“In 1912 … the idea of describing the movement of a nude coming downstairs while still retaining static visual means to do this, particularly interested me. The fact that I had seen chronophotographs of fencers in action and horse galloping (what we today call stroboscopic photography) gave me the idea for the Nude. It doesn’t mean that I copied these photographs. The Futurists were also interested in somewhat the same idea, though I was never a Futurist. And of course the motion picture with its cinematic techniques was developing then too. The whole idea of movement, of speed, was in the air”
Nude Descending a Staircase seemingly depicts a figure demonstrating an abstract movement in its ochres and browns. The discernible “body parts” of the figure are composed of nested, conical and cylindrical abstract elements, assembled together in such a way as to suggest rhythm and convey the movement of the figure merging into itself. Dark outlines limit the contours of the body while serving as motion lines that emphasize the dynamics of the moving figure, while the accented arcs of the dotted lines seem to suggest a thrusting pelvic motion. The movement seems to be rotated counterclockwise from the upper left to the lower right corner, where the gradient of the apparently frozen sequence corresponding to the bottom right to top left dark, respectively, becomes more transparent, the fading of which is apparently intended to simulate the “older” section. The question of whether the figure represents a human body remains unanswered; the figure provides no clues to its age, individuality, character, or sex.
The painting combines elements of both the Cubist and Futurist movements. In the composition, Duchamp depicts motion by successive superimposed images, similar to stroboscopic motion photography. Duchamp also recognized the influence of the stop-motion photography of Étienne-Jules Marey, particularly Eadweard Muybridge‘s Woman Walking Downstairs from his 1887 picture series, published as The Human Figure in Motion.
Duchamp submitted the work to appear with the Cubists at the 28th exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, Paris, 25 March through 16 May 1912. It appeared under the number 1001 of the catalogue, entitled simply Nu descendant l’escalier, not Nu descendant un escalier n° 2. This catalogue revealed the title of the painting to the general public for the first time, even though the painting itself would be absent from the exhibition. It has been noted disquisitively that the number 1001 of Duchamp’s entry at the 1912 Indépendants catalogue also happens to represent an integer based number of the Golden ratio base, related to the golden section, something of much interest to the Duchamps and others of the Puteaux Group. Representing integers as golden ratio base numbers, one obtains the final result 1000.1001φ. This, of course, was by chance—and it is not known whether Duchamp was familiar enough with the mathematics of the golden ratio to have made such a connection—as it was by chance too the relation to Arabic Manuscript One Thousand and One Nights dating back to the 1300s.
Despite the controversy—whether it was seen as such at the time or not—the work was shown with its original title at the Salon de la Section d’Or, Galerie de la Boétie, October 1912, and with the same group of artists that exhibited at the Indépendants.