Born Gaston Emile Duchamp in Damville , Eure, in the Haute-Normandie region of France, he came from a prosperous and artistically inclined family. While he was still a young man, his maternal grandfather Emile Nicolle, who was successful in both business and art, taught him and his siblings.
Gaston Duchamp was the elder brother of:
- Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876-1918), sculptor
- Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), painter, sculptor and author
- Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti (1889-1963), painter
In 1894, he and his brother Raymond moved to the Montmartre quarter of Paris. There, he studied law at the University of Paris but received his father's permission to study art on the condition that he continue with the law. To distinguish himself from his other siblings, Gaston Duchamp adopted the pseudonym of Jacques Villon as a tribute to the great French medieval poet François Villon. In Montmartre, home to an expanding art community, Villon lost all interest in the pursuit of a legal career, and for the next ten years he worked in graphic media, contributing cartoons and illustrations to Parisian papers as well as drawing color posters.
In 1903 he helped organize the drawing section of the first Salon d'Automne in Paris. In 1904 - 05 he studied at the Académie Julian. He was at first influenced by Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but later he became part of the Fauvist movement, Cubism, and abstraction. By 1906, Montmartre was a bustling community and Jacques Villon moved to Puteaux in the quiet outskirts of Paris. There, he began to devote more of his time to working in drypoint -- a technique that created dark, velvety lines that stood out against the white of the paper.
However, his isolation from the vibrant art community in Montmartre, together with his modest nature, ensured that he and his artwork remained relatively obscure for a number of years. At his home, in 1911, he and his brothers Raymond and Marcel organized a regular discussion group with artists and critics such as Francis Picabia, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Leger and others that soon was dubbed the Puteaux Group. Villon was instrumental in having the group exhibit under the name "Section d'Or" after the "golden section" of classical mathematics. Their first show at La Botie gallery in October of 1912 involved more than two hundred works by thirty-one different artists.
In 1913, Villon created his Cubist masterpieces: seven large drypoints in which forms were broken into shaded pyramidal planes. That year, he exhibited at the famous Armory Show in New York City that helped introduce European modern art to the United States. His works proved popular and all his paintings sold. From there, his reputation expanded so that by the 1930s he was actually better known in the United States than in Europe.
An exhibition of Jacques Villon's work was held in Paris in 1944 at the Galerie Louis Carré, following which he received honors at a number of international exhibitions. In 1950, Villon received the Carnegie Prize, the highest award for painting in the world, and in 1954 he was made a Commander of the Legion of Honor. The following year he was commissioned to design stained-glass windows for the cathedral at Metz, France. In 1956 he was awarded the Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale exhibition.
Among Villon's greatest achievements as a printmaker was his creation of a purely graphic language for Cubism -- an accomplishment that no other printmaker, including his fellow Cubists Pablo Picasso or Georges Braque, could claim.
Villon died in his studio at Puteaux.
In 1967, in Rouen, his last surviving artist brother Marcel helped organize an exhibition called Les Duchamp: Jacques Villon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Marcel Duchamp, Suzanne Duchamp. Some of this family exhibition was later shown at the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris.