Jacques Villeglé and the Rue Delambre
By Barnaby Conrad III
Last summer I was in Paris for a big funeral to celebrate the life of 96-year-old Jacques Villeglé, the Grandfather of Street Art and the last great French 20th artist. We had been friends for over fifteen years and I’d recently published the first biography of him in English. That evening I put sorrow aside with a nightcap at Rosebud in the rue Delambre, a dark, quiet place favored (since 1962) by Samuel Beckett and other writers living on the Left Bank. As a jazz track played quietly, the bartender in a crisp white jacket and black tie served me a Calvados, Villeglé’s favorite aperitif.
It reminded me of my first visit to Rosebud with Villeglé some fifteen years earlier. Over a glass of Calvados, the then octogenarian Villeglé told me, “After art school in Brittany, I lived here in the rue Delambre from 1947 to 1954 with Raymond Hains. Our tiny apartment was at number 26, just a few doors away from this bar.” In 1961, Villeglé and Hains joined the Nouveaux Réalistes, an art movement founded by art critic Pierre Restany and artist Yves Klein, along with Jean Tinguely, Niki de St. Phalle, and Christo among others. “The apartment had no shower, so every few days Hains and I would grab our towels and cross the rue Delambre to the Hôtel des Bains to clean-up for a few francs. You know, in those days, only about one out five apartments in Paris had a full bathroom.”
By our second Calvados, Villeglé divulged that while living in the Rue Delambre in the 1950s, he met everyone, from Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara to surrealist poet André Breton who invited Villeglé and his colleagues up to his apartment to share a bottle of white rum. “Many artists and writers of that 1920s generation started out in the rue Delambre, until they made some money and left.” Villeglé also met surrealist photographer Man Ray. “He’d come to our Nouveau réaliste art openings at Galerie J, always standing quietly in the corner.” Man Ray’s former lover and model, Kiki de Montparnasse, once kissed the young Villeglé on the cheek for being the “cutest boy” on the terrace of the café Le Dôme at 1, rue Delambre. “Well,” he chuckled, “I’m sure Kiki kissed quite a few people in the old days, even Hemingway. He wrote the foreword to her memoirs, you know.”
As Villeglé and I chattered on, a tall young man with a beard and longish hair approached our table. It was Fréderic Beigbeder, Paris’s bad-boy bon vivant novelist, who is now a television host and editor of Lui. “Monsieur Villeglé, I just wanted to say that I admire your work very much,” said Beigbeder, shaking Villeglé’s hand.
“Merci…And meet my biographer,” Villeglé said, indicating me. “He’s going to make me famous in America.”
“You’re already famous here, so why not there?” said Beigbeder with a cordial nod. Only in Paris.
More Calvados-fueled conversation followed until the octogenarian Villeglé looked at his watch, then donned his trenchcoat and trademark fedora. Outside rain fell heavily and we had no umbrella. By the time we reached the corner of rue Delambre and Boulevard du Montparnasse, we were soaked. While hailing a taxi, Villeglé stumbled on the wet cobblestones and careened sideways. I grabbed the belt of his trenchcoat and yanked him back just before a huge bus whooshed by, drenching us with water.
“That was a close one,” said Villeglé. “Thanks for saving my life.”
And what a life it was. Villeglé was born in Brittany in 1926 to a prosperous family who was hit hard in the Depression. During the War, two of Jacques’s brothers died in uniform. Even after his uncle, a Resistance organizer, was captured and imprisoned by the Germans, the teen-aged Jacques continued to deliver secret messages on his bicycle. When tasked to deliver a message in Paris, he visited the city for the first time. “There were flags with swastikas all up and down the Rue de Rivoli,” he recalled. He vowed to return after the war.
In 1949 he and his art school buddy Raymond Hains moved to Paris and lived in a bohemian garret at 15, rue Delambre where they tried to paint abstract pictures. One night after a cheap dinner at La Soupe Merveilleuse, they walked to the corner of the Boulevard Montparnasse. On a fence between the Café du Dôme and La Coupole stood a large billboard plastered with posters that had been torn and ravaged by vandals. “It looked like an abstract painting of fractured shapes speckled with words,” Villeglé told me. “So Hains and I pulled it down in pieces and took it home. We had no idea what we were going to do with it.”
A few days later, they re-assembled the poster fragments and mounted them on an eight-foot-long canvas. Today that picture—considered an icon of Nouveau réalisme—hangs in the permanent collection of the Centre George Pompidou.
Over the next 50 years Villeglé stole thousands of posters from the over 6,000 streets of Paris, many of them ending up in museums, from the Tate Museum in London to MOMA in New York. The Centre Georges Pompidou gave him a retrospective in 2008, while the auction record for his work is over $300,000.
The artist’s long and fruitful career inspired my recent biography, Jacques Villeglé and the Streets of Paris (2022). It also led me back to the rue Delambre many times. Sometimes I walked the streets of Paris with Villeglé, who was still spry into his nineties. Other times I wandered as a solo flâneur.
An incredible number of artists and writers have lived in the rue Delambre since this short (just 200 meters long) street was first constructed in 1839 and named for the astronomer Jean-Baptiste Delambre. The street’s intellectual-culinary anchor is Le Dôme at 1, rue Delambre, at the corner of Boulevard Montparnasse. Hôtel Delambre (formerly known as the Hôtel des Écoles) at 35, rue Delambre, hosted Paul Gauguin in 1891 (before his journey to Tahiti), while the Surrealist poet André Breton lived here for several months in 1921. The Japanese painter Foujita kept his art studio at number 5, rue Delambre, sharing it with a half-dozen cats. The former Grand Hôtel des Écoles, now the chic Hotel Lenox (15, rue Delambre) was once home to Man Ray, who obsessively photographed his muse Kiki de Montparnasse in Room #43. Dadaist leader Tristan Tzara also lived there in 1921, while Henry Miller and his wife June camped out in this hotel from 1928 to 1930.
The now defunct Dingo Bar, once located at 10, rue Delambre, was where Ernest Hemingway first met Scott Fitzgerald in April 1925, just two weeks after Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby. And it was here that the young Hem encountered Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for the troublesome Lady Brett in his great novel The Sun Also Rises. “Jimmie the Barman” Charters, a former lightweight boxing champion from Liverpool, ran The Dingo and wrote a memoir of his years there. Today the space hosts an Italian restaurant Auberge de Venise (yet it still honors the Dingo’s heritage with a respectful wall plaque).
Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir lived at the Hôtel des Bains, 33 Rue Delambre in 1937. Things changed when the Germans invaded Paris in 1940. Dadaist photographer Erwin Blumenfeld, who had a studio at 9, rue Delambre, was sent to a concentration camp in France, eventually escaping to New York in 1941. Fortunately, portrait photographer Philip Halsman left the rue Delambre in late 1940 to settle in America, as did Marcel Duchamp. Man Ray fled too, but eventually returned to Paris, where Villeglé remembered him quietly attending the Nouveau réaliste art exhibitions at Galerie J in the Rue de Montfaucon in the 1960s. “But by then lived he nearby in the Rue Ferou with his wife Juliet. Kiki was long gone.”
For someone who described himself as a flâneur, Villeglé was always an industrious artist, and his catalogue raisonnée includes more than 4,000 works, all snatched from the streets of Paris. Even in his mid-nineties. he still made art every day. Several of his works were snatched in the rue Delambre, but he harvested thousands more from all twenty arrondissements.
I sent Villeglé hearty congratulations on his 96th birthday on March 27, 2022, and he wrote back quickly and joyfully; yet he would die a few weeks later on June 6. The funeral was scheduled for June 26th so I scrambled to get hotel rooms. Naturally, I chose the Hôtel Delambre, right across from Villeglé’s old apartment at 15 rue Delambre.
The funeral at St.-Nicolas-des Champs in the Marais district (where Villeglé and his family eventually lived), was a delightful celebration of a long life. Over 200 family members and friends turned up at the ancient church. Among the eulogists was Bernard Blisténe, director of the Centre Georges Pompidou, where Villeglé enjoyed a retrospective in 2008. After the funeral, Martin Muller, Villeglé’s long-time art dealer from San Francisco, invited me to lunch at Brasserie Lipp in St.-Germain-des-Près, one of Villeglé’s favorite places. At the end of the meal—mais bien sur!—a glass of Calvados and a toast to Jacques, the Grandfather of Street Art.
But I still had another two days in Paris, and needed to change hotels. So I rolled my suitcase a hundred yards down the sidewalk to the Hotel Lenox at 15 rue Delambre. I’d hoped to get the same room where Man Ray had his photographic studio in the 1920s, but it was already taken. Instead, I got a bigger room—newly renovated—on the top floor, which overlooked the quiet courtyard and the rooftops of Paris. Though Villeglé was buried at St. Mâlo in his native Brittany, I still sensed his spirit walking the streets he knew so well. That night I had dinner at Le Dôme, the restaurant where Kiki de Montparnasse had kissed the young Villeglé seven decades before. I consumed a dozen oysters from Brittany, a steak, and, in Jacques’s honor, a big glass of Calvados.
After breakfast the next morning at Le Select I walked to the nearby Cimetière de Montparnasse to have a chat with my dead heroes. There was the spooky bat-shaped pedestal dedicated to Baudelaire. And of course, a stone for Samuel Beckett. Two of Villeglé’s Nouveau réaliste colleagues, François Dufrêne and sculptor César, are buried here, the latter’s grave marked by one of his grand bronze centaurs. I also found Jean-Paul Sartre and his wife Simone de Beauvoir buried near the entrance. And here was Man Ray’s grave, and there was Tristan Tzara’s—this necropolis was a second home for the famous residents of the rue Delambre!
Then it was time to leave the cemetery and re-enter the City of Lights. Thanks to Jacques Villeglé’s art, the streets of Paris will never be forgotten.
Barnaby Conrad III is the author of the recently published biography Jacques Villeglé and the Streets of Paris (Modernism Inc. and Inkshares). He lives in Accomac, Virginia.