Settling in Shreveport after World War II, French artist Jean Despujols is best known for his paintings of Indochina and World War I.
Although Jean Despujols is best known in the United States for his paintings of Indochina in the 1930s, he was a major figure in the world of French art between the two world wars. One of the defining artists of art deco painting, Despujols will also be remembered for his World War I Sketchbook; his eight-volume travel journal, Voyage d’un réfractaire; his controversial Taboo Collection; and the hundreds of exquisite portraits he completed in Shreveport, Louisiana, during the final twenty-five years of his life.
Early Life and Education
Born on March 19,1886, in Salles, France, the son of Bernard Pierre Despujols and Jeanne Lintilhac, Jean Despujols traveled the world before settling in Shreveport where he died on January 26, 1965. He is still well known in Bordeaux, where he studied at the École Municipale des Beaux Arts and was awarded the Prix de la Ville in 1910. Many of the city’s museums include his work in their collections. Despujols later studied at the École Nationale des Beaux Arts, in Paris. While there, he completed his painting, The Passion of the Virgin, which enabled him to win the coveted Premier Grand Prix de Rome on July 18, 1914. Scarcely a week later, just as he was leaving to continue his studies in Rome, Germany declared war on France.
Mobilized on August 2, Despujols served as a machine-gunner in the trenches for four years while documenting some of the most devastating battles of the war: Verdun, the Chemin des Dames, the Belgian campaign, and the battles of the Craonne and the Marne. Because of the miserable conditions in the trenches and a critical lack of paper, Despujols drew many of his war scenes on the backs of letters and scraps of paper, which he later incorporated into his World War I Sketchbook. These sketches also served as illustrations for the unpublished journal that Despujols later entitled L’homme qui se bat (Man in Struggle).
The end of the war afforded Despujols the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of the Prix de Rome. When he returned to France in 1924, he was hired as a professor of painting at the American School of Fine Arts at Fontainebleau. Despujols’ return to France marked the beginning of a period of fervent artistic activity, culminating in highly successful exhibitions in the Salon des artistes français, the Salon des indépendants, and the Salon des tuileries. His painting, La pensée (Thought) for instance, was purchased for 50,000 francs (in 1929) at the Artistes indépendants, and L’Heure du berger (Berger’s Hour) won the Gold Medal at the Artistes français. During this period, Despujols’ style evolved beyond strict interpretations of neoclassicism, leading him to elaborate the basic tenets of art deco painting, which the artist characterized as “linear rhyme.” An excellent example of this technique can be seen in paintings such as La Femme au Lapin, in which the curving line of the woman’s neck and dress are exaggerated so that they echo the lines of the undulating hillside behind her.
Despujols was honored with numerous public commissions such as Agriculture and The Glory of the Basque Region for the International Exhibition of Industrial, Decorative, and Modern Art of 1925 in Bordeaux. He joined three Prix de Rome prize winners—Marius de Buzon, Despujols, Jean Dupas, and François Roganeau—in a commission to illustrate the Colonies, Agriculture, Wine, and the Pines of Bordeaux. Despujols was also charged with the decor of the restaurant for which he painted The Glory of the Basque Region. The public complained bitterly about the nudity of the central couple of Agriculture, and a regional Committee for the Moral Protection of Youth and for the Repression of Licentiousness in the Streets organized a letter-writing campaign to the mayor.
There is evidence that Despujols lost major commissions because of public disapproval of his work; when construction began on the Church of the Holy Spirit—the largest artistic undertaking of 1930s France—and more than forty artists were commissioned, including every other Prix de Rome painter available, Despujols was overlooked. Instead he continued to submit his work to various competitions. When Blue Maternity won the prestigious Prix de l’Indochine on May 16, 1936, the artist immediately began preparing to leave for French Indochina, setting sail from Marseilles on November 27, 1936. During his twenty-month voyage, he recorded the astonishing variety of diverse cultures of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam and avoided the modern, westernized cities of the regions he visited.
On August 25, 1938, Despujols set sail from Haiphong, Vietnam. After a brief stay in Hawaii, he rejoined his American wife, Millicent Martin, and their two children at her parents’ home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Returning to France in July 1939 to fulfill his obligations to the Société des artistes coloniaux, Despujols was putting the finishing touches on the collection when the outbreak of the World War II forced the cancellation of the exhibition at the Pavillon de l’Orangerie in Paris. In haste, Despujols hid the paintings at Chaulet, the family estate, where they remained until the artist sent for them in 1948.
Escaping the Nazi advance, the artist joined his family in the United States, where he settled in Shreveport, Louisiana, and established himself a portraitist. He spent the remaining twenty-five years of his life working in his studio, located in his home at 503 Broadmoor Boulevard, where he completed his still-unpublished eight-volume travel journal, Voyage d’un réfractaire, as well as his shockingly modern Taboo Collection. The travel journal is especially important not only because it shows a remarkable evolution in the artist’s thought, but because of its hundreds of exquisite illustrations. These miniatures represent the very best of Despujols’ œuvre. It was during the same period that he completed his Taboo Collection. The subject matter of this group of nearly twenty painting would have been so shocking to the public during the 1950s and 1960s that the artist hid the collection under his bed and, during his life, the existence of such a collection was unknown. Certainly images such as Birthday Cake, where the central character is a nude Korean woman who has been crucified, would have raised storms of indignation across rural America. Instead, Shreveporters came to see his home as a center of art and culture in the region, and he was rewarded with hundreds of commissions for the magnificent portraits that remain scattered throughout North Louisiana. On his death on January 26, 1965, the entire Indochina Collection, considered by the artist to be his crowning achievement, was purchased by Algur H. Meadows and presented to Centenary College of Louisiana where Mr. Meadows received a law degree in 1926; at present it is housed at the Meadows Museum of Art at Centenary College.