Born Emile Méry Frédéric Gaston Duchamp in Damville, Eure, in the Haute-Normandie region of France, he came from a prosperous and artistically inclined family. While he was a young man, his maternal grandfather Emile Nicolle, successful businessman and artist, 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 Montmartre in 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 studying law.
To distinguish himself from his siblings, Gaston Duchamp adopted the pseudonym of Jacques Villon as a tribute to the French medieval poet François Villon. In Montmartre, home to an expanding art community, Villon lost interest in the pursuit of a legal career, and for the next 10 years he worked in graphic media, contributing cartoons and illustrations to Parisian newspapers as well as drawing color posters. His work appeared in the satirical weekly Le Courrier français.
In 1903 he helped organize the drawing section of the first Salon d'Automne in Paris. In 1904-1905 he studied art at the Académie Julian.
During the First World War, Villon worked as a cartographer for the army.
At first, he was influenced by Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but later he participated in the fauvist, Cubist, andabstract impressionist movements.
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, an intaglio technique that creates dark, velvety lines that stand out against the white of the paper. During this time he worked closely to develop his technique with other important printmakers such as Manuel Robbe.
His isolation from the vibrant art community in Montmartre, together with his modest nature, ensured that he and his artwork remained 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 Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Francis Picabia, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger and others that was soon dubbed the Puteaux Group (or the Section d'Or). Villon was instrumental in having the group exhibit under the name Section d'Or after the golden section of classical mathematics. Their first show,Salon de la Section d'Or, held at the Galerie La Boétie in October 1912, involved more than 200 works by 31 artists.
In 1913, Villon created seven large drypoints in which forms break into shaded pyramidal planes. That year, he exhibited at the Armory Show in New York City, helping introduce European modern art to the United States. His works proved popular and all his art sold. From there, his reputation expanded so that by the 1930s he was better known in the United States than in Europe.
In May 2004, an oil painting by Villon dated 1913 entitled "L'Acrobate" and measuring 39 ¼ by 28 ¼ inches sold at Sotheby'sfor $1,296,000 (US dollars).
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 1938 he was named Chevalier (Knight) of the Legion of Honor. In 1947 he was promoted to Officier (Officer) of the Legion of Honor. In 1950, Villon received the Carnegie Prize, the highest award for painting in the world, and in 1954 he was made a Commandeur (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.