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José Victoriano (Carmelo Carlos) González-Pérez was born in Madrid in 1887. From 1902-1904, he studied drawing and contributed to local periodicals. From 1904-1905 he studied painting with José Mareno Carbonero, considered one of the last great history painters of the 19th century. Also in 1905, he changed his name to Juan Gris.
In 1906, Gris moved to Paris where he became friends with artists Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso and the the poets and art critics Guillaume Apollinaire and Maurice Raynal. He also contributed darkly humorous illustrations to journals L'Assiette au beurre, Le Charivari, and Le Cri de Paris.
He began to paint seriously in 1911 when he developed his personal Cubist style. By 1912, he was showing his work widely with exhibitions at the famed Salon des Indépendants (his first painting exhibited was titled Hommage à Pablo Picasso); Galeries Dalmau in Barcelona, the first declared group exhibition of Cubism worldwide; Der Sturm gallery in Berlin, the Salon de la Société Normande de Peinture Moderne in Rouen; and the Salon de la Section d'Or in Paris.
Historians have divided the history of Cubism into phases. The first phase, known as Analytic Cubism, coined by Gris a posteriori, was the artist’s earliest distinctive style which was both radical and influential as a short but highly significant art movement between 1910 and 1912 in France. These artworks analyzed the use of rudimentary shapes and overlapping planes to depict the separate forms of subjects in a painting.
Also in 1912, Gris signed a contract that gave Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, one of the most notable French art dealers of the 20th century, exclusive rights to his work. The artist became good friends Henri Matisse in 1914 and over the next several years formed close relationships with Jacques Lipchitz and Jean Metzinger.
After 1913, Gris converted to the second phase of Cubism, Synthetic Cubism, which was marked by simple shapes, bright colours, and little to no depth. He was notable for his extensive use of collage during this time and, unlike Picasso and Braque, whose Cubist works were practically monochromatic, Gris painted with bright harmonious colours in daring, novel combinations in the manner of Matisse.
In 1914 he was preoccupied with papier collé or collage, invented by Braque in 1912. However, by 1914 as the first world war raged on he grew tired of collage. He noted in a letter to Raynal dated 20 December, "My present life is flat, undecided and sterile and I don't even like reading the newspapers [the primary source of his collage elements] because I am so depressed and terrified by what is happening" (quoted in Letters, XXV).
During the war, he also had to suspend his agreement with Kahnweiler who was exiled in Bern and could not pay Gris his monthly stipend. By April of 1915, Gris began selling his pictures to Léonce Rosenberg. This new arrangement was an important factor that encouraged Gris to begin painting again in early 1915. That same year he was also painted by his friend Amedeo Modigliani.
His preference for clarity and order influenced Amédée Ozenfant and Charles Edouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) and made Gris an important exemplar of the post-war "return to order" or Purist movement.
Gris's works from late 1916 through 1917 exhibit a greater simplification of geometric structure, a blurring of the distinction between objects and setting, between subject matter and background, known as Crystal Cubism. This range of styles of painting and sculpture, especially significant between 1917 and 1920, was practised in varying degrees by many artists including Metzinger, Henri Laurens, and most notably, Jacques Lipchitz. Raynal first referred to the form as 'crystal' Cubism because of the tight compositions, the clarity, and sense of order reflected in these works.
Gris’ first major solo exhibition was held at Rosenberg's Galerie l'Effort Moderne in Paris in 1919 just as artists and critics were beginning to write conspicuously about the Synthetic Cubist phase and its importance in the overall study of advanced Cubism.
In 1922, Gris designed his first ballet sets and costumes for Sergei Diaghilev.
Between 1924 and 1925, he articulated most of his aesthetic theories and delivered his definitive lecture, "Des possibilités de la Peinture," at the Sorbonne in 1924. Major exhibitions of the artist’s work continued through 1925 in Paris, Berlin and Dusseldorf but as his health declined, he made frequent visits to the south of France.
Gris died in Boulogne-sur-Seine on May 11, 1927.