Jacques Villon was an artist of both contrasts and order. He was among the most influential Cubist artists and theorists, but was known for his great humility. His Cubist theories molded the greatest modern movement of the 20th century, and were based on the theories of Leonardo da Vinci and the 19th-century chemist Chevreul. His career spans the Cubist movement from its beginnings prior to the First World War until after the end of the Second, and won him recognition in Europe and America.
Born Gaston Duchamp, Villon was the grandson of an engraver, and by the age of seven he was already accustomed to handling copper plates, etching acid and varnish. Among himself and his five siblings, four became artists: Villon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Marcel Duchamp and Suzanne Roger. His father intended for him to go into law, but at the age of 19, he left a position as a law clerk, moved to Paris and changed his name after his favorite medieval poet Francois Villon. He began work as a graphic artist, completing works for Le Courrier Francais, Gil Blas, and Le Chat Noir, in a style influenced by Degas and Toulouse Lautrec. In 1906, he moved from Montemarte to Puteaux, on the outskirts of Paris, opening a studio that, within five years, became the center of a new Cubist movement.
1911 was a seminal year for the development of Cubism. The first Cubist exhibition opened at the 1911 Salon des Indépendants, Salle 41. It included works by Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Fernand Léger and Robert Delaunay, all young artists who would expand the Cubist approach from the initial innovations of Picasso and Braque. Salle 41 participants Gleizes, Metzinger and Léger, as well as the Duchamp brothers, Kupka, Picabia, and La Fresnaye, would congregate at Villon’s Puteaux Studio, debating their latest theories. The discussions of these young innovators produced the fertile ground from which would spring a new approach to Cubism, based on parallels between science, mathematics and a new “pure” approach to art.
Villon’s approach to Cubism was heavily influenced by theories that were far from modern. In 1910, Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting was first translated into French, and his concept on optics and the pyramidal nature of vision was instrumental to Villon’s approach. While Synthetic Cubism tended to flatten space into a decorative surface plane, Villon’s focused on using receding and advancing “pyramids” to create depth. He wrote: “in superimposing on the painting this pyramidal view, one gives it a depth in which color echoes and plays, depth which creates space.” He also borrowed from da Vinci when he advocated having the group exhibit under the name “Section d’Or,” after the theory of the Golden Section of classical mathematics. In 1912, the Section d’Or exhibition marked a new direction in Cubist aesthetics.
Villon exhibited at the Armory Show in New York in 1913, where European Modern Art was first introduced to America. His work proved popular there, expanding his reputation from Europe to the US. A major exhibition of Villon’s work was held in Paris in 1944 at the Galerie Louis Carré, which spurred numerous international exhibitions and honors. In 1950, he received the Carnegie Prize and was given a solo room at the Venice Biennale, and in 1954, was made a Commander of the Legion of Honor. At the end of his career he was commissioned to design stained-glass windows for the restoration of the 13th-century Cathédral de Metz, along with Chagall, an appropriate task for an artist who spent his career applying the traditions of the past to Modern Art.
Carnegie Prize, 1950
Commander, Legion of Honor, 1954
Armory Show, New York, New York, 1913
Galerie Louis Carré, Paris, France, 1944
Venice Biennale, Italy, 1950
Neuberger Museum of Art, Harrison, New York
Saint Joseph College Art Gallery, West Hartford, Connecticut
Staten Island Museum, New York
The Canton Museum of Art, Ohio
The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma, Norman
University of Wyoming Art Museum, Laramie