Marcel Duchamp by Max May

"(I am) an-artist, chess player, cheese dealer, breather, fenêtrier" - Duchamp ¹

Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp was born on July 28, 1887, at Blainville-Crevon (near Rouen), France. Duchamp was the third of six children born to M. Eugène and Madame Duchamp. From the early age Duchamp was exposed to arts, Madame Duchamp was a talented amateur musician, and her father had been a shipping agent with a strong interest in painting and engraving. Duchamp had two elder brothers, Gaston (who was born in 1875 and later took the name Jacques Villon, and was himself a famous painter) and Raymond Duchamp-Villon (born in 1876 and was an accomplished sculptor who died during World War I). Duchamp’s younger sister, Suzanne had an interest in arts and was a poetess.


In 1904 Duchamp joined his two elder brothers in Paris where he studied painting at the Academie Julian until 1905. During that time Duchamp drew cartoons and illustrations for satirical publications Courrier Francais and Le Rire. Duchamp began painting around 1908, his early works were Post-Impressionist in style. In 1909 Duchamp exhibited for the first time at the Salon des Indépendants and Salon d’Automne in Paris. In 1911 he was a member in the painters' circle known as the "Golden Section", together with La Fresnaye, Léger, Metzinger, Picabia, and others. Influenced by cubism Duchamp painted the picture "The Chess Players" and the first studies for his "Nudes descending a Staircase". Also, in the same year Duchamp created The Coffee-Mill.


Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2
Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2


In 1912, he painted his masterpiece Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 portraying continuous movement through a chain of overlapping cubistic figures. The painting was rejected by the Salon Des Indépendants. However, it was shown at a cubist exhibition in Barcelona, Spain, and in Paris at the Salon de la Section d'Or and subsequently created great controversy at the Armory Show in New York in 1913, which made Duchamp famous in America.


In 1913 Duchamp began to produce "ready-mades", mundane objects taken out of context by the artist, made unusable for their original purpose and presented as works of art.
Talking about "ready-mades" Duchamp said,

"In 1913 I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn . . . In New York in 1915 I bought a hardware store shovel on which I wrote 'in advance of the broken arm.' It was around that time that the word 'readymade' came to mind to designate this form of manifestation. A point which I want very much to establish is that the choice of these 'readymades' was never dictated by esthetic delectation. This choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste. I realized very soon the danger of repeating indiscriminately this form of expression and decided to limit the production of 'readymades' to a small number yearly. I was aware at that time, for the spectator even more than for the artist, art is a habit-forming drug and I wanted to protect my 'readymades' against such contamination." ²
Duchamp painted very little after 1915, although he continued until 1923 to work on his masterpiece The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, an abstract work, also known as The Large Glass, a metal and glass construction nine feet high, that was enthusiastically received by the surrealists.
"The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even"  or "The Large Glass"
"The Large Glass"
alternate photo with house in background


"Fountain", signed "R .Mutt 1917"



In 1915 Duchamp went to America. In 1917 the Society of Independent Artists is formed, with Duchamp as a founding member, and later a director. He submits the notorious ready-made Fountain under the pseudonym R. Mutt to an Independents exhibition, which is rejected. As a result, Duchamp resigns from the Society. As a work of art, Fountain contributed to his notoriety as did, in 1920, a reproduction of the Mona Lisa with added beard and mustache. Also in 1920 Duchamp created a female alter ego named Rrose Selavy, subsequently associated with puns and ready-mades. In the same year Duchamp, Katherine Dreier and Man Ray form the first museum of modern art in the United States, the Société Anonyme, Inc.

Mona Lisa with Mustache & goatee


Duchamp gave up creative work in 1923 to organize exhibitions, edit a magazine, experiment with film and play chess. He became increasingly absorbed by chess and by 1928 was a member of the French Olympic team at Hague. In 1925 Duchamp suffered a tragedy when his mother died on January 29 and his father just a few days later on February 3. In 1927, Duchamp had a brief marriage to Lydia Sarazin-Lavassor, which only lasted a few months. He married again in 1954 to Alexina (Teeny) Sattler in New York. In the same year, Large Glass was installed permanently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, together with a large number of his other works. Duchamp settled permanently in New York in 1942 and became a United States citizen in 1955.



During the 1940s, he associated and exhibited with the Surrealist émigrés in New York, and in 1946 secretly began Etant donnés: 1. la chute d’eau 2. le gaz d’éclairage… (Given: 1degree the waterfall, 2 degrees the illuminating gas…), a major assemblage on which he worked secretly for the next 20 years. It was installed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and shown publicly for the first time after his death.

While Duchamp’s work had an effect on the anti-arts movement, in 1962 he acknowledged failure, "I thought to discourage aesthetics... I threw the bottlerack and the urinal in their faces and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty". Duchamp died at Neuilly on October 1, 1968 and is buried in Rouen, with an inscription on his grave in his own words: "D'ailleurs c'est toujours les autres qui meurent" (but it's always other people that die).