Marcel Duchamp’s Surprise

Retinal comes before urinal, in the dictionary — and in Duchamp’s body of work.

Fountain — a porcelain urinal signed R. Mutt — is undoubtedly Marcel Duchamp’s most famous work. When he submitted it to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in 1917, it became the object of one of art history’s greatest controversies. Today, Fountain — and perhaps some of his less-famous “readymades” — are all that many of us know about Duchamp’s output as an artist.

Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, 1917

Duchamp was 30 when he thus thumbed his nose at artistic convention. He had come to believe that art should “serve the mind”, and scoffed at works intended only to please the eye — calling it retinal art.

However, his early development as an artist — starting in his mid teens — began on the usual traditional path, as ground-breaking artists typically do. Duchamp was taught to draw in the academic manner and learned to paint by imitating the style of impressionist and post-impressionist artists — especially that of his older brother, Jacques Villon.

It’s a small group of five of his early oil paintings in the collection of the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art that surprises those who know him only by his “readymades.”

Portrait d’Yvonne Duchamp-Villon née Bon, Marcel Duchamp, 1907

The works reveal the influence of the Impressionists and their successors — artists like Cezanne, Gauguin and Signac.

Portrait ‘un Jeune Garcon de la Famille Candel (Young Boy of the Candel Family) Marcel Duchamp, 1908

Wall text adjacent to the group calls our attention to “Duchamp’s fluency with impasto, the technique of building up layers of thick paint on canvas” and points out the refined way in which he handled color and line.

Maison Paysanne Yport (Peasant’s Cottage at Yport), Marel Duchamp, 1907

As a group, these works illustrate a swift progression in Duchamp’s development as a young artist.

Sur la Falaise (On the Cliffs), Marcel Duchamp, 1905

The earliest of the paintings, Sur la Falaise, is decidedly Impressionist, dating to 1905. The latest, Saint Sebastien, painted in 1909 at age 22, suggests the beginnings of a cubist sensibility, presaging what was to come.

Saint Sebastien, Marcel Duchamp, 1909

As the wall text states, these five paintings are “strangely removed from his productions that were to follow.”

By World War I, Duchamp had rejected the work of many of his fellow artists, including the likes of Henri Matisse, labeling it retinal art: intended only to please the eye. He had come to believe that art should serve the mind — and it was this sort of avant-garde thinking that put Marcel Duchamp at the forefront of the “cosmic shift” in Western art that occurred in the first half of the 20th-century.

Read our post about the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of art.

Originally published at on February 9, 2019.

I am an art geek, writing about art, exhibitions and museums. Discover more than 1600 art museums, artist studios, historic houses and gardens across the US.

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