When Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 debuted, it sparked one of the greatest uproars the art world has ever known. But after facing scads of rejection, mockery, and even a presidential put-down, this provocative piece rose to the ranks of masterpiece.
1. Duchamp's Cubist contemporaries rejected the Cubist piece.
Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 reimagines the human form through a mechanized and monochromatic lens in keeping with Cubism, and in the century since its completion, it has repeatedly been displayed in Cubist art exhibits. However, Duchamp's use of 20 different static positions created a sense of motion and visual violence that Cubists claimed made this piece more Futurist than a true example of their avant-garde art movement.
2. Duchamp's brothers tried to censor the piece.
The French artist had hoped to debut the painting in the Salon des Indépendants's spring exhibition of Cubist works. However, the tantalizing title Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was roundly rejected by the hanging committee, which included Duchamp's brothers Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon. The pair visited the painter in his Neuilly-sur-Seine studio, where they entreated him to either withdraw the work, or change/paint over its title. The Salon committee agreed with Duchamp's brothers, insisting, "A nude never descends the stairs—a nude reclines."
3. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 sparked a family rift.
Despite his brothers’s reservations, Marcel Duchamp flat out refused to change his piece. He later recounted, "I said nothing to my brothers. But I went immediately to the show and took my painting home in a taxi. It was really a turning point in my life, I can assure you. I saw that I would not be very much interested in groups after that."
Nonetheless, the Salon d’Or (a group of Cubist artists which included Duchamp’s brothers) accepted the unchanged Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 for its fall exhibition. But the Duchamp brothers' bond was forever fractured.
4. Its original title can be spotted on the canvas.
In the lower left hand corner, you'll find "NU DESCENDANT UN ESCALIER," painted in all caps. The name Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 came later.
5. Timelapse photography was an inspiration.
Photographers were studying the motion of man and beast using this photographic technique, and art historians draw a direct connection between Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 and the photo series Woman Walking Downstairs, which can be found in Eadweard Muybridge's 1887 book Animal Locomotion.
6. The painting earned scathing reviews at its American premiere.
In 1913, a massive exhibit of avant-garde pieces, the International Exhibition of Modern Art (known today as The Armory Show), was held at the National Guard 69th Regiment Armory in New York. The show included Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 in its stateside debut, and critics and crowds accustomed to more realistic and naturalistic forms were quick to mock it as a symbol of all that was ridiculous about modern European art.
The New York Times wryly re-named it "Explosion in a Shingle Factory." A cartoonist famously parodied it with "The Rude Descending the Staircase (Rush Hour at the Subway)." American Art News even made a contest out of “the conundrum of the season,” promising a $10 prize to whoever could find the nude in Duchamp's unusual work.
7. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 defied the tradition of nude studies.
Duchamp's brothers weren't the only ones riled by the artist's take on the nude tradition. Looking back on the Armory Show's impact on its 100th anniversary, curator Marilyn Kushner explained, "If you saw a female nude, in art, in sculpture or painting, it was very classical. And it was the idea of this perfect, classical beauty." To see a nude woman fractured and in motion in such a way was beyond jarring to the 1913 crowds who flocked to gawk at the exhibition.
8. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 stole the spotlight from Cézanne's and Gauguin's works.
Artist Walt Kuhn had predicted the Armory Show would make waves by challenging Americans's perception of art with the groundbreakers of the European scene. But no one predicted that out of 1400 pieces on display, Duchamp's would be the most talked about. The scandal over Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 helped attract 87,000 visitors to the show.
9. Teddy Roosevelt was not a fan.
For the March 29, 1913 issue of Outlook, the former president wrote a piece about the Armory Show called “A Layman’s View of an Art Exhibition.” In it, he described Cubists as the "lunatic fringe" of the latest art movements, and mocked Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. while misidentifying it:
"Take the picture which for some reason is called 'A naked man going down stairs.' There is in my bathroom a really good Navajo rug which, on any proper interpretation of the Cubist theory, is a far more satisfactory and decorative picture. Now if, for some inscrutable reason, it suited somebody to call this rug a picture of, say, 'A well-dressed man going up a ladder,' the name would fit the facts just about as well as in the case of the Cubist picture of the 'Naked man going down stairs.' From the standpoint of terminology, each name would have whatever merit inheres in a rather cheap straining after effect; and from the standpoint of decorative value, of sincerity, and of artistic merit, the Navajo rug is infinitely ahead of the picture."
10. The uproar thrilled Duchamp.
Far from deterred by the negative press, Duchamp was delighted by the American response to his work. It inspired him to move to New York soon after the show. Fifty years after the painting’s American debut, Duchamp looked back on the Armory Show, wistfully saying, "There's a public to receive [Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2] today that did not exist then. Cubism was sort of forced upon the public to reject it ... Instead, today, any new movement is almost accepted before it started. See, there's no more element of shock anymore.”
11. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 didn't make Duchamp famous.
While Americans didn't know what to make of the mind-bending image paired with a provocative title, they weren't paying much attention to the man who made it. Or, as Duchamp put in an interview later in life, "The painting was known, but I wasn’t."
His anonymity was hammered home years later when Duchamp visited the Cleveland Museum of Art to see Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 on display. The proud painter was stunned to find its caption card claimed he had died three years before.
12. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 sold for a shockingly low price.
Records show the piece was acquired for $324, of which Duchamp received $240. Today this price would translate to about $7800, with the artist’s cut coming in at $5777. But it was still a steal for San Francisco dealer Frederic C. Torrey, whose thirst to own the talk of the art world drove him to buy the Armory Show's most controversial work.
Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was prominently displayed in Torrey's Berkeley, California home for six years, at which point he wrote to art critic Walter Pach asking, “Counting the present high price of gasoline do you think that any one would pay a thousand dollars for the Nu Descendant?" He found a willing buyer in American art collector and Duchamp friend Walter Conrad Arensberg (but made sure to have a full-sized photographic copy made for himself first).
13. The polarizing piece earned prestige through public display.
In 1950, Louise and Walter Arensberg bequeathed their art collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Among the pieces were several works by Duchamp, including Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, The, Fania (Profile), and With Hidden Noise. Since then, the painting has gained esteem for its genre-blending and a place in history for the passionate reactions it has provoked.
14. It inspired many other nudes-on-staircase works.
Homages to Duchamp's pioneering piece include Gerard Richter's Ema (Nude on a Staircase), Joan Miró's Naked Woman Climbing a Staircase, Chuck Jones's Nude Duck Descending A Staircase, and even a Calvin and Hobbes strip where the last panel has the rebellious young hero lamenting, "Nobody understands art."
15. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was the first of many times Duchamp's work caused a controversy.
The Armory Show hubbub fueled Duchamp's rebellion against established art standards. Within a few years, he embraced Dadaism and began presenting his "readymades," found objects like a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack, and a urinal. The last of these he exhibited as "Fountain," causing another outrage in 1917. Again, history was kinder to Duchamp than his peers had been. In 2004, that readymade was dubbed the "most influential modern art work of all time" by a poll of 500 art experts.