Duchamp's Cubism: Nude Descending a Staircase & Portrait of Chess Players

Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

Like many artists of his generation, Duchamp was influenced by the approaches of the Cubist movement. In this lesson, you will learn about elements of Cubism in two of his most famous works, the ''Nude Descending a Staircase'' and ''Portrait of Chess Players.''

The Cubist Style

If you walked into a museum and saw a urinal hanging on a gallery wall, would you think of it as art? What about a bicycle wheel on top of a stool? The French artist Marcel Duchamp became one of the twentieth century's most famous (or notorious, depending on how you look at it) artists, in part for creating works like these, which he called readymades.

Before creating these sculptures, however, Duchamp produced paintings that show the influence of the artistic movement known as Cubism. French and Spanish artists like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris developed the Cubist style in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Cubist works fall into two stylistic categories: Analytic Cubism (early Cubist works) and Synthetic Cubism (works produced from around 1912 or later). While works in the Synthetic Cubist style often feature bright colors and relatively recognizable subjects, works in the Analytic style tend to:

  • Have limited color schemes (usually drab colors like grey, brown, and beige).
  • Abstract their subjects so they are almost unrecognizable.
  • Show subjects from multiple perspectives (points of view) all at once.

Duchamp's Portrait of Chess Players

Always the outsider, Duchamp didn't stay involved with Cubism for very long, but he did produce a few major paintings that are close to the Analytic style. The Portrait of Chess Players (1911) is one well-known example. Technically, the image is a portrait of his brothers, Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon (both also artists) playing a game of chess. True to the Cubist style, however, what you see is a dizzying array of splintered shapes in beige, muted yellow, brown, and grey. It's as though the brothers' bodies were broken into jigsaw puzzle pieces, then thrown onto the canvas.

The painting also echoes Cubism's interest in showing subjects from several perspectives all at once. For instance, there are chess pieces that hover in the center of the painting, then more close to the bottom, making it seem like the painting shows two separate views of the table superimposed on each other. (Duchamp was actually a serious chess player, and he once said that ''...while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.'')

The Nude Descending a Staircase

Duchamp was always on the hunt for something new and radical. After producing a masterpiece like the Portrait of Chess Players, he wasn't content to try and do the same sort of thing over again. With his next major work, Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) he began to break from Cubism.

Nude Descending a Staircase
Nude Descending a Staircase

There are some familiar traces of Cubism here. For instance, the painting has a limited color scheme of browns and muted yellow, and the subject (the nude figure) is splintered into abstract, geometric forms. But while most early Cubist works focused on static or even motionless subjects, like still lifes or portraits of seated people, Duchamp's Nude depicts its subject in motion.

The barely-recognizable nude is shown from numerous points of view all at once, frozen in time. It's as if Duchamp was trying to paint thirty paintings at once, one for each step down the stairs. The background of the painting is also more faded than the foreground, making it seem like the nude is walking forward to the viewer.

It's likely that Duchamp was influenced by the work of photographer Eadweard Muybridge when creating this painting. Muybridge was one of the first photographers to take rapid series of photographs of subjects in motion, like people walking and horses galloping, so that it was possible to see how they moved, frame by frame. One of Muybridge's photography sets included the...drumroll.... (nude) Woman Walking Downstairs (1887).

Muybridge, Nude going down the stairs
Muybridge, Nude going down the stairs

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