Issue 19, Summer 1958
Jacques Villon was born near Rouen in 1875. His family was extraordinarily endowed with artistic talent: his grandfather and first teacher being a skilled engraver; one of his brothers becoming the sculptor Duchamp-Villon and another the painter, Marcel Duchamp. In 1895, Villon left Normandy for Montmartre. There he continued etching but his earnings for work in this medium and an occasional painting were a scarcely sufficient income. However, like Juan Gris and Forain, Villon was able to live by publishing drawings in the humorous and satirical magazines so popular around the turn of the century. Le Rire published his first cartoon in 1897 (between covers by Toulouse-Lautrec) and a drawing by Villon, many of them very amusing, can be found in one or more of those magazines until 1910. In this early work the critic Jerome Mellquist has noted the same manner of capturing the essential of a subject which remained a characteristic of the Cubist painter who emerged after 1910. But the Cubist movement, preoccupied with method and formal structure, must have been welcomed by Villon as a clean break with the free and indulgent line of the followers of Lautrec. He could not have better signified this break than by helping to found a group of painters who, calling themselves the Section d’Or, adopted the principle that nature should be reconstructed according to an ideal canon of form.
Fifty years ago, Villon moved to a quiet, faintly musty studio in the Paris suburb of Puteaux. He lives there today, occasionally eating at the restaurant of his friend, Camille Renault, where one can see a considerable collection of Villon's work.
Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Villon has never entirely renounced the principles and aims of Cubism. As he says of his method, “I begin from studies of nature. But from them I make emerge a construction, a play of arabesques and rhythms.”
The drawings and etchings which follow are representative of the delicate prismatic quality of Villon's vision. The subject is never forced but seems to conform willingly to the demands of the artist's mind. Mellquist has referred to Villon as “incessantly the analyst”, and another critic has compared him with Feininger, but to say as much is not to do justice to the unique gentleness and wit with which Villon composes his harmonies of line and shadow.