Once More to this Staircase:
Another Look at Encore à cet Astre

by Bradley Bailey

For Dario Gamboni


Click to enlarge
Figure 1
Marcel Duchamp,
Encore à cet Astre
(Once More to This Star), 1911
Figure 2
Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase,
No. 2
, 1911

It has been some twenty-five years since Lawrence D. Steefel Jr.'s analysis of Marcel Duchamp's 1911 drawing Encore à cet Astre (Once More to This Star) (Fig. 1) was published by Art Journal.(1) Despite Steefel's suggestion that Duchamp's minor works, primarily his sketches and drawings, be allotted a greater degree of recognition for what they reveal about Duchamp's creative process as a whole, Encore is still generally accorded little significance beyond its being a study for the Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (Fig. 2).(2) I felt compelled to write about this particular drawing because I strongly agree that Encore has-and continues to be-relegated to a minor status as little more than a precedent for the Nude…No. 2. While Encore is indeed a small sketch, it would be, in this case, presumptuous to judge significance merely according to appearances.

It is crucial to remember that the end of 1911 was a pivotal period in Duchamp's career. In the last two months of 1911, Duchamp produced several of his most well known paintings, including Portrait of Chess Players, Sad Young Man on a Train, and the major study for the Nude… No. 2, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 1. All of the aforementioned paintings have been in some way related to Encore (some more directly than others), yet these relationships have been far from exhausted. In this article, I intend to more fully situate Encore within this period of Duchamp's life and art by examining Encore in relation to contemporaneous works, as well as introducing heretofore unaddressed precedents and possible inspirations for this drawing. My motivation for writing this essay was not to "explain" this sketch or to unearth its "meaning," for I wouldn't propose to do that with any of Duchamp's works, especially one as enigmatic as Encore. Rather, I would like to suggest a number of possible influences, inspirations, and intentions based on Duchamp's own work of the time and the ideas of more recent scholars.

Encore consists of three main parts.(3) In the center, a heavily-shaded head(4) rests on a hand or fist, with only a thin line describing a right shoulder and bent right arm. To the left of the head is what appears to be a female figure from the waist down; above the waist is a sectioned cylindrical element topped with swirling lines reminiscent of hair. To the right of the head is what has come to be the most important element, a goateed male figure ascending a staircase.(5) The figure's head is drastically turned in order to peer at a grid to the right or behind the figure, which Steefel described as a "barred window." As I agree with Steefel's interpretation of the "female" figure as a "sex object,"(6) I will concentrate primarily on the other two elements of the drawing, after which I will suggest a reading that integrates all three elements.



  Click on images to enlarge  
Figure 3
Figure 4
Figure 5
Charles Willson Peale,
Staircase Group: Raphaelle and Titian Ramsay, 1795,
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Diego Velasquez, Las Meninas, 1656,
Museo del Prado
Diego Velasquez,
Las Meninas,

Joseph Masheck noted that there is an uncanny resemblance between the ascending figure in Encore and the ascending figure in Charles Willson Peale's hyperrealistic Staircase Group: Raphaelle and Titian Ramsay (1795) (Fig. 3), which is, like Duchamp's drawing, in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.(7) While Masheck made a case for Duchamp possibly having seen a reproduction of the Peale painting in Paris (Encore preceded Duchamp's first visit to the United States by more than three years), an association between the two images, though enticing, remains dubious.(8) A more practical-and arguably more similar-precedent for the ascending figure is found in a painting with which Duchamp was undoubtedly familiar, the silhouetted figure of Don José Nieto in the background of Velásquez's Las Meninas (1656) (Figs. 4 and 5). Though the resemblance between the two figures is far from exact, the figures' postures, particularly the positioning of the legs, head, and right arm (if the roughly horizontal line extending from the above the hip of the ascending figure to the central head's left eye does indeed describe an arm) are similar enough to merit a comparison. Even the coffered door to Nieto's left has a gridded appearance akin to the grid to the right of the figure in Encore, albeit on the opposite side. In Encore, the artist's perspective is a bit different, with the stairs in three-quarter view and the head in full profile; a comparison with Las Meninas shows that the ascending figure is drawn from virtually the same angle that Velásquez would have seen Nieto in the mirror (Velásquez would not have seen Nieto as we do in the painting because the artist is off to the side.) Could this figure that so intrigued Michel Foucault have had a similar affect on Duchamp?

Click to enlarge
Figure 6
Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi,
vol. 2, Oppenheim, 1619
Figure 7
Ramon Lull, De nova logica, 1512

It is not enough to simply claim the figure in the Velásquez painting as a model for the ascending figure without an explanation. The figure of Nieto in Las Meninas has long fascinated scholars because of his transitional status; he inhabits a space that is both invisible to the viewer yet implied by his presence. Even more important to Duchamp, I believe, is the ambiguity of his presence, due to the fact he is neither entering nor exiting the room, but, in Foucault's words, "coming in and going out at the same time, like a pendulum caught at the bottom of its swing."(9) Like Nieto, the figure in Encore is positioned in such a way that he appears to be traveling upward, yet the severe turn of his head and downward gaze imply an impeding reversal of motion, or at least the potential for a reversal of motion, rendering the figure, like the Sad Young Man on a Train and Nude Descending a Staircase, simultaneously static and dynamic.

But why a staircase, and what is its relationship to the title? As Siegfried Giedion indicated, the diagonal planes of a staircase leading the eye upward led to the stair becoming "the symbol of movement."(10) The general interpretation that the figure is ascending toward the sun/star of the poem is made less feasible by the figure's backward and downward glance. Moreover, as Jerrold Seigel noted, "the 'to' in Laforgue's title was a preposition of address, not of physical movement."(11) Regardless, those who champion readings of Duchamp's works that embrace his heavily debated involvement with the history and theory of alchemy(12) may support the reading of the figure ascending toward the sun/star, as ladders and staircases (which have a closely-tied history and symbolism) are legion in alchemical images and texts. Images of ladders and staircases leading to a star, the sun, or a heavenly/celestial realm (Figs. 6 and 7) support the notion that "the vertical…has always been considered the sacred dimension of space."(13) That the direction of the figure's movement remains ambiguous does not necessarily contradict the alchemical interpretation, as the hermetic theologian and neoplatonist Cardinal Nikolaus of Cusa (known as Cusanus) indicated: "Ascending and descending…are one and the same. The 'art of conjecture' lies in connecting the two with a keen intelligence."(14) Another possibility of interpretation takes into account Duchamp's predilection for wordplay, being that "astre" is an anagram for "stare" (which the figure on the right certainly does), which is a homonym for "stair."

Click on images to enlarge
Figure 8
Figure 9
Figure 10
Grid in perspective
Albrecht Dürer, Draughtsman Drawing a Recumbent Woman, 1525
Illumination from the Manuscript of Alfonso the Wise, 1283, Escorial Library

Click to enlarge
Figure 11

Woodcut of a King and a Bisho
playing chess, illustrated in William Caxton,
Game and Playe of the Chesse,
(London: Elliot Stock, 1883)

But at or through what is the figure staring? The density of the vertical lines and the converging horizontal lines are certainly meant to convey deep foreshortening (Fig. 8), so one may deduce that the incomplete, hastily drawn grid contains squares and not rectangles. The grid can represent innumerable possibilities: Dürer's device for drawing perspective (Fig. 9), the checkered mosaic tiles of the Temple of Solomon, generally found in Masonic lodges, and the magic square, to name a few. A possibility that I would like to pursue, however, is that the grid represents a chessboard, due to the fact that the grid contains eight squares at its widest point, the same number of squares on a chessboard. The fact that the grid is vertical rather than horizontal should come as no surprise, since chessboards have been displayed vertically in order to study problems since the Middle Ages (Figs. 10 and 11). Duchamp himself had numerous chessboards displayed vertically in his studio, as recorded in several photographs (Figs. 12 and 13). Moreover, several of his studies for Portrait of Chess Players show the chessboard not only horizontally, but scattered throughout the composition, in some cases above and behind the heads of the players (Figs. 14 and 15). If the figure on the right is examining a chessboard, it may lead to an understanding of the role of the central "head." >>Next


click on images to enlarge
Figure 12
Figure 13
Photograph of Duchamp's Studio, 1917-18
Photograph of Marcel Duchamp taken by Denise Bellon, 1938

Figure 14
Figure 15
Marcel Duchamp,
Study for Portrait of Chess Players, 1911
Marcel Duchamp, For a Game of Chess, 1911


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1. Lawrence D. Steefel, Jr. "Marcel Duchamp's Encore à cet Astre: A New Look," Art Journal 36, no.1
(1976): 23-30. At the conclusion of Steefel's article, an English translation of Laforgue's poem is included under
the title "Another for the Sun," which Steefel indicated came from a translation by William Jay Smith in his
Selected Writings of Jules Laforgue. Ron Padgett translated the title as "Again to this Star," Pierre Cabanne,
Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett (New York: Da Capo, 1987) 46. Another translation of the
title, "Once More to this Star," is more commonly used in reference to the Duchamp drawing.

2. "Widely recognized as a 'first step' towards the evolution of the famous Nude Descending a
, painted a month or so after the drawing Encore was completed, the drawing itself has been
disregarded as a work of art in its own right and, more surprisingly, has been persistently misread simply as
an image by all previous commentators, including Duchamp himself referring to what it presumably is 'about.'"
Steefel, 23.

3. For a more detailed ekphrasis, see Steefel, 24-25.

4. Steefel called this element of the drawing a "mask," possibly because it lacks ears and hair. However,
the figure on the right lacks any discernible ears or hair, yet there is no mention of this figure being masked.
To avoid inconsistency, I will simply refer to this element as a head.

5. Steefel indicated that it is a spiral staircase (25), which is certainly the case with Duchamp's later
descending figures. Unless the scribbled out lines above the figure's head, which Steefel claimed may be
"a possible vault of the lower staircase" (26), are the spiraling continuation of the staircase, I see no evidence that
this particular staircase is helical.

Steefel, 25.

7. Joseph Masheck, ed., Marcel Duchamp in Perspective (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall,
1975) 7-8.

8. Schwarz stated that "[Duchamp] could not possibly have seen the Peale before completing this study." Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, 3rd ed., vol. 2 (New York: Delano Greenidge, 1997) 555.

9. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Vintage, 1994) 11.

10. Siegfried Giedion, The Eternal Present (New York: Pantheon, 1964) qtd. in John Templer, The Staircase: History and Theories (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1992).

11. Jerrold Seigel, The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1995) 38.

12. See Arturo Schwarz, "The Alchemist Stripped Bare in the Bachelor, Even," in Anne d'Harnoncourt
and Kynaston McShine, Marcel Duchamp (New York: Museum of Modern Art; Philadelphia:
Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973) 81-98; and Maurizio Calvesi, Duchamp invisible (Rome: Officina edizioni,

13. Christian Norberg-Schulz, Existence, Space and Architecture (New York: Praeger, 1978) qtd.; in
Templer, 34.

14. Alexander Roob, The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy and Mysticism (New York: Taschen, 1997) 282.


Figs. 1, 2, 12, 14, 15
©2002 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.