Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (Nu descendant un escalier n° 2)

Marcel Duchamp

When revolutionary French artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) debuted his transgressive 1912 Cubo-Futurist painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 at the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art (now known as The Armory Show) in New York, its reputation preceded it. News had already crossed the Atlantic heralding the semi-abstract painting, with its dynamic Cubist forms cast in a rich, monochromatic palette of brown-ochre hues and muted blue-green undertones, though it had been derided when it was submitted to the avant-garde Salon des Indépendants in 1912. The exhibition’s jury immediately lambasted the work as an abomination to the sensuous genre it purported to engage: "A nude never descends the stairs," they declared. "A nude reclines."

In response to the intense criticism the painting received, Duchamp subsequently withdrew the painting from the exhibition. Although it made an appearance at the Salon de la Section d'Or in Paris later that year, even the boundary-pushing members of the avant-garde Section d'Or (also known as the Groupe de Puteaux) that organized the exhibition — and with whom Duchamp was closely associated — snubbed the painting's unusual, serial treatment of a curiously multiplying, kaleidoscopic nude in motion, while casting suspicion on Duchamp for satirizing both the tenets of Cubism and the generic conventions of the nude. "What contributed to the interest provoked by the canvas was its title," Duchamp reflected later in his career. Although Edouard Manet had previously challenged the traditional conventions of the nude with his Olympia (1863) and Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1862–63), he barely rocked the boat in comparison to Duchamp’s take on the genre. "One just doesn't do a nude woman coming down the stairs, that's ridiculous," Duchamp later said in response to the cold shoulder the painting received in Paris. "It doesn't seem ridiculous now, because it has been talked about so much, but when it was new, it seemed scandalous. A nude should be respected."

Nude was born from Duchamp's aggregate of interests, including the fractured forms of Cubism and Futurism's preoccupation with velocity and motion, the genesis of cinema, and philosophies of time and space, including the prospect of a fourth dimension. He also found inspiration for his Nude in the time-lapse motion studies of Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge’s blurred chronographs. "The idea of describing the movement of a nude coming downstairs while still retaining static visual means to do this, particularly interested me," Duchamp later said. "The fact that I had seen chronophotographs of fencers in action and horse galloping gave me the idea for the Nude."

Although formally trained as a painter and closely associated with the movements of Surrealism, Cubism, Futurism, and Dada, Duchamp was in a league of his own, rigorously subverting and sharply challenging conventional notions pertaining to the sanctity of the art object and the agency of the artist's hand with a radical approach to artmaking and display. As the artist Jasper Johns put it, Duchamp created a space for creating art "where language, thought and vision act on one another." The scandal caused by Nude stoked Duchamp's defiance of conventional standards of art and shortly thereafter he unveiled his radically experimental "readymades," striking objets trouvés such as a bottle rack, a bicycle wheel, and his now legendary urinal titled Fountain.

Rejecting what he termed the "retinal art" of his contemporaries, which only charmed the eye, Duchamp set out "to put art back in the service of the mind" and after 1912 he rarely produced paintings. Indeed, by 1937 painting had long ceased to be a part of his artistic practice and, apart from his all-consuming chess-playing, he had turned his attention to the more radically experimental readymades. However, during the summer of 1937 Duchamp was prompted to create a miniature retrospective in the form of pochoir reproductions housed in his Boîte-en-Valise. The expense of commissioning the carefully prepared stencils and skilled hand-colouring led Duchamp to consider publishing an edition of 250 reproductions of each of the five chosen works. In the event, only Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 and The Bride were printed, and in such small editions that the exact number of prints are unknown. The question of authenticity and originality had long played a part in his conceptual works, and Duchamp brought these ideas to bear on the pochoir reproductions. It was standard practice in France when authenticating legal documents for the lawyer to apply a small-denomination postage stamp to the document and sign his name across it – a procedure of which Duchamp was well aware due to his father’s position as the notary of Blainville-Crevon. This resourceful method of preventing falsified documentation was carried out by Duchamp on each of the pochoir and distinguishes them as original and authentic works by the artist.

This example comes from the estate of famed Manhattan gallerist and collector Julien Levy (1906-1981), who met Duchamp in 1927 aboard Paris, a transatlantic steamer bound for Le Havre, and the two immediately became friends. Through Duchamp, Levy was introduced to many artists in the Parisian avant-garde, in particular those associated with the Surrealist movement. Levy would go on to become one of the chief proponents of Surrealist art in America, showcasing the work of such heavyweight artists as Joseph Cornell, Max Ernst, Arshile Gorky, Frida Kahlo, Man Ray, René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, and Alberto Giacometti.

In more ways than one Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 is the perfect embodiment of the revolutionary ideas that made Duchamp the bona fide father of modern art. In it we find distilled Duchamp's pioneering inquiry into the nature of authenticity, originality, and taste, as well as his captivation with alternate dimensions, the debate over what may or may not be considered a work of art, and the respects in which movement can be represented by way of a work that by all other counts is itself static.

Another example of Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was owned by David Bowie, and was sold as part of his estate at Sotheby's in London in the famous Bowie/Collector auction of 2016 for £161,000 ($201,577). A further example sold at Sotheby's in Paris in 2013 for $208,830.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2
Pochoir-coloured collotype and a French 5-centime revenue stamp
Signed and dated in ink upon the attached French 5-centime revenue stamp
Sheet size
13 7/8 x 7 7/8 in : 35.3 x 20.1 cm
Framed size
27 ¾ x 15 ½ in : 55.0 x 39.5 cm
From an unknown edition, thought to number somewhere in the teens
The estate of Julien Levy, New York
Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York
Private Collection, Los Angeles, California
This work is accompanied by a certificate from the Association Marcel Duchamp dated Dec 19, 2018.
Ecke Bonk, Marcel Duchamp, The Box in a Valise, de ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy, New York, 1989 (another example)
Francis M. Naumann, Marcel Duchamp, The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, New York, 2000, p.135, illustrated fig.5.20 (another example)
Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, New York, 2000, vol. I, no.458, illustrated p.745 (another example)
Available for sale, please enquire for price
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