In 1913, following his early experiments with cubism, Duchamp sought to expose and undermine some of the basic assumptions that informed traditional approaches to painting and sculpture. Fascinated by the American idea of cheap and easy reproductions, Duchamp began to appropriate found objects for his "readymades," a term he borrowed from the clothing industry while living in New York. He shocked the art world by attempting to show these commonplace objects, often unaltered except for the addition of his signature, in public exhibitions. Duchamp's readymades challenged the common understanding of what constitutes a work of art and paved the way for a more conceptual approach to the creative process.
Duchamp produced Fresh Widow in the summer or late fall of 1920, after returning to New York City from Buenos Aires via Paris. The title, a pun formed by dropping the letter "n" from the words "French" and "Window," refers to the double windows common in Parisian apartments as well as the recent widows of World War I. The sheathing of polished black Morocco leather on the windowpanes may also allude to the dark veils worn by women in mourning.
Duchamp himself did not make the miniature window, but rather he outsourced the design to an American carpenter. Ironically, Duchamp hand-painted a copyright notice on the piece, thus protecting the work not as an object intended for mass manufacture but as his unique intellectual property. Fresh Widow was the first work Duchamp signed as Rose Sélavy (later spelled Rrose Sélavy), the quick-witted, bawdy female alter ego he adopted in 1920. While working under this pseudonym, Duchamp produced numerous works with verbal and visual puns, such as Brawl at Austerlitz, 1921, another small-scale window whose title cleverly alludes to the Parisian train station, Gare d'Austerlitz, and the Napoleonic battle the station commemorates.
Duchamp's original version of Fresh Widow is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Under Duchamp’s supervision, the Milanese dealer Arturo Schwarz made an edition of eight identical reproductions of Fresh Widow in 1964, using photographs and descriptions of the original. The Gallery’s version is number 2 of this edition. In addition, there were two artist’s proofs made: one inscribed ex. Arturo and dedicated to Schwarz, which was given to the dealer; the other inscribed ex. Rrose and reserved for the artist. Two further replicas were made for museum exhibition purposes.
This is the second work by Duchamp to enter the Gallery's collection. The first, Boite-en-Valise, 1961, is a cloth-covered case containing miniature reproductions of works by Duchamp, including Fresh Widow. In addition to strengthening the holdings of works by Duchamp and his brothers, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon, Fresh Widow complements the collection of works by dada and surrealist artists such as Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, Joseph Cornell, Jean Arp, and Kurt Schwitters.
across front of window sill: FRESH WIDOW COPYRIGHT ROSE SELAVY 1920; on back of window sill, to the right, in black script: Marcel Duchamp 1964; on copper plate affixed to center back of window sill, the first two lines incised in script, the next two engraved: Marcel Duchamp 1964 / 2/8 / FRESH WIDOW, 1920 / EDITION GALERIE SCHWARZ, MILAN
Commissioned 1964 by the artist as part of an edition of eight plus two artist's proofs; Mary Sisler, Palm Beach, by 1965. (Gagosian Gallery, New York); purchased January 2006 by Deborah and Ed Shein, Providence; gift 2008 to NGA.
Associated NamesShein, Edward
- NOT SEEN and / or LESS SEEN of / by MARCEL DUCHAMP / RROSE SELAVY 1904-64, Cordier & Ekstrom, Inc., New York, 1965, no. 70, repro. (exhibition then toured to 14 venues through 1968, in the U.S., London, New Zealand, and Australia; cat. no. varies according to venue).
- American Modernism: The Shein Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2010-2011, no. 8, repro.
- Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New York, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, 2015-2016.
- Brock, Charles. "Marcel Duchamp, Fresh Widow." National Gallery of Art Bulletin no. 40 (Spring 2009): 24-25, repro.