years, the placement of the limbs and the outlines of the figure were not determined by observed features but by his pre-established mathematical division of the canvas. The canvas is also an oval shape which is unusual for a portrait. Villon did not see the value of repeating the style of nineteenth century family portraiture even though his sitter is Madeleine, Villon's youngest sister.

Orozco wrote that John Quinn, "the most important collector of the epoch, and the person that made the Armory Show possible [and] the father of modern art collectionism [sic] in the United States" had succeeded in convincing the US Congress to overturn the so-called "Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act" of 1909 which put an excessive duty on foreign works of art less if they were less than 20-years-old". Orozco states: "Quinn opened the 1913 Armory Show exhibition with the words: 'it was time the American people had an opportunity to see and judge for themselves concerning the work of the Europeans who are creating a new art'". True to his word, Quinn purchased three Villon works, including Little Girl at Piano (for $ 270).

Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York


Color perspective (Vertical)

Villon explained to the art critic Dora Vallier how he had started to "worry about colors" from around 1920. He said: "[before then] I felt a blue, I used a blue. But from that moment I wanted to base myself on a science of colors. I wanted to create in the absolute. I would have done well, in time, to know the theories of the Neo-Impressionists, my research would have advanced faster. I had to do the whole way again on my own. Little by little, I learned a lot from the experience, and I finally knew how to profit from the science of color. It was around 1930 ".

This painting is composed of superimposed polygonal shapes well defined by straight lines. Pure colors are applied in flat surfaces that both define and break the space. The central yellow area tends to come forward while the other colors recede into specific positions. Villon derived his abstractions from figurative works that he gradually distilled into pure geometric compositions. In the 1920s, he started a series of jockey pictures which portray a horse and rider in motion. It is known that the artist used toy horses and jockeys to study the different angles, sides, and colors as a way of recreating all the figurative combinations in abstract form. The numerous drawings, paintings, and prints testify to the meticulous and deconstructive Cubist methods that Villon held so dear. This painting is the outcome of Villon's research; the yellow area being the ultimate schematization of the jockey on his saddle.

For Villon, color was "a weight in the balance of emotions, and this weight will be all the heavier when Red, Blue and Yellow are in the required balance as dictated by the chromatic scale [...] Colors become values which through their interplay ... produce a state of receptiveness [...] I take one of these two colors first, then the other and each after its place in the color wheel calls up two new colors on the canvas. And, doing so, all the colors come to be placed in the painting according to their interference in the light, and the surface covered by each one depends on the arrangement of the planes".

Oil on canvas - Yale University Art Gallery


The Kitchen Garden at La Brunie

Villon executed many landscapes while he was living in La Brunie during the war. In this painting, nature has been transformed into an intersecting network of geometric forms and thin black lines. The diagonal lines on the foreground suggest the rows of the vegetable garden while the long intersecting lines on the horizon lines seem to refer to the city of La Brunie itself. Tall trees can be spotted in the distance as well as gardeners on the foreground. Villon, thanks to a complex network of lines, reintroduced a clear sense of perspective. The organization of the space is carefully fragmented into small geometric shapes based on a linear grid. The architectural element becomes predominant and creates the dynamism of the whole composition. One can also recognize in the structural construction the many triangles that were so fundamental to the painter's thinking.

At the same time, these lines create an abstract pattern on the canvas. The colors used in the spaces left are not truly representative of Villon's work. He uses here pastel and subdued colors in transparent planes, creating an effect of luminosity by juxtaposing different hues. Art historian Edward B. Henning writes that the colors chosen by Villon, rather than describing the landscapes, "create an autonomous composition of pure color which reinforced and enhanced the linear structure".

Oil on canvas - The Cleveland Museum of Art


Man in Jail: The Grand Testament of Villon

In the years between 1959 and 1963, Villon created a series of lithographs and etchings that featured in limited edition books and published portfolios. Made between 1960-61, Villon produced two portfolios dedicated to the poetry of Francois Villon: one consisting of eighteen color ink lithographs without text and published in a limited edition of fifteen; the second portfolio, with text, was a limited edition of 148. All copies were numbered and signed by the artist and were printed, according to Villon's stated instructions, by master printers Pierre Gaudin and Fernand Mourlot after Villon's death in 1963. Reproductions of the original prints were also featured in the anthology, The Grand Testament of Villon (by Francois Villon), published by Henri Jonquieres, also in 1963.

This image shows a figure seated on a long chair in a jail (identified by the title and the bars in the window). The artist relies on straight, parallel, and cross-hatched lines to represent the space and the volumes. His technique of hatching and cross-hatching was developed during his early Cubist experiments and was modified throughout his life. The result in this late career print is a dense work where the lines decompose and compose the figure at once. Villon planned the composition very carefully. The figure seems to advance while the background recedes thanks to contrast between the diagonals of the chair and the cross-hatched background. The empty spaces filled with colors, meanwhile, help define the body shape. The figure is probably meant to be the poet himself. The preface to the book features a quote from the artist: "I did not take the name of this poet by chance, there is between him and me an incontestable spiritual kinship".

Lithograph in color

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Jacques Villon
Influenced by Artist
  • Marc Chagall
    Marc Chagall
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    Jean René Bazaine
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    Henri Fautrier
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    Serge Poliakoff
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    Roger Bissière
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
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    Modern School of Paris
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Pich-Chenda Sar

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Jacques Villon Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Pich-Chenda Sar
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 23 Sep 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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