November 30, 2012 7:57 pm

Chips off the old block

History has shown that art is often a family enterprise
Raymond Duchamp-Villon's sculpture 'Torse de jeune homme'

Raymond Duchamp-Villon's 'Torse de jeune homme'

If a collector casually refers to “my Giacometti”, it will probably be assumed that she or he means Alberto, the great Swiss artist who holds the record for a sculpture sold at auction – “Walking Man I”, which sold for £65m in 2010.

Yet this could also refer to his lesser-known (but highly talented) brother Diego, who represents a less extravagant option with his quasi-sculptural design objects and furniture.

Such family relationships among artists go back a very long way, of course – to the days when art was a trade passed down from father to (usually) son, like baking or millinery. Several Bellinis and a baffling number of Bruegels are among the many examples.

There were also a few significant father-daughter artist partnerships: Artemisia Gentileschi, who outstripped her brothers in the workshop of their father Orazio and went on to enjoy an international career; the brilliant Angelica Kauffman, schooled by her jobbing-painter father Joseph; and the strange tale of Marietta Tintoretto, whose famous father Jacopo dressed her in boys’ clothes and kept her working by his side for 15 years – her few surviving works were often attributed to him.

In the Romantic era, the figure of “the artist” became synonymous with lone genius: the greatest figures of the late 19th and 20th centuries were apparently sui generis, and certainly wished to think themselves so. Where artistic dynasties did exist, it was usually the female – daughter, sister, wife, lover – whose work was overshadowed: few people would have thought, 50 years ago, that the retiring Gwen John would now be better known than her flamboyant brother Augustus, for instance.

A very unusual example of a modernist artist-family is on show at Francis M Naumann Fine Art at Art Basel Miami Beach. Any art-lover knows the name of Marcel Duchamp, but few remember that he was one of four artist-siblings who responded to the lure of fin-de-siècle Paris and spent their lives in one form of artistic endeavour or another.

It’s all rather confusing because the eldest brother Gaston changed his name. In thrall to the legend of medieval poet François Villon, Gaston styled himself Jacques Villon and moved from the family home near Rouen to the bohemian delights of Montmartre; the next brother, now known as Raymond Duchamp-Villon, went too. Marcel, although a full 11 years younger, hastened to join his brothers and by 1904, when he was just 17, he’d embarked on the superbly innovative career we know. Finally Suzanne, a few years younger than Marcel, married fellow artist Jean Crotti and with him founded a movement called tabu, loosely related to dadaism.

Of Marcel’s siblings, it is Raymond who shines. (His 1910/1968 “Torse de jeune homme”, at Naumann, is shown left.) Sadly he died in 1918, of typhoid fever contracted during the first world war, but his sculptural work reminds us of that other victim of the trenches, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

Marcel, who outlived the others, seemed to like the family connection; in 1952 he organised an exhibition in New York entitled Duchamp Frères et Soeur, assisted in another at the Guggenheim New York five years later, and in 1967, the year before his death, a third show was mounted in Rouen.

In a nod to that 1952 exhibition, Naumann’s stand is called Duchamp Brothers & Sister – and may give buyers a chance to make that impressive casual mention of “my Duchamp”.

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