Duchamp, Marcel

from The New Book of Knowledge®


The French artist Marcel Duchamp devoted his career to changing how people thought about art. For Duchamp, the ideas, or concepts, behind a work of art were more important than traditional values of beauty and craftsmanship. His radical, often humorous work strongly influenced later generations of modern artists. In fact, his impact is felt in almost every art movement of the 20th century. These included dadaism, surrealism, pop art, minimalism, and conceptual art.

Marcel Duchamp was born in Blainville, France, on July 28, 1887. He studied painting in Paris from 1904 to 1905. He had his first exhibition in 1909. In his early paintings, he experimented with a wide range of styles. He borrowed these styles from the works of such artists as Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, and Henri Matisse.

His first major work was Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. It sparked a storm of controversy at the 1913 Armory Show in New York City. The painting captured the successive motions of a descending figure as a series of overlapping abstract shapes. It was widely criticized for its mechanical portrayal of such a classic subject.

Duchamp moved to New York City in 1915. He became active in the new and experimental art movement known as dada (nonsense). He edited several dada magazines and developed his concept of "ready-made" art. These were works he "created" by taking ordinary objects, such as a snow shovel or a hat rack, and adding his signature and a title to them. These "ready-mades" forced people to think about what qualifies as a work of art--and why. An example is Bicycle Wheel (1913).

Duchamp's most challenging work was The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, or The Large Glass (1915-23). In this towering construction, painted on two panes of glass, Duchamp used mechanical and abstract images to comment on romantic love. After this work, which he declared to be "definitively unfinished," Duchamp claimed that he was no longer interested in making art. He decided to devote himself to playing chess and producing optical machines.

Duchamp did eventually return to art, but on a very limited basis. He died in Paris, France, on October 2, 1968.

Michael R. Taylor
Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art


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