Biography of Jacques Villon
Jacques Villon was one of four - with Marcel, Suzanne, and Raymond - Duchamp siblings to leave a mark on the early-twentieth century artworld. Born Gaston Emile Duchamp, he was the eldest of the six children born to Eugene and Lucie Duchamp. As Notary in the provincial Normandy town of Blainville, Eugene held the most influential civic position and was able to provide a comfortable life for his family. But it was from their mother, herself an accomplished musician and amateur painter, that the Duchamps inherited their love of art.
Gaston's maternal grandfather, Emile Frédéric Nicolle, was a successful maritime broker, and printmaker of considerable repute, working in the northern port-town of Rouen. When the 16-year-old Gaston was sent to the Lycee Corneille boarding school (in Rouen) he would spend his weekends at his grandfather's house where he learned from him the fundamental principles of engraving and printing. Jacques later recalled how he became quickly accustomed to the feel of copper plates, the smell of etching acid, and the sound of melting varnish. He executed his first prints, portraits of his father and his grandfather, in Rouen in 1891.
Eugene had wanted his eldest son to pursue a career in the law and, in January 1894, he sent Gaston to the capital to study law at the University of Paris. He soon returned to Rouen where he took up an apprenticeship with a local law office. He found time to study art part-time at the Rouen School of Beaux-Arts where he became enraptured by the art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Gaston submitted many drawings to newspapers and magazines, some of them with leftist political orientations, where his talent started to get noticed.
Early Training and Work
Gaston wanted to return to Paris to study art but his father was reluctant to let him leave since Raymond (himself destined to become one of the most important Cubist sculptors) had already abandoned his medical career to pursue the life of an artist. Father and son were, however, able to reach a compromise: Gaston could take art classes with his father's blessing if he did not give up on law school. In 1895, Gaston joined his younger brother in Paris and began study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts - where he became enamoured by the works of Vincent van Gogh and Chaim Soutine - and frequented the painter Fernand Cormon's studio.
Despite his pact with his father, Gaston quickly lost interest in his law studies. He devoted more and more time to drawing. He drew Paris scenes and people and started to contribute to satirical newspapers such as Le Rire and le Courrier Francais, joining a stable of prominent illustrators including Toulouse-Lautrec, Theophile Steinlen, Adolphe Willette, and Louis Forain. It was around this time that Gaston took the name "Jacques Villon". His adopted surname paid tribute to the French medieval poet Francois Villon, while "Jacques" was derived from "Jack", the eponymous hero of Alphonse Daudet's bestselling novel. Gallerist and Villon collector Jack Leissring suggests that the artist may have decided to adopt a pseudonym so as not to displease his father by disassociating his art from the Duchamp name. He started signing works "Jacques Villon" (even "Jack Villon" on a few of his earliest drawings) and Raymond soon followed suit by adding "Villon" to his own name (Raymond Duchamp-Villon).
After serving his military service as an infantryman in 1897, Villon established his own studio in Montmartre in 1898. He soon met Francis Jourdain, a politically radical painter and decorator, who persuaded him to revive his interest in printing. Many painters were experimenting with lithography around this time but, with the notable exception of Mary Cassatt and Eugene Delatre, color etching was becoming a rather neglected skill. Villon joined their workshop and began exploring the possibilities for the medium. He soon became a master of the techniques of color printmaking using etching and aquatint. Inspired chiefly by the milieu of the bohemian "village" of Montmartre, Villon presented a vivid portrait of the capital at the turn of the century. In 1899, the esteemed publisher Edmond Sagot took Villon under his wing. He produced about 175 color prints and posters for Sagot, all of which sold. Such was his success that in 1903 Villon helped organize the drawing section of the first Salon d'Automne (soon to become one of the most significant annual modern art exhibitions). In 1904 Villon engraved Sagot's business cards and Delatre's greeting cards as a token of his appreciation for their support and patronage.
Art Historian Miguel Orozco writes that Villon had found "a style, a formula and a niche and could have been content with such easy success". However, the artist feared he was becoming repetitive and grew increasingly drawn to painting. Between 1904-05, he studied at the Academie Julian where he painted in a Neo-Impressionist idiom. His first gallery exhibition, which he shared with Raymond, was held at Galerie Legrip in Rouen, in 1905. He also exhibited at the 1905 Salon d'Automne which was witness to the public inauguration of the Fauve movement.
Villon was, however, tiring of the Parisian life and in 1906 he relocated to the quieter suburban town of Puteaux with his favorite model Gabrielle Boeuf. He later rued, "If I hadn't left Montmartre then I wouldn't have done a thing in the whole of my life". A year later, Raymond followed him and moved into a nearby studio apartment with his wife Yvonne. Marcel (Duchamp) was then living in Neuilly, a nearby city and would frequently visit his brothers. Puteaux was also home to other artists, including the Czech painter and graphic artist, Frantisek Kupka, with whom Villon remained friends throughout his life.
In this quieter environment, Villon devoted more and more of his time to painting. He became much closer to his brother Raymond who was a cheerful and enthusiastic man and may well have played a role in his elder brother's full-time conversion to painting. They would meet frequently with other artists, including Kupka, Albert Gleizes, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia, and poet Guillaume Apollinaire. On Mondays, the brothers would meet at Jean Metzinger studio in nearby Courbevoie, and on Sundays at Puteaux, in Villon's residence. Far from central Paris, the Puteaux Group, as they became known, would debate the on-going artistic developments of the capital and share their ideas on new innovations.
It was during these gatherings that Villon became aware of the potential for Cubism. It represented for him an approach based on rigor, order, and the search for a sculptural and volumetric effect (rather than the "simple" representation of the subject). The Group, which was critical of the dour palettes preferred by Picasso and Braque (neither of whom ever joined a Puteaux meeting), started discussing the stylistic and conceptual possibilities for this otherwise revolutionary practice. As the art historian Miguel Orozco writes: "Villon wanted to free cubism from the severe planes and lines in tones of blacks, grays and ochres. Puteaux actually opened the way to Synthetic Cubism, characterized by simpler shapes and brighter colors. Villon wanted to saturate color, to give it all its brilliance and depth".
Villon was profoundly influenced by Da Vinci's Treatise of Painting, especially the Renaissance master's theory of pyramidal perception. Villon was fascinated with the pyramid and ideas on how proportions might further develop through Cubism. Villon declared that "By superimposing on the painting this pyramidal form [...] one gives it a density in which the interaction of echoing colors produces depth - a depth creating space". For Villon, Da Vinci's pyramid and the balanced golden section principle could provide the symmetrical structures to render Cubism a classical art form. (Such was the intensity of his drive to intellectualize art, his brother Marcel wrote a mocking pun on one of his glass paintings which read: A regarder d'un oeil, de près, pendant presqu'une heure (To Be Looked at, With One Eye, Close to, For Almost an Hour). Beneath this de-facto title, Duchamp added the comment "Nobody would want to look at anything following this prescription".)
Villon's print production significantly decreased during these transitional years and, in 1910, when the publisher of Le Courrier Francais died, he ceased his work with the newspapers altogether. The illustrative aspect of his art had all but disappeared with his former patron Sagot refusing to edit and sell his prints. Meanwhile, the gatherings at Puteaux were providing real intellectual stimulus for Villon as it was for other participants; especially Metzinger and Gleizes who developed many of their ideas about the new painting technique. When Futurism arrived in Paris in 1911, it was a topic of great interest to the Puteaux group. Marcel Duchamp was one of the most interested in their development, even though he never formally aligned with any single movement, while "new" artists joined the Puteaux discussion group, including Juan Gris and Alexander Archipenko.
Cubism was by now taking hold within the Parisian art scene and many avant-gardists were trying to expand its aesthetic boundaries, including the Puteaux group. At the 1911 Salon des Independants, they even exhibited in the same hall as the Cubists. The following year Gleizes and Metzinger published Du Cubisme based largely on the discussions in Puteaux. It proved a landmark publication that became a kind of instruction manual for the group. The Puteaux artists soon decided it was time to put on their own exhibition and Villon choose the group/exhibition title: La Section d'Or, or the Golden Ratio, in homage to Da Vinci's sacred proportions. The mathematical reference clearly signalled the difference in method to the more intuitive approach of Picasso and Braque.
The Section d'Or show opened in October 1912 at the Galerie de la Boetie. The inauguration was held from nine until midnight, invitations were widely distributed prior to the show, and many of the guests had to be turned away on opening night. Lectures by Guillaume Apollinaire, Olivier Hourcade and Maurice Raynal were advertised, and a review, also named La Section d'Or, was published and distributed amongst attendees. The review featured contributions by, among others, Apollinaire, Roger Allard, Max Jacob, and André Salmon. Twenty-one artists exhibited more than 200 works. it was the most exhaustive pre-war exhibition devoted to Cubism and the new, but related, movement of Orphism (associated chiefly with Robert and Sonia Delaunay and named by Apollinaire after the Greek poet and musician, Orpheus, because of its colorful fluidity and its leanings towards an abstract "musicality").
Attending the inaugural Section d'Or exhibition was the American planning committee for the famous Armory Show which would introduce European avant-garde art to an American audience. Walter Pach, Arthur B. Davies, and Walter Kuhn selected nine of Villon's works for the 1913 exhibition. Although the Armory Show was a career high for Villon, it also marked the point when Marcel, the younger brother whose talent he had nurtured till now, produced the Show's most infamous, and most successful, exhibit, Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2. Marcel had in effect overtaken Villon to become the most important of the Duchamp siblings.
Busy as he was with his artistic endeavors, Villon and Gabrielle Boeuf married in October 1913. They would remain married for the rest of his life. Villon represented Gabrielle many times in his work (starting as early as 1904 in fact) and she was great support to her husband throughout his life. The war, meanwhile, brought an abrupt halt to the artistic effervescence of the Parisian avant-garde. Villon enlisted in 1914 and he fought on the Champagne and Artois fronts before joining the camouflage unit in 1916. Several artists were mobilized there, in fact, and Villon became closely acquainted with Dunoyer de Segonzac and Andre Mare.
The return to Paris in 1920 was hard for Villon. His brother Raymond had died in October 1918 having contracted typhoid while fighting on the front. Marcel kept in touch from New York where he was now living, while his youngest sister, Suzanne (and closer to Marcel in age and in character), married the Dada painter Jean Crotti and was setting out on her own artistic career in Paris. Villon had his first solo exhibition in the United States at the Societé Anonyme, New York, in 1921 but that event aside, he was unable to work freely on his painting since his involvement in the war meant he had no paintings to sell.
Villon was obliged to accept two projects which consumed most of his time during the 1920s. For the review Architectures, published by the Éditions de la Nouvelle Revue Française, Villon engraved 36 detailed black and white architectural drawings made by Andre Mare, Louis Sue, and Paul Vera. For the other project (arranged for him by his new brother-in-law, Crotti) Villon worked for the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris making interpretation prints based on the works of modern artists such as Cézanne, Van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, and Modigliani.
During the 1920s, he had such little time to spend on his own work that he etched fewer than twenty plates, all printed in black and white, and all in an abstract style. His lack of original output meant that his standing within the Parisian art world slipped considerably. The master printer Fernand Mourlot, who worked with many important artists and on interpretation prints, revealed in his second book of memoirs that Villon had described to him how Matisse had rebuked Villon (who had addressed him informally) by telling him to "call me Mr. Matisse". Nevertheless, print curator William Lieberman explained that Villon worked on his commercial work without the aid of photomechanical processes and that "the resulting prints are miracles of the engraver's art" (indeed, most of these plates have since been acquired by the Chalcographie du Louvre). Little by little, Villon's finances improved and, after finishing the Bernheim-Jeune project, he was finally able to focus once more his energies on his own art.
The 1920s and 1930s had been witness to the rise of Dada, and then, Surrealism. Villon, however, had remained steadfast in his commitment to geometric investigation. In 1932, the painter began to exhibit with the Abstraction-Création group. This new group formed a challenge to the Surrealists and included amongst its members Theo van Doesburg, Jean Arp, Jean Helion, Auguste Herbin, František Kupka, and Albert Gleizes. Villon exhibited with the Group in several exhibitions and produced abstract paintings that saw the artist focusing more on color theory.
Villon's affiliation with the Abstraction-Création Group was short lived because he could never give up completely on figuration: "I did not feel at ease despite great sympathy for the movement - but impossible to let the earth go", he later stated. Villon immersed himself rather in scientific treatises on color, such as those formulated by the American physicist Ogden N. Rood and Rosenthiehl's 1934 publication, Traite De La Couleur, whose color charts were especially inspirational for the Frenchman.
By the mid-1930s Villon had started to work on landscapes and developed color theories of his own. By his own admission, his choice to work in near isolation meant he was ignored or, at best, regarded as a marginal figure, within the French art fraternity. Villon was still well regarded in America where his works graced several avant-garde collections. Indeed, he and Gabrielle took a brief excursion to New York in 1936 where he painted two notable cityscapes (featuring the New York skyline). Upon his return to France, Villon continued to work almost exclusively on landscapes. When the Second World War broke out, the Villons fled to Tarn in the safe Occitania region of Southern France.
While in Tarn, Villon was able to paint landscapes for long periods without interruption: "I sat for three months almost every evening in front of [...] nature and I drew wisely by measuring and painting" he said. Speaking of his preference for landscapes over still lifes of isolated human figures (the two thematic preferences of the Cubists) he added that the "superiority for me of landscapes [...] is that there is a group, a whole: the trees, the houses, the sky and the earth [which] play a drama or a fairyland; there is a dynamism that only needs to be highlighted". Villon did not abandon his penchant for philosophical enquiry, however, and sought ways of marrying Cubists concepts with the scientific theories of the Impressionists. Indeed, this unique field of experimentation saw Villon sometimes referred to by some as the "Cubist-Impressionist".
Once it was considered safe to do so, the Villons returned to Puteaux. Then, in 1944, on the back of an important presentation of his work at the Galerie Louis Carré, Villon signed a contact with the dealer Louis Carré who had recently opened a gallery in Paris. Carré purchased Villon's fresh stock of paintings and even paid for the installation of electricity at his Puteaux studio. As his exclusive dealer, Carre organized a solo exhibition in 1945 which boasted a catalogue prefaced by the poet Rene Char. Villon was finally beginning to achieve the widespread recognition that had hitherto eluded him. His ascendency was confirmed in 1950 when he won first prize at the Carnegie International exhibition of paintings and the Grand Prize for Painting at the 1956 Venice Biennale. The following year, the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris dedicated a vast retrospective to the 76-year-old's career.
During these later years Villon continued to work out of his studio in Puteaux. He would take on many more projects, including, with Marc Chagall and Roger Bissière, stained glass window designs for the Metz cathedral in 1957. In 1960 he produced the illustrations for a book by the poet from whom he borrowed his last name. In 1963, he was named Chevalier of the Legion d'Honor (posthumously promoted to Officier and then Commandeur) and died soon after, in his studio, on June 9, 1963, aged 87. He was buried in the Rouen cemetery in a tomb where he rests with the other members of the Duchamp clan.
The Legacy of Jacques Villon
Adverse to self-promotion, and eclipsed somewhat by the celebrity of his brother, Marcel Duchamp, Villon's achievements were nevertheless substantial. He is remembered mostly today for his contribution to the advancement of Cubism in the early 20th century. As co-founder of the Puteaux Group, he developed a Cubist art based on pure mathematical concepts and was instrumental in the staging of the landmark Salon de la Section d'Or exhibition of 1912 (which he also named). Paris based artists including the likes of Henri Fautrier and Serge Poliakoff took inspiration from his work but as the so-called "Modern School of Paris" yielded to the "New York School" as the citadel of modern art, Villon's latter career, which featured figural and landscape painting, was somewhat overshadowed.
His impact on the art of engraving and etching was also impressive. Indeed, Stanley William Hayter, founder of the Atelier 17 printworks studios in Paris and New York, and perhaps the most important printmaker of the Anglo-Saxon world, called Villon the "unacknowledged father of modern printmaking". In the preface for the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961, curator and historian Bill Lieberman added that, "six decades after his first etching in 1891, Villon can look upon a production of printed work which in variety and technique is surpassed by no other living artist".
Content compiled and written by Pich-Chenda Sar
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
Content compiled and written by Pich-Chenda Sar
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
First published on 23 Sep 2021. Updated and modified regularly