Tracing the past: The conservation of Duchamp’s Fountain

Flavia Perugini


The original ‘Fountain’ was made by M. Duchamp in 1917 and consisted of a readymade urinal. Duchamp signed it ‘R. Mutt 1917’ in black paint and displayed it horizontally. The original was lost but eleven replicas are known to have been made, under Duchamp’s supervision, at later times. A 1950 version is displayed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Two replicas were produced in 1953 and 1963, and eight more in 1964.

The version owned by the Tate Gallery is one of the eight 1964 replicas. When the piece was first inspected it looked discolored compared to other replicas which are whiter in color. This led to the conclusion that a total white overpaint had probably been applied to the surface at some point, presumably to disguise the repaired damage which occurred in the late 1960’s. Further investigation confirmed that all the urinals in this edition were originally painted white and the signature painted over in black. Although the white overpaint was undoubtedly meant to imitate the original finish and recreate the same look, with age its appearance has yellowed considerably.

The restoration history was researched, and the ethics behind the treatments and the decision whether to remove the overpaint layer were investigated.