A master draughtsman and printmaker, French artist Jacques Villon (1875-1963) is credited with creating a purely graphic language for Cubism. His long career bridged the artistic evolution in Paris from Impressionism to Cubism, and one can follow all the phases of this transition in his graphic art. While Villon’s earliest works exude the fashionable elegance of the Belle Époque, his later etchings and drypoints are masterpieces of Cubist structure. Calling himself “The Cubist Impressionist,” Villon sought to balance the integrity of his figures against the geometry of Cubism, stating “The human figure being alive, one can not, one dare not put him in chains.”* Childs Gallery’s exhibition, “Jacques Villon: The Cubist Impressionist,” presents a selection of 24 prints displaying Villon’s stylistic transition and graphic experimentation.
Born Gaston Duchamp in Normandy, Villon was the elder brother of artists Raymond Duchamp-Villon (French, 1876-1918) and Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887-1968). He adopted the pseudonym of Jacques Villon in the mid-1890s as a tribute to Alphonse Daudet’s novel Jack (1876) and the 15th century French poet François Villon.
Villon and his brothers first learned the methods of intaglio printmaking from their maternal grandfather Emile Nicolle, an amateur artist and shipbroker. Villon made his first etching, a portrait of his father, at the age of 16.
Villon moved to Paris in 1894 to study law, but within a year he was devoting most of his time
to art. For the next ten years, he regularly contributed drawings to several illustrated newspapers, including Le Rire, Courrier français, and L’Assiette au beurre. Beginning in 1899, Villon also began to produce a number of superb aquatints, exhibiting them for the first time in 1901 at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Many of these early prints were in the sophisticated manner of the Belle Époque and showed the influence of French artists Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul César Helleu.
In 1906, Villon left Paris for the suburb of Puteaux, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. In his new studio, Villon began to focus almost exclusively on black-and-white etchings and drypoints, abandoning the color aquatints of his Paris years. By 1910, he had moved definitively from an expressive drawing style toward the beginnings of analytical Cubism. He began to simplify his forms, eliminating detail and breaking his subjects into shaded pyramidal planes. This early shift is evident in Villon’s 1911 drypoint studies of Renée, which reveal the angular internal structure of the prints’ single massive figure.
Villon’s transition to Cubism was profoundly influenced by the Section d’Or, an ancient Greek theory of proportion described in a 1910 translation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting. Leonardo’s system for dividing objects into pyramids became the basis for Villon’s Cubist compositions. In 1912 Villon adopted the
name “Section d’Or” to describe a group of Cubist artists who met regularly at his Puteaux studio, including Fernand Léger, Jean Metzinger, Juan Gris, and Villon’s brothers Raymond and Marcel. The name reflects their common interest in geometric forms and mathematical proportions.
1913 was a critical year in Villon’s transition to Cubism. He created his cubist masterpieces, 7 large drypoints translating Cubist theory into the linear techniques of printmaking.
These portraits are fragmented into patchworks of interwoven planes, and densely covered with hatched lines of varying density and direction. That same year, Villon exhibited at the famous Armory Show in New York City, helping to introduce European modern Art to the United States.
Throughout Villon’s long career, he continued to push the limits of his fluid graphic style, as the importance of subject gave way to problems of line, volume, and movement. His later prints attain an almost serene sense of structure, with dense networks of diagonals intersecting an orderly grid of parallel strokes.
Villon’s work is represented in numerous collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C; The Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; The Museum of Modern Art, NY; and La Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
*Quoted by Peter A.
Wick in Jacques Villon: Master of Graphic Art (1875-1963), Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1964, p.26.