Henri-Robert Marcel Duchamp was born in the Normandy village of Blainville-Crevon, near Rouen, on 28 July 1887. The fourth of seven children, of whom six survived infancy, Marcel, his two older brothers, Gaston (1875–1963) and Raymond (1876–1918), and his younger sister Suzanne (1889–1963) all became artists. Eugène Duchamp, his father, was the notary in the village: that is, local tax-collector, lawyer and financial advisor, and later mayor. Eugène’s parents were café owners in the Auvergne, and he was able to purchase the notarial practice at Blainville thanks to the dowry of his wife, Marie-Caroline-Lucie Duchamp (née Nicolle), whose father, Emile-Frédéric Nicolle, had made a fortune as a shipping agent in Rouen. Following his business success, Emile devoted himself to art; in 1878 he was admitted to the Beaux-Arts section of the World Fair in Paris and became one of Rouen’s most renowned artists with his etchings of the local landscape.
Duchamp later acknowledged his grandfather’s artistic influence on him, but was less flattering about his mother’s artistic talents, describing her watercolours as totally uninteresting. The example of his two older brothers, both of whom had already begun to pursue artistic careers by the time he joined them in Paris in 1904, was important to Duchamp. Both had abandoned careers in the traditional professions of law and medicine, to launch themselves into the much more precarious arena of modern art. Duchamp’s father seems not to have discouraged any of them in this uncertain enterprise, but to have given them financial support, which he then meticulously deducted from their inheritance.
Gaston Duchamp had changed his name to Jacques Villon in 1894, possibly out of admiration for the fifteenth-century poet-outcast François Villon. At the same time, he abandoned his legal training and entered the Paris studios of the academic painter Fernand Cormon, who had taught Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard and Vincent van Gogh. Perhaps following his grandfather’s example, Villon later made a name for himself as a printmaker, a painter and, especially, a producer of fine prints of modern paintings.
Raymond Duchamp added ‘Villon’ to his surname in 1899 when he abandoned his medical training to study sculpture. His tragically short career reached its climax in 1914 with his Great Horse, which melds animal and machine elements into a dramatic image of modernity. Both of Duchamp’s older brothers moved in the most advanced artistic circles in Paris and were dominant figures in the pre-war Cubist group.
Duchamp said little about his youth, except to remark that he had a perfectly happy and ordinary childhood. In fact, his upbringing may well have encouraged certain traits in him that later supported such a dramatic break, not only with traditional artistic canons, but also with the Modernist circles to which his brothers belonged. The French critic Michel Sanouillet describes the characteristics of the class of ‘provincial notables’ to which the Duchamp family belonged: ‘Discretion, prudence, honesty, rigor of judgment, concern for efficiency, subordination of passion to logic and down-to-earth good sense, controlled and sly humor, horror of spectacular excesses, resourcefulness, love of puttering, and, above all, methodical doubt.’
Alongside these social traits, reinforced by his father’s work and personality, Duchamp received a formal French education. The most formative years were spent at the Lycée Corneille, Rouen, where his predecessors included not only his brothers but also the great French literary figures Pierre Corneille, Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant. At the age of ten Duchamp was sent to board at the Ecole Bossuet, while studying at the lycée. Half of the 700 boys were boarders, and all the pupils followed a strict diet of philosophy, history, rhetoric, mathematics, science, German, Latin and Greek. Duchamp would also have received training in drawing, in what has been called ‘the language of industry’, a rigorous system based upon abstract geometrical principles and on the mechanical drawing of simple objects. Slightly different programmes were taught depending on the gender of the pupil: both sexes learned perspective, but the boys learned projection as well. Their understanding of representation was thus potentially double; the resources of this theoretical language were later used and manipulated by Duchamp at many levels. One early drawing, Hanging Gas Lamp (Bec Auer)
of 1903 to 1904, which hung in the Ecole Bossuet, was prophetic. It seems to be the first appearance of the so-called ‘Illuminating Gas’, which later animates his two major works – The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even
, also known as the Large Glass
, of 1915 to 1923 (see Chapter 5
), and Etant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall 2. The Illuminating Gas)
of 1946 to 1966 (see Chapter 10
), both of which are now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Formal schooling also involved considerable attention to discipline and general secular ‘moral principles’, following on from the national primary school exam on a book called Civic and Moral Instruction
, as well as the study of the catechism of the Catholic Church. (The constitutional link between the Church and the French Republic was not dissolved until 1905.) Catholicism formed an uneasy part of the pragmatic and commercial world represented by Duchamp’s father, although Catholic ritual still took an important place in the domestic life of many French families. It was not unusual to have one agnostic or atheist parent, in most instances the father, and one believer, usually the mother, as was the case for Duchamp. In 1898 Duchamp took his First Communion, at the church in Blainville with five girls and three other boys. This church, which stood close to his house, appears four years later in one of Duchamp’s earliest surviving paintings, Church at Blainville
(1902). As Duchamp pointed out in a lecture in 1964: ‘I was still attending school in Rouen at the lycée and two of my classmates were starting to paint.[2
] We exchanged views on Impressionism, which was the art revolution of the moment and still anathema in official art schools. However, my contact with Impressionism at that early date was only by way of reproductions and books, since there were no shows of Impressionist painters in Rouen until much later. Even though one might call this painting “Impressionistic” it really shows only a very remote influence of Monet, my pet Impressionist at that moment.’
In the autumn of 1904, Duchamp joined his brothers in Paris, where Jacques Villon was now earning a meagre living as a commercial illustrator. The old bohemia of nineteenth-century Paris was undergoing dramatic changes. The so-called belle époque, the period before the beginning of the First World War, celebrated new leisure activities, captured in the Impressionist painters’ images of boating parties, balls, suburban cafés and music halls, while bohemian artists living on the margins of society dedicated their life to art. Yet at the same time social and political tensions ran high, especially over issues of national identity, the role of women and changing class boundaries. France was rocked by a series of scandals, and deep divisions in society were revealed by such events as the Dreyfus affair during the 1890s, which raised important political issues concerning anti-Semitism. At this time Paris was also hit by anarchist bombings. Moreover, Paris was changing physically: railways and new boulevards were carved through the city in a massive thrust of development and urban expansion.
2 Church at Blainville, 1902
3 Moulin de la Galette, 1904–5
These changes were highly visible from the Rue Caulaincourt in Montmartre, where the Duchamp brothers lived on the edge of the maquis
, which literally means ‘scrub’ or ‘bush’. This bohemian area of Montmartre contained a ramshackle collection of buildings scattered over the hill, with small farms interspersed with low-life cafés and restaurants, the haunts of artists and their models. At the top of the hill stood the Moulin de la Galette, one of the many windmills formerly operating on the hill, which had been converted into a famous working-class café-concert
. It was sketched by Duchamp from a window of Villon’s apartment between 1904 and 1905.[3
] From his room Duchamp watched the old maquis
disappear and modern apartment blocks go up in its place. The unofficial artistic community found new ways of interpreting modern city life. It was Duchamp’s luck, born into the turn of the century, to be able to apply his intelligence to the emergence of modern life out of the old bohemia.
During his early months in Paris, Duchamp worked to improve his drawing skills while absorbing the life of the city, with the idea perhaps of becoming the ‘painter of modern life’ celebrated by Baudelaire. He carried his sketchbook about in the streets and made numerous hasty pencil portraits of his brothers. Portrait of Jacques Villon
(1904–5) is an attempt to capture the energy and concentration of the working artist.[4
] This drawing may well have been executed after Duchamp had enrolled at the Académie Julian, a private art school founded in 1873, whose most famous teachers were two professors from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts: Adolphe-William Bouguereau (1825–1905), the painter of mythological fantasies and sugary academic nudes, and Jules Lefebvre (1836–1911). We do not know who taught Duchamp, but by his own account he spent more time at the local café playing billiards than in the studio. The proprietor of the Académie, Rodolphe Julian, ran a fair but strict regime geared towards the official Salon or entry to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Duchamp clearly lacked commitment to either. Thus his first great failure as an aspiring artist came when, in the spring of 1905, he entered the biennial competition for a place at the prestigious Ecole, the key to a successful professional career. Duchamp was one of four hundred candidates whose three drawings – perspective, sculptural and figure study – were judged by a panel of four, including Bouguereau and Cormon. It is suitably ironic, given his later work, that his nude figure study was apparently Duchamp’s downfall.
4 Portrait of Jacques Villon, 1904–5
Meanwhile, Villon’s moderate success in the field of paid caricature – for papers such as Cocorico, Le Rire and Le Courrier français – provided Duchamp with a natural introduction to the caricaturist group and also to a number of other young artists, including the Czech František Kupka (1871–1957), Louis Marcoussis (1883–1941) from Poland (both neighbours of Villon), the Dutchman Kees van Dongen (1877–1968) and the Spaniard Juan Gris (1887–1927), whose interest lay less in the conventional Salons and for whom caricature offered a temporary way of making a living. So it was, out of a combination of failure and genuine attraction, that Duchamp’s greatest interest at this time was stirred not by academic or avant-garde painters, but by the Parisian humorists, caricaturists and poster-artists who frequented the Café Manière on the rue Caulaincourt. This group of renowned, larger-than-life café figures had an artistic and cultural status that is now perhaps hard to understand. They included Caran d’Ache, Adolphe Willette, Abel Faivre, Lucien Métivet, Charles Léandre, Jean-Louis Forain, Georges Huard and Théophile Steinlen, and they continued the tradition of such great nineteenth-century graphic artists as Gustave Doré, Jean-Jacques Grandville and Honoré Daumier. As we shall see, the work of this group spanned two key aspects of recent French culture and society: a philosophical interest in the comic and a fascination with the darker side of life and bad taste.
After his Beaux-Arts failure, however, Duchamp’s aspirations were obstructed on another front, when a new law made two years of military service compulsory. Duchamp was quick to discover that a concession of one year was available to ‘art workers’, and he returned to Rouen to take a crash course as a printer using his grandfather’s connections. He passed the final exam with ease and not a little guile, providing each member of the jury with a copy of a print he had pulled himself from one of his grandfather’s plates. His written dissertation was concerned with the work of Leonardo da Vinci. When he had finished, Duchamp took a holiday and, at the end of 1905, began his one year’s army service.
5 Femme Cocher (Woman Taxi Driver), 1907
In October 1906 he returned to Montmartre and took an apartment of his own at 65 rue Caulaincourt, while his brothers moved westwards out of the centre of Paris to Puteaux, a developing artists’ community, where Kupka joined them. Duchamp now pursued commercial drawing, and in the summer of 1907 exhibited in the first Salon des Artistes Humoristes, organized by the editor of Le Rire
, at the Palais de Glace. Five of his drawings were on show, including Femme Cocher (Woman Taxi Driver)
and Flirt (Flirtation)
, both 1907.[5
] These drawings show Duchamp’s remarkable consistency of themes, as they are concerned on the one hand with the profane marriage of woman to machine and, on the other, with the sexual pun, whose double edge was later inve...