Historical Note


Perhaps more than any other artist of the twentieth century, the iconoclastic ideas and work of Marcel Duchamp shaped the course of modern and contemporary art in the United States and Europe. French American artist Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp was born in Blainville, near Rouen, France on July 28, 1887 to Justin-Isidore (Eugène) Duchamp and his wife, Marie-Caroline-Lucie Nicolle. Duchamp had five siblings, including three artists: painter Jacques Villon (born Gaston Duchamp, 1875), the sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon (born Raymond Duchamp, 1876), and the painter Suzanne Duchamp (b. 1889). Marcel Duchamp briefly studied painting at the Académie Julien in Paris. In 1905, he completed a year of voluntary military service. Following his discharge, he returned to Paris, where he painted and produced cartoons for "Le Courrier Français" and "Le Rire."

Between 1908 and 1913, Duchamp lived and worked in the Paris suburb of Neuilly. During these years, he often traveled to Puteaux on Sunday where artists and writers including Jean Metzinger, Fernand Léger, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, and Guillaume Apollinaire gathered at his brothers' studios. In 1909, he exhibited publicly for the first time, showing two works at the Salon des Indépendants, and three at the Salon d'Automne. Also around this time, Duchamp met the painter Francis Picabia, whose spirited individualism and radical artistic ideas meshed well with Duchamp's. They became close friends and remained so until Picabia's death in 1953.

By 1911, Duchamp was working in a Cubist style and began incorporating sexual mechanical symbolism, biomorphism, and motion into such works as "Coffee Mill" and "Sad Young Man in a Train." The following year, he completed his best known painting, "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2," which he withdrew from the March 1912 Salon des Indépendants in protest against criticism from the hanging committee. The painting later caused a scandal at the 1913 Armory Show in New York (travelled to Boston and Chicago), the first exhibition devoted to European modernism in the United States, where it was described by one critic as depicting an "explosion in a shingle factory." As a result, Duchamp became famous in the United States while remaining relatively obscure in Europe. During July and August of 1912, Duchamp traveled to Munich, where he painted "The Passage from the Virgin to the Bride" and "The Bride," and executed the first drawing on the theme of "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors."

In 1913, Duchamp virtually abandoned all conventional forms of painting and drawing, and began experimenting with chance, producing "Three Standard Stoppages" and "Erratum Musical." He also began studies and notes for his magnum opus "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (the Large Glass)" (1915-1923), a complex allegory of frustrated desire. In October of the same year, he moved back to Paris and, shortly thereafter, mounted a bicycle wheel upside down on a kitchen stool. This object, which he found visually delightful, proved to be a forerunner to the Readymades, commonplace objects that Duchamp elevated to the status of art by selecting, inscribing, and, sometimes, slightly altering them. The following year, Duchamp collected a small group of notes and one drawing in the "Box of 1914," of which at least three photographic replicas were made.

With the outbreak of World War I and his exemption from military service due to a mild heart condition, Duchamp found France to be inhospitable and in 1915 departed for New York, where he remained until 1918. While in the United States, Duchamp lived first with Walter and Louise Arensberg at 33 W. 67th Street, and later in a studio above their apartment. Walter Pach had introduced Duchamp to the Arensbergs upon his arrival, and they became instant and lifelong friends. In addition, the Arensbergs became Duchamp's greatest patrons, assembling the preeminent collection of his works that they presented to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1950. In exchange for rent, the Arensbergs eventually acquired ownership of "The Large Glass," which they later transferred to Katherine Dreier.

During this time, Duchamp was a primary participant in the so-called Arensberg Salon, where intellectuals, artists, writers, and others gathered almost nightly to imbibe, exchange artistic ideas, and play chess. Duchamp was also active in a variety of organized avant-garde artistic events and activities that helped to define New York's manifestation of the Dada movement. He exhibited five paintings and drawings, as well as two Readymades, at the April 1916 exhibition of modern art at the Bourgeois Gallery. He was a founding member of the Society of Independent Artists, Inc. His relationship with this organization was cut short when he resigned from the board after his submission of a urinal, under the pseudonym R. Mutt, was rejected from the inaugural exhibition. In addition, Duchamp with the aid of Henri-Pierre Roché, Walter Arensberg, and Beatrice Wood, published two little magazines: "The Blind Man" and "RongWrong."

Following the United States entry into World War I in 1917, Duchamp departed for Buenos Aires. During his nine-month stay in Argentina, Duchamp completed his study on glass, "To Be Looked at with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour," worked on drawings for "The Large Glass," and played chess avidly. In June 1919, Duchamp sailed for France and once there, became associated with the Paris Dada group, which included André Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, Tristan Tzara, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, and others. During this time, he produced "L.H.O.O.Q.", a postcard of Leonardo's Mona Lisa "rectified" with goatee and moustache, perhaps his work most frequently identified with the Dada movement.

In 1920, Duchamp returned to New York for a year's stay, during which he collaborated with photographer and painter Man Ray on a number of projects. Duchamp, with Man Ray's assistance, produced and documented "Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics)," and together they shot an anaglyphic film using two synchronized cameras. Along with Katherine Dreier, they conceived and founded the Société Anonyme, the first museum in the United States dedicated to modern art. Man Ray also photographed Duchamp in female guise, thereby documenting his newly created feminine alter-ego, Rrose Sélavy, who would henceforth give her name to Duchamp's published puns and Readymades. Duchamp and Man Ray also edited and published the single-issue little magazine "New York Dada" in April 1921. A few months later, Duchamp again sailed for Europe, settling in Paris with his sister Suzanne and her artist husband, Jean Crotti. Man Ray arrived in Paris a month later, and they continued their film experiments, which culminated in 1926 with "Anemic Cinema." Also in 1921, Duchamp had a comet shape shaved into his hair, a gesture prescient of the body art movement of the later twentieth century.

In 1922, Duchamp returned to New York to continue work on "The Large Glass," which the Arensbergs had transferred to Katherine Dreier in the previous year, shortly before they moved to California. While in New York, Duchamp designed the layout for "Some French Moderns Says McBride," an anthology of art critic Henry McBride's writings published by the Société Anonyme. Over the next 45 years Duchamp continued to create a variety of design projects, including exhibtions, books, and posters. In January 1923, Duchamp signed "The Large Glass," having brought it to a state of "incompletion." Shortly thereafter, he returned to Paris, where he remained until 1942 except for occasional trips around Europe and brief visits to New York in 1926-1927, 1933-1934, and 1936.

Over the next ten years, Duchamp dedicated an increasing amount of time to chess, participating in several professional competitions, including a 1925 chess tournament in Nice for which he designed the poster. And, in 1932, Duchamp published with Vitaly Halberstadt "L'Opposition et les cases conjugées sont réconciliées," a chess manual dedicated to several special end-game problems, for which Duchamp designed the layout and cover.

Despite pursuing chess professionally, Duchamp kept his hand in the art world. He participated in the organization of several exhibitions, including the 1926-1927 International Exhibition of Modern Art at the Brooklyn Museum, which included his "The Large Glass." The work was broken during its return to Dreier's Connecticut home, and Duchamp spent a month repairing it in 1936. Duchamp also earned money through the speculative purchase and sale of works of arts, including several on behalf of the Arensbergs. In 1927, for example, he purchased in conjunction with Roché a large number of works by his close friend Constantin Brancusi from the John Quinn estate. In June of that year, Duchamp married Lydie Sarazin-Levassor, whom he divorced a few months later. The marriage was a short and temporary disruption in his nearly twenty-year relationship with Mary Reynolds, an American widow who moved to Paris in the early 1920s where she became skilled in the art of bookbinding.

In 1934, Duchamp began a series of projects to produce or reproduce several works of art as editions. He assembled notes and photographs pertaining to "The Large Glass," for facsimile reproduction in "La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même" (known as "The Green Box"), published in an edition of 300. The following year, he produced a set of six Rotoreliefs in an edition of 500 that he displayed at the annual Paris inventors' salon. He also began a six-year project to assemble material for the "Box in a Valise," a museum in miniature of all his important works of art. The first Box was published in 1941. Duchamp and various assistants, including Joseph Cornell, Xenia Cage, and Jacqueline Matisse, assembled individual valises slowly over a period of several decades.

Work on the Box, like Duchamp's life itself, was complicated by the outbreak of World War II. He departed Paris in late May 1940 just weeks ahead of the Nazi Occupation. He and Mary Reynolds spent the summer in Arcachon in the Occupied Zone with Suzanne and Jean Crotti, and returned to Paris in September. Around that time, Duchamp began planning to immigrate to New York. Because of complications with his visa, the process took nearly two years, and required the help of many friends including Katherine Dreier, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., and Walter Arensberg. In the meantime, he received a permanent pass for the "free zone" as a cheese merchant, and surreptitiously transferred the Box components from his rue Larrey studio that he had occupied since 1926 to Marseilles, from where they were eventually shipped to New York.

Duchamp arrived in New York in June 1942, while Reynolds remained in Paris. He quickly became associated with the Surrealist group of artists and writers temporarily living in New York during the war, which included Breton, Max Ernst, Matta, André Masson, and Yves Tanguy. This was a natural progression as Duchamp had been publicly associated with Surrealism for some time. He had been included in the exhibition "Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism" at The Museum of Modern Art in 1937, as well as the "Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme" at the Galerie Beaux Arts, Paris, 1938.

During the 1940s and early 1950s, Duchamp served as editorial advisor for several issues of "VVV," and designed the cover for the Marcel Duchamp (March 1945) issue of "View" magazine. He collaborated with Breton, Sidney Janis, and Raymond A. Parker on the catalog and exhibition of "First Papers of Surrealism," sponsored by the Coordinating Council of French Relief Societies, and designed an installation for this exhibition using a mile of string. He participated in the filming of the surrealist movie by Hans Richter, "Dreams That Money Can Buy." In the fall of 1946, Duchamp visited Paris, where he and Breton designed and prepared the exhibition "Le Surréalisme en 1947" at the Galerie Maeght. Following his December return to New York, Duchamp in collaboration with Enrico Donati designed the exhibition's catalog, and hand-colored 999 foam-rubber "falsies" labeled "Prière de Toucher," for the deluxe edition. He also collaborated with Breton on window installations at Brentano's and the Gotham Book Mart. Also during this time, Duchamp began to fabricate "Etant donnés: 1º la chute d'eau, 2º le gaz d'éclairage," his last major work. The majority of the work, completed in secret between 1946 and 1966, was carried out in Duchamp's top-floor studio at 210 West 14th Street, which he had taken in 1943.

Simultaneous with his clandestine work on this tableau-assemblage, Duchamp made his own opinions on art much more public than ever before. In 1946, he granted his first extended interview with James Johnson Sweeney. Three years later, he participated in the three-day session of the Western Round Table on Modern Art, held at the San Francisco Museum of Art. In 1950, he contributed thirty-three critical studies of artists to the catalog of the "Collection of the Société Anonyme," which had been donated by Dreier to the Yale University Art Gallery. Between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s, Duchamp delivered a number of important lectures at several locations. Duchamp delivered his autobiographical lecture "Apropos of Myself," regarding his artistic work from 1902-1925, at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Brandeis University, and the City Art Museum of St. Louis, revising it slightly each time. Duchamp addressed more theoretical issues in his lecture "The Creative Act" at the American Federation of Arts Convention in 1957, and as a panelist in the symposium "Where Do We Go from Here?" at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art in 1961.

On January 16, 1954, Duchamp married Alexina (Teeny) Sattler, who had previously been married to art dealer Pierre Matisse, the son of Henri Matisse. Alexina was born in Cincinnati on Jan. 6, 1906 to ophthalmologist Robert Sattler and his second wife, Agnes Mitchell, and studied sculpture for a while in Paris and Vienna. With his marriage to Alexina, Duchamp acquired a new family of three stepchildren, Paul, Jacqueline and Peter. In December of that year, Duchamp became a naturalized United States citizen. Around 1958, the couple began spending summers in Cadaqués, Spain, on the Costa Brava, and in 1959, they moved their permanent residence from 327 East 58th Street to 28 West 10th Street, where they remained until Duchamp's death.

In 1959, Duchamp assisted Robert Lebel with the design and publication of his monograph "Sur Marcel Duchamp," then the most comprehensive and definitive work on Duchamp. The following year, George Heard Hamilton and Richard Hamilton published "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even," the first full English translation of "The Green Box." These publications, along with the opening of the Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1954, raised awareness about Duchamp's works and ideas among a number of American artists, including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol. In turn, Duchamp took an interest in contemporary art, attending performances and befriending younger artists.

He also received an increasing number of honors and accolades. In 1960, he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the following year, he received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Wayne State University. In 1963, Duchamp had his first major retrospective exhibition, "By or of Marcel Duchamp and/or Rrose Sélavy," at the Pasadena Art Museum, organized by Walter Hopps. A major one-man exhibition, "Not Seen and/or Less Seen of/by Marcel Duchamp/Rrose Sélavy 1904-64," at Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery, New York followed two years later. His first major European retrospective came in 1966 with "The Almost Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp," organized by Richard Hamilton at the Tate Gallery, London. In 1963, Ulf Linde created replicas of several of Duchamp's Readymades, and, the following year, Duchamp authorized Arturo Schwarz to produce thirteen Readymades each in a regular edition of eight. In 1967, Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery published "A l'infinitif," a limited boxed edition of seventy-nine unpublished notes dating from 1912 to 1920, reproduced in facsimile.

Around 1965, Duchamp was forced to vacate his 14th Street studio, and moved the nearly completed "Etant donnés..." to a small room in a commercial building at 80 East 11th Street. He signed the work in 1966, and the following year wrote notes and assembled photographs for a manual of instructions for dismantling and reassembling the work. Before his departure for Europe in the summer of 1968, Duchamp showed his close friend William Copley the completed "Etant donnés" and expressed his wish that it join the large group of his works already at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. On October 2, 1968, during Marcel and Alexina Duchamp's customary summer and early fall visit to Paris and Cadaqués, Duchamp died in Neuilly. The following year, the Cassandra Foundation, with which Copley was associated, presented "Etant donnés" to the Philadelphia Museum of Art as Duchamp had hoped.

Following Duchamp's death, Alexina Duchamp moved to Villiers-sous-Grez, near Paris, where she assembled an archive of photographs and other material documenting the life and work of her late husband. She maintained a close friendship with many of Duchamp's friends, including Jasper Johns, Richard Hamilton, composer John Cage, and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Alexina Duchamp died on December 20, 1995 at the age of 89.

Works Consulted

d'Harnoncourt, Anne, 1943-. "Chronology." Marcel Duchamp. Edited by Anne d'Harnoncourt and Kynaston McShine ([New York]: Museum of Modern Art, [c1973]).