Marcel Duchamp painted this explosive nude masterpiece. Then he quit.

Modern art’s most influential trickster was hatched from the controversy surrounding “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)”

“Art questions are of absolutely no interest to me now,” said Marcel Duchamp near the end of his life. He preferred breathing. “My art is that of living: each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral. It’s a sort of constant euphoria.”

Half a century earlier, in 1911 and 1912, Duchamp had gone to the considerable trouble of painting two versions of a nude woman descending a staircase. By the end of 1912, he had quit painting altogether. He became, instead, modern art’s most influential trickster, the founder of conceptual art and a champion of the idea that, well, ideas should be championed over images (which he disparaged as “retinal art”).

Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)” was painted in 1912, and it’s part of the Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s a stunning painting, one of the most celebrated of the 20th century. When it appeared in 1913 at the Armory Show in New York, it was a sensation, famously mocked for resembling “an explosion in a shingle factory.” Quite an amazing subject for a painting if you think about it. (Sadly, when you put that description in an AI image generator, the results look nothing like Duchamp.)

[Duchamp distrusted collectors. He would have loved Aaron Levine.]

Duchamp was inspired by chronophotography, which had been pioneered by Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Jules-Marey and captured the positions of moving bodies in quick succession. I’ve read that Duchamp’s painting shows about 20 positions on what I make out to be four steps.

The point is, he wasn’t trying to evoke motion, as were Futurist painters like Giacomo Balla, who painted “Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash” the same year (1912). He was more interested in the concept of motion, and he wanted to make a kind of diagram of it. The curved, fastidiously dotted lines near the picture’s center seem to confirm his desire to plot rather than evoke.

Still, there’s no doubt that the visual effect of the picture is thrillingly dynamic. Theodore Roosevelt compared the work to a Navajo rug — an unexpected but not uninteresting instance of presidential art criticism. Its first owner, Frederic C. Torrey, acquired it for $324.

Before it came to New York, Duchamp displayed it in Paris in a show of cubist paintings. But there were protests from the other cubists, who had formed a little cult around Picasso and Braque, and in the end Duchamp’s own brothers, artists both, forced him to take it down.

The experience of uproar and contention triggered by “Nude Descending” was transforming for Duchamp. He dropped painting and chose to be a provocateur with a purpose instead. That purpose, simply put, was to expand our idea of what art could be — to activate the life of the mind.

“To think too long on the implications of Duchamp’s art is to have an abyss yawn at one’s feet,” wrote the late (and much missed) art critic Peter Schjeldahl. I don’t think he meant it as disparagement. After all, the same could be said of life itself. So Duchamp’s purpose may also have been to invite us to stare into the abyss, even as we try to keep on breathing, in and out.

In fact, I often fancy that Duchamp’s nude woman on the stairs is herself staring at that abyss and walking calmly … no, dancing euphorically toward it.

Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912
Marcel Duchamp (b. 1887). At Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

End of carousel
Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.