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Marcel Duchamp: Agent Provocateur

Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, 1920-21, gelatin silver print, Yale University Art Gallery
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Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, 1920-21, gelatin silver print, Yale University Art GalleryOne of the most celebrated artists of all time, Marcel Duchamp’s radical works of art shook the establishment and opened up new ways of seeing and thinking about art. An intellectual at heart, he favoured mind over matter, earning him the moniker as “the father of conceptual art.”

Experimenting with Cubism, Surrealism and Dadaism, he went on to pioneer ‘Readymade’ sculpture, integrating everyday objects into works of art to challenge conventional ideas about authorship and originality. He was also famous for his personality as an agent provocateur, staging pranks and interventions that woke the gallery viewing public with a sharp jolt.

Early Years in Normandy

Landscape at Blainville, Marcel Duchamp, 1902
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Landscape at Blainville, Marcel Duchamp, 1902

Duchamp was born in 1887 in Blainville, Normandy, one of seven children. They were an artistic and intellectual family who were encouraged to read, play chess, learn music and make art. In the earliest known painting made by Duchamp when he was just 15, Landscape at Blainville, 1902, he demonstrates an uncanny awareness of Impressionism. Two of Duchamp’s older brothers moved to Paris to pursue art and he was soon to follow, enrolling to study painting at the Academie Julien in 1904.


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Life in Paris

As a young artist in Paris Duchamp was surrounded by burgeoning art movements including Impressionism, Cubism and Fauvism and he soon began to experiment with various styles. In Paris Duchamp befriended various eminent thinkers including the artist Francis Picabia and writer Guillaume Apollinaire, whose progressive ideas about modernity and the machine age had a profound influence on him.

His early painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912, revealed a fascination with energy, movement and mechanics, although his dehumanising treatment of the female form caused a scandal in Paris. When Duchamp exhibited the work at the New York Armory Show in 1913, the work caused equal controversy, but it earned him an infamous reputation he was keen to develop.

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912
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Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912

New York Dada

Duchamp settled in New York in 1915, where he became a leading member of the New York Dada group, encouraging an anarchic, yet playful attitude to making art. He began creating his iconic ‘Readymade’ sculptures from assembled collections of ordinary, everyday objects, which, when placed into new arrangements lost their original function and became something new.

The most famous is The Fountain, 1916, which he made from a disused urinal signed with the initials R. Mutt; Duchamp enjoyed the provocation and condemnation in caused. He also began work on his ambitious, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, (The Large Glass), 1915-23, in which a series of metallic pieces resembling machine parts were wedged between two planes, illustrating an insect-like bride pursued by nine suitors. Like his ‘Readymades’ the work rejected conventional ideas about beauty, encouraging viewers to engage with its intellectual content.

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, (The Large Glass), 1915-23
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The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, (The Large Glass), 1915-23

Paris and Surrealism

Man Ray, Duchamp as Rrose Selavy 1921–26
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Man Ray, Duchamp as Rrose Selavy 1921–26

Duchamp lived between Paris and New York during his mature career. He integrated with the Parisian Surrealist Group and made close friends, sharing their absurdist sense of play and experimentation.


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In 1919 he painted a moustache on a printed reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which he titled, L.H.O.O.Q. 1919. In a further act of gender subversion, Duchamp famously developed the female alter-ego Rrose Selavy in 1920, captured in a series of photographs by the artist Man Ray.

As well as exploring progressive ideas about identity and self-representation, Duchamp found the experience liberating, allowing him to make and exhibit work under a new guise.

Later Years

Still image from the installation of Etant Donnes, 1965
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Still image from the installation of Etant Donnes, 1965

After the Second World War Duchamp increasingly distanced himself from the wider art world. Even so, the French Surrealists adopted him as one of their own, and he is now seen as a key figure in the development of Dada in Germany and the US.

He continued to live between New York and France, settling into a happy marriage with Alexina Sattler in 1954, and earning his US citizenship a year later. An avid chess player, he focussed increasingly on the game and even took part in a series of international tournaments.

In secret, Duchamp spent the last 20 years of his life creating a three dimensional version of The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors titled Etant Donnes, 1966, now on permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art. He died in France in 1968 and is buried in the Rouen Cemetery.

Auction Prices

Duchamp’s status today as one of modern art’s most radical thinkers is undisputed, making his art highly desirable and much sought after. Some of his most prominent sales include:

Nus: Un Fort et Un Vite (Two Nudes: One Strong and One Swift), 1912
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Nus: Un Fort et Un Vite (Two Nudes: One Strong and One Swift), 1912

This drawing is a key example of his early, mechanized figurative style. It was sold at Sotheby’s Paris in 2011 for $596,410.

L.H.O.O.Q., Mona Lisa, 1964
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L.H.O.O.Q., Mona Lisa, 1964

A radical act of defacement, the unusual title of this work sounds out in French the phrase “Elle a chaud au cul” (“she has a hot ass”). The work was sold at Christie’s New York in 2016 for $1,000,000, which would no doubt have highly amused Duchamp.

Roue de Bicyclette (Bicycle Wheel), 1964
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Roue de Bicyclette (Bicycle Wheel), 1964

A key early example of Duchamp’s ‘Readymades’, this work was sold at Phillips New York in 2002 for $1,600,000.

Fountain, 1964
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Fountain, 1964

One of the most influential works of art ever made, the original version of this work is lost, but Duchamp made around 17 replicas in the 1960s. One was sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1999 for $1,600,000.

Belle Haleine – Eau de Voilette, 1921
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Belle Haleine – Eau de Voilette, 1921

The first visual presentation of Duchamp’s alter-ego Rrose Selavy was placed on an appropriated bottle of perfume, which sold at Christie’s New York for an astonishing $11,406,900 in 2009.

Did you know?

As a student at the Academie Julien, Duchamp earned a side living working as a cartoonist.

Before finding success as an artist Duchamp had a series of odd jobs, including work as an art dealer, librarian and secretary to a French war mission.

Throughout his life Duchamp had two major fears – one was flying in an aeroplane and the other was what he called a “morbid horror of hair.”

During his first, short lived marriage to Lydie Fischer Sarazin-Levassor, Duchamp was so obsessed with chess that his wife glued his chess pieces to the board in an act of revenge.


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In 1913, when Duchamp displayed his Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2, 1913 at New York’s Armory Show, a critic mockingly described the work as “an explosion in a shingle factory.”

During the Second World War, Duchamp transported art materials out of Europe by disguising himself as a cheese merchant, which fooled the Nazi guards at the checkpoints.

When the glass in his world renowned The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, 1915-23, cracked during a shipment, Duchamp embraced the damage, claiming, “It’s a lot better with the breaks.”

The name of Duchamp’s female alter-ego Rrose Selavy was lifted from the phrase “Eros, c’est la vie”, (“Eros is life”) underlining the eroticism that Duchamp saw at the base of all art and life.

Duchamp never really declared his objects works of art, referring to them instead as “a very personal experiment … with no intention other than unloading ideas.”

Engraved onto his tombstone are the cryptic words, “Besides, it’s always the others who die.”

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