Jean-Jacques Duval creates masterpieces from his Willsboro studio
“Artists don’t retire,” says Jean-Jacques Duval, sitting in his Willsboro studio in front of an unfinished abstract painting on an easel. Another work in progress leans against a wall. On his drafting table is a small line drawing of Jesus and two angels, filled in with watercolor paint—a proposed stained-glass window design for a New Jersey church, the latest of hundreds of projects he’s conceived for buildings around the world, from Japan to Germany to Plattsburgh. In 2005, the Stained Glass Association of America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award—though his career was far from over.
Duval, at 89, lives independently. He still drives himself to Montreal to bring work to the gallery that represents him, Beaux-arts des Amériques, and he enjoys cooking and socializing with friends and neighbors. He is no longer steady enough to wade into the Saranac River to cast for trout—the preoccupation that brought him north from New York City in 1992—and he says his memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be, but otherwise he is in good health for a near-nonagenarian.
At times, his fingers twitch in mid-air, as if thumbing through a mental filing cabinet stuffed with nine decades of information in at least three languages.
There is plenty he does remember: He was born in the Alsace region of France in 1930. His Jewish father, who died when Duval was six, never married his Catholic mother—which would prove fortunate during World War II. He recalls the Gestapo ransacking his family’s home, tossing his elderly grandmother out of bed and demanding the papers that would prove his Jewish paternity. At the war’s end, he says, his family hid out in nearby caves in fear of S.S. troops, who were rumored to be killing people as they retreated.
During the occupation, Duval’s family kept up appearances by attending church, but he wasn’t especially moved, he says—either by the scripture or the colorful windows that would someday become his stock-in-trade. It was later, through a neighbor who worked in stained glass, that he became enchanted with the medium. His religious persuasion—or lack thereof—never changed, though, despite houses of worship being among his most common clients.
In 1950, he moved to New York City for a job with a stained-glass studio. It was there he met his wife, Elga, a writer who had a PhD in French literature and was acquainted with some of the leading artists and writers of the era, including the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. The couple mingled with the Abstract Expressionist crowd at the famed Cedar Bar; Willem de Kooning was a guest at their wedding.
For over 30 years, Duval had his own stained-glass studio in New York City, gaining an international reputation for his strong colors, dynamic shapes and pioneering use of abstraction and faceted glass, or dalle de verre. His paintings and glass designs share an Abstract Expressionist aesthetic, with strongly defined but organic shapes. Even his religious commissions frequently interpret imagery more loosely than the traditional narrative style that began in the Middle Ages as a way to relate Bible stories to the illiterate masses.
After completing a design, Duval sends it to a fabricator—he’s used the same ones for over 50 years—to construct the final windows from hand-blown leaded glass or dalle de verre.
The Duvals first visited the Adirondacks in the late 1960s, when their son attended North Country School, in Lake Placid. Elga, Duval says, “was strictly a city girl. She thought this was the sticks.”
After Elga died of cancer, in 1977, Duval remained in New York City for another 15 years. Then, two years after buying a house and 180 acres in Saranac for fishing getaways, he decided to move there year-round. “It wasn’t much of a house,” he says. “I just wanted it to be on a river.”
Duval had little in common with his rural neighbors, but they looked after him. When he became stranded at a friend’s house during the ice storm of 1998, Duval returned to find they had set up his generator.
Soon after he moved to Saranac, Duval met the artist Patricia Reynolds, beginning a relationship that lasted until her death, in 2015. The Willsboro Point house they shared is hung with both of their work—Duval’s abstract canvases in the spacious kitchen, Reynolds’s landscapes in the living room, with its stunning view of Lake Champlain and Vermont.
To see Duval’s stained-glass work, you’ll have to head north of the Blue Line, to Plattsburgh. At Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, a 10-foot-by-20-foot window hangs above the main entrance. And at SUNY Plattsburgh, which awarded Duval an honorary doctorate of fine art in 2017, he was commissioned to design a sculptural artwork for the library’s Holocaust Memorial Gallery. Kristallnacht is two pillars of multicolored dalle de verre shards that echo the broken glass of the coordinated attacks on German-Jewish businesses and homes, in 1938. It was an emotional reminder of his own childhood experiences during the occupation.
Whether in a house of worship or a secular space, Duval says, he hopes his windows and paintings inspire people. But perhaps the best compliment he’s received on one of his designs was in an entirely different medium. A doctor friend asked him to design his gravestone. “He said it was the best one in the graveyard,” Duval says, smiling. “He said, ‘I can’t wait to get there.’”
Visit www.duvalstudio.com to see more of Jean-Jacques Duval’s work.