Discovering a Different Duchamp: A French Show Spotlights Marcel's Older Brother Jacques Villon

Detail of Jacques Villon's "Portrait de l’artiste," 1942
(Courtesy Shirley Hazzard Steegmuller, Photo D. James Dee, Adagp Paris 2011)

In the middle of the 20th century, the best-known artist from the Duchamp family was not Marcel, but his older brother Gaston, who used the pseudonym Jacques Villon. A current show at the Fine Arts Museum in Angers, France, traces Villon's work through 100 paintings from private collections and museums in France and the U.S., and in the process reveals how, from similar artistic beginnings, two very different artists emerged.

The eldest of six children, Gaston was born in Normandy in 1875. Next came Raymond (1876), Marcel (1887), and Suzanne (1889), who all went on to become artists. By 1897, Gaston, who had learned engraving and painting from his maternal grandfather, had taken "Jacques Villon" (the name of a medieval French poet) as an artistic pseudonym. In the first years of the 20th century, all three brothers were living in Paris, studying and practicing art, and developing theories of Cubism alongside Jean Metzinger, Francis Picabia, and Fernand Léger. Jacques's paintings were shown alongside Marcel's infamous "Nude Descending a Staircase" at the Armory Show in 1913.

The outbreak of World War I changed everything. Jacques was drafted in 1914 and fought in the Battle of the Somme. Also drafted, Raymond contracted typhoid fever and died in 1918 in a military hospital. But Marcel, who received a medical exemption and escaped the draft, left for New York in 1915. Marcel would remain in the fertile artistic atmosphere of New York, where he famously shook up the art world in 1917 with one of his first ready-mades, a signed urinal titled "Fountain." 

Jacques's style continued in the abstract, geometrical vein that he had already established, and he gradually became recognized, receiving the grand prize at the Venice Biennale in 1956. He mostly toiled in isolation, sometimes incorporating references to Marcel or Raymond's work into his own. Jacques was diligent and studious in his art, comparing painting to gardening. "You work, you turn over or dig up the garden, to find a treasure," he once said, according to the exhibition materials. "Let's be happy if this hard work only makes some potatoes grow."

Although Marcel Duchamp's conceptual provocations ultimately eclipsed Jacques Villon's more traditional, painterly ways, there is still a family resemblance. In a review of the current show, Le Monde art critic Philippe Dagen points out that the Duchamp brothers had a lot in common: "an obsession with method and calculation... the desire to achieve or surpass the limits of their art, and supreme scorn for public success that allowed them to persevere for decades despite indifference or hostility."