Guests at the recurring Dada salon of the modern art collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg might have found themselves doing a double-take as they ambled through the couple’s Manhattan apartment on West 67th Street. As of 1919, two duplicate and identically sized versions of Marcel Duchamp’s iconic Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912) graced the walls. One hung prominently above the couch, dwarfing a small Renoir; the other was mounted above a wooden desk. Both looked authentic. Had the high-profile collectors been duped by a convincing copy of the headline-making painting?
Visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), to which the Arensbergs gifted their collection in 1950, may be similarly confused now, since both of those works are presently (and uncharacteristically) on view. One holds its usual spot in the permanent galleries, and the other punctuates the last room of the recently opened exhibition “Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950.”
During the Arensbergs’ time, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) was, and remains today, an infamous image. The painting was thrust into notoriety during its debut American exhibition at the 1913 Armory Show (then known as the International Exhibition of Modern Art). Though the seminal exhibition included around 1,400 artworks by a “who’s who” of American and international artists—many of whose work had never been seen before in the United States—Duchamp’s painting attracted curious crowds, as well as the wrath of the press.
The painting depicted a mechanical nude figure in fragmented, time-lapse motion; the vocal hostility toward it summarized the uneasy American reception of avant-garde European art. Viewers found much to dislike, since Duchamp’s painting synthesized the interests and styles of several European art movements: the monochrome palettes of Cubism; the Futurists’ interest in showing bodies in motion; and photographic freeze frames explored by the likes of Eadweard Muybridge.
Charles Sheeler, Interior, Arensberg's Apartment, New York, 1919. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“It was the focal point of so much consternation,” Jessica Todd Smith, curator of American art at the PMA, told Artsy. “Even though there were so many interesting things going on in that exhibition, that piece was singled out.”
The press competed to outdo one another with critical jabs. Duchamp’s painting was unflatteringly dubbed “an explosion in a shingle factory” by the New York Times, and was parodied as The Rude Descending a Staircase (Rush Hour at the Subway) in the New York Evening Sun. And American Art News offered $10 to any reader who could firmly identify the nude allegedly depicted in the painting, publishing a taunting poem: “You’ve tried to find her, / And you’ve looked in vain / Up the picture and down again, / You’ve tried to fashion her of broken bits, / And you’ve worked yourself into seventeen fits.”
Such reviews must have piqued the curiosity of Louise and Walter Arensberg, who were living near Boston during the Armory Show’s New York run. Though they knew the show would travel to Boston a little over a month later, they couldn’t wait, making a special trip during the last days of the show’s Manhattan run in March 1913.
But by the time they got there, many notable works had sold already, including the scandalous Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), which was purchased for $324—roughly $8,250 in today’s currency—just days earlier by Californian art and antiquities dealer Frederick C. Torrey. Disheartened, the Arensbergs walked away with an Édouard Vuillard lithograph instead.
The Arensbergs would get their chance to bring a Duchamp into their home three years later, though. When the artist moved to New York in June 1915, he was introduced to the Arensbergs almost immediately by Walter Pach, one of the Armory Show’s organizers. Because Duchamp hadn’t yet found a place to live, the couple (who had since moved to Manhattan) offered up their apartment while they summered in Connecticut. When they returned in the fall, they became Duchamp’s close friends and most important patrons.
Which is why Walter felt comfortable enough, in 1916, to make an unorthodox request. Since Torrey would not yet part with Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), would Duchamp agree to a commission of a full-scale copy?
Other artists might have responded differently. But Duchamp, who had already begun experimenting with readymades—conceptual pieces that transformed mass-produced objects into original artworks—seemingly consented without hesitation. Likely using the same photo negative of Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) that was used to make postcards sold at the Armory Show, Duchamp got to work creating a hard-to-categorize version of his infamous painting.
He had a sepia-toned photographic enlargement printed and mounted on wood board at Ye Little Photo Shoppe, a printing studio at the famed Chelsea Hotel, and used it as the foundation for a new mixed-media version. “It’s a conservator’s fantasy to try and puzzle out what he did, to get it to look as it did,” Smith said.
By adding layers of graphite; pen and black ink; black paint; colored pencil or crayon; and blue wash, the artist ultimately transformed the underlying gelatin silver print into Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 3). The artist signed the work “Marcel Duchamp [FILS]” (“son” in French), noting that while this nude was undeniably a descendant of No. 2, it retained its own personhood.
Marcel Duchamp, From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy (Box in a Valise), 1935-1941. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Estate of Marcel Duchamp. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In poet William Carlos Williams’s written account of No. 3, recorded in the prologue to his 1920 book Kora in Hell: Improvisations, he recalls Walter Arensberg showing off the new piece in his apartment. The collector described it as “a full-sized photographic print of the first picture with many new touches by Duchamp himself and so by the technique of its manufacture as by other means it is a novelty!”
The conservation team at the PMA, which has closely studied Duchamp’s replica, agree that the artist’s technique was innovative. “I wouldn’t call what Duchamp did with No. 3 ‘retouching,’” explains Nancy Ash, senior conservator of works on paper at the museum. “This is ultimately an independent work of art.”
And since it was an artwork that stood on its own, the Arensbergs kept No. 3 on the wall even after they finally purchased No. 2 from Torrey in 1919. Nevertheless, it is easy to mix up the two. “The first time I saw [No. 3] in storage, [from] a distance I thought it was No. 2,” Smith recalls. “And then walked over and thought ‘Oh, I’m wrong, I should know that.’”
The playful Duchamp would have likely been delighted to hear that his twin nudes descending staircases were confusing curators over a century later. Even after creating No. 3 for the Arensbergs, he continued to forge his iconic shingled nude many times over. In 1918, he created Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 4), a miniature-sized birthday gift for the socialite Carrie Stettheimer to put in her elaborate dollhouse (on view at the Museum of the City of New York).
And later, a tiny version of Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) became part of his “Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Suitcase)” series from 1935–41: a portable, small-scale, monographic collection of the artist’s oeuvre. Duchamp’s relationship with that mechanical nude was a long-term one, continuing for years after it first caused such a stir at the 1913 Armory Show.