The Iconic Urinal & Work of Art, “Fountain,” Wasn’t Created by Marcel Duchamp But by the Pioneering Dada Artist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

In the intro­duc­tion to her book Broad Strokes, writer and art his­to­ry schol­ar Brid­get Quinn describes her dis­cov­ery of Lee Kras­ner, accom­plished abstract expres­sion­ist painter who just hap­pened to have been mar­ried to Jack­son Pol­lock. That bio­graph­i­cal detail war­rant­ed Kras­ner a foot­note, but lit­tle more, in the art books Quinn stud­ied in col­lege. Learn­ing of Kras­ner sent Quinn on a quest to find oth­er women left behind by art his­to­ry. “My fix­a­tion with these artists went beyond fem­i­nism,” she writes, “if it had any­thing to do with it at all. I iden­ti­fied with these painters and sculp­tors the way my friends iden­ti­fied with Joy Divi­sion or The Clash or Hüsker Dü.”

Much has changed since 1987, when Quinn’s fan­dom began, but Kras­ner is still one of the few female artists to have ever had a ret­ro­spec­tive show at New York’s Muse­um of Mod­ern Art. And one artist every stu­dent of art his­to­ry should know, Baroness Elsa von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven, remains almost com­plete­ly obscure. What’s so impor­tant about von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven? She was a pio­neer­ing Dada artist and poet—well-known in the 1910s and 20s. “Her work was cham­pi­oned by Ernest Hem­ing­way and Ezra Pound,” writes John Hig­gs at the Inde­pen­dent (she appears in Pound’s Can­to XCV). She “is now rec­og­nized as the first Amer­i­can Dada artist, but it might be equal­ly true to say she was the first New York punk, 60 years too ear­ly.”

Von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven also deserves the cred­it, it seems, for one of the most ground­break­ing art objects to ever appear in a gallery: Foun­tain, the uri­nal signed “R. Mutt” that Mar­cel Duchamp claimed as his own and which has made him a leg­end in the his­to­ry of art. The sto­ry, I imag­ine, might seem depress­ing­ly famil­iar to every woman who has ever had a male boss pub­lish her work with his name on it. Even more frus­trat­ing­ly, the “glar­ing truth has been known for some time in the art world,” accord­ing to the blog of art mag­a­zine See All This. Yet, “each time it has to be acknowl­edged, it is met with indif­fer­ence and silence.”

The truth first emerged in a let­ter from Duchamp to his sister—discovered in 1982 and dat­ed April 11th, 1917, a few days before the exhib­it in which Foun­tain first appeared—in which he “wrote that a female friend using a male alias had sent it in for the New York exhi­bi­tion.” The name, “Richard Mutt,” was a pseu­do­nym cho­sen by Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven, who was liv­ing in Philadel­phia at the time and whom Duchamp knew well, once pro­nounc­ing that “she is not a Futur­ist. She is the future.” (See her Por­trait of Mar­cel Duchamp, above, in a 1920 pho­to­graph by Charles Sheel­er.)

Why did she nev­er claim Foun­tain as her own? “She nev­er had the chance,” notes See All This. The uri­nal was reject­ed by the exhi­bi­tion orga­niz­ers (Duchamp resigned from their board in protest), and it was prob­a­bly, sub­se­quent­ly thrown away; noth­ing remained but a pho­to­graph by Alfred Stieglitz. Von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven died ten years lat­er in 1927.

It was only in 1935 that sur­re­al­ist André Bre­ton brought atten­tion back to Foun­tain, attribut­ing it to Duchamp, who accept­ed author­ship and began to com­mis­sion repli­cas. The 1917 piece “was des­tined to become one of the most icon­ic works of mod­ern art. In 2004, some five hun­dred artists and art experts her­ald­ed Foun­tain as the most influ­en­tial piece of mod­ern art, even leav­ing Picasso’s Les Demoi­selles d’Avignon behind.”

Duchamp’s let­ter is not the only rea­son his­to­ri­ans have for think­ing of Foun­tain as von Freytag-Loringhoven’s work. “Baroness Elsa had been find­ing objects in the street and declar­ing them to be works of art since before Duchamp hit upon the idea of ‘ready­mades,’” writes Hig­gs. One such work, a “cast-iron plumber’s trap attached to a wood­en box, which she called God” (above), was also mis­at­trib­uted, “assumed to be the work of an artist called Mor­ton Liv­ingston Schaum­berg, although it is now accept­ed that his role in the sculp­ture was lim­it­ed to fix­ing the plumber’s trap to its wood­en base.”

Foun­tain is base, crude, con­fronta­tion­al and fun­ny,” writes Hig­gs, “Those are not typ­i­cal aspects of Duchamp’s work, but they sum­ma­rize the Baroness and her art per­fect­ly.” Duchamp lat­er claimed to have bought the uri­nal him­self, but lat­er research has shown this to be unlike­ly. Hig­gs’ book Stranger Than We Can Imag­ine explores the issues in more depth, as does an arti­cle in Dutch pub­lished in the See All This sum­mer issue. What would it mean for the art estab­lish­ment to acknowl­edge von Freytag-Loringhoven’s author­ship? “To attribute Foun­tain to a woman and not a man,” the mag­a­zine writes, “has obvi­ous, far-reach­ing con­se­quences: the his­to­ry of mod­ern art has to be rewrit­ten. Mod­ern art did not start with a patri­arch, but with a matri­arch.”

Learn more about Elsa von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven at The Art Sto­ry.

via See All This

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Mar­cel Duchamp Read “The Cre­ative Act,” A Short Lec­ture on What Makes Great Art, Great

The Female Pio­neers of the Bauhaus Art Move­ment: Dis­cov­er Gertrud Arndt, Mar­i­anne Brandt, Anni Albers & Oth­er For­got­ten Inno­va­tors

1933 Arti­cle on Fri­da Kahlo: “Wife of the Mas­ter Mur­al Painter Glee­ful­ly Dab­bles in Works of Art”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Petteri says:

    Thank you for reveal­ing this to me. It’s a bit of a shock. (To me also about Scham­berg.) I’m sort of depressed about how this pat­tern just repeats itself (and how long it takes to find out).

  • Kika says:

    It’s great arti­cle but please cor­rect “Jack­son Pol­lack” to “Jack­son Pol­lock”. Giv­en the times we live, cred­i­bil­i­ty and good jour­nal­ism is based on keep­ing an eye on this kind of details. Thank you for your hard work and for your devo­tion to your medi­um.

  • Lachlan Phillips says:

    She seems amaz­ing in her own right, but the dates don’t add up. She did­n’t meet Duchamp until after the war broke out and her hus­band left to join the war, yet Duchamp was cre­at­ing ready­mades like “Bicy­cle Wheel” as ear­ly as 1913.

    So who came up with the con­cept of “Ready-mades”? It was­n’t the cre­ator of the foun­tain. Duchamp was cre­at­ing these 4 years pri­or. But let’s look at the let­ters.

    The first is the seem­ing­ly damn­ing let­ter selec­tive­ly quot­ed in the arti­cle:

    “One of my female friends under a mas­cu­line
    pseu­do­nym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porce­lain uri­nal as a sculp­ture”

    But this is the last in sev­er­al let­ters. Let’s look at the full con­text.

    Two more things come to light from the col­lec­tion of let­ters.

    1) Duchamp out­lines his con­cept of ready-mades a full year and a half before the foun­tain was sub­mit­ted to The Inde­pen­dents in the fol­low­ing let­ter to his sis­ter, Suzanne:

    “Now, if you went up to my place you saw in my stu­dio a bicy­cle wheel and a bot­tle rack. I had pur­chased this as a sculp­ture already made. And I have an idea con­cern­ing this said bot­tle rack: Lis­ten.
    Here, in N.Y., I bought some objects in the same vein and I treat them as “ready­made.” You know Eng­lish well enough to under­stand the sense of “ready made” that I give these objects. I sign them and give them an Eng­lish inscrip­tion.”

    2) He lat­er moves on to out­lin­ing his con­cept of “art at a dis­tance”, instruct­ing Suzanne how to cre­ate a ready-made under his name in the fol­low­ing let­ter. Not just the inven­tor of post mod­ernism, but a pre­cur­sor to Warhol.

    “You take for your­self this bot­tle rack. I will make it a “Ready­made” from a dis­tance. You will have to write at the base and on the inside of the bot­tom ring in small let­ters paint­ed with an oil-paint­ing brush, in sil­ver white col­or, the inscrip­tion that I
    will give you after this, and you will sign it in the same hand as fol­lows:
    [after] Mar­cel Duchamp”

    So it’s clear to any­one fol­low­ing that Duchamp was instruct­ing peo­ple to take objects, sign/inscribe them, and have this be his art. Not con­tent with just find­ing the art, he then want­ed the art to be found on his behalf, as his lat­er work demon­strates. It’s kin­da bril­liant.

    OK, so if some­one oth­er than Duchamp cre­at­ed the foun­tain in 1917 on his behalf, who was it?

    The arti­cle draws a hasty con­clu­sion that it must have been Elsa von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven, but, if you look at the fol­low­ing let­ter, it seems to indi­cate he was request­ing from many peo­ple:

    “Did you write the phrase on the ready­made? — do so and send it (the phrase) to me indi­cat­ing how you did it. I am writ­ing a lit­tle to every­one at the moment.”

    OK, so his sis­ter Suzanne cre­at­ed one ready­made under Duchamps instruc­tion, this much is clear. (Name­ly “Bot­tle Rack”)

    The can­di­dates for “The foun­tain” are now nar­rowed down to Elsa von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven, and his friend and painter Louise Nor­ton.

    Unfor­tu­nate­ly for Elsa, Stieglitz’s orig­i­nal pho­to­graph of “The Foun­tain” actu­al­ly shows the entry slip in the bot­tom left cor­ner.

    As seen here:

    You can see the name R. Mutt, and the address of the entrant.

    Richard Mutt
    110 West 88th St
    New York City

    Which just so hap­pens to be the address Louise Nor­ton was liv­ing at in 1917.

    So, The Foun­tain was cre­at­ed by Lousie Nor­ton at the request of Duchamp as part of his ongo­ing “ready­made” con­cept.

    Duchamp not only forged post-mod­ernism, but assem­bly line art lat­er cred­it­ed to Warhol.

    As always, the truth is much more inter­est­ing…

  • R.MUTT says:

    Does it real­ly mat­ter who made or claimed this as a sig­nif­i­cant work of art? The claim that it is so ground­break­ing as a work of art still has to be made — ulti­mate­ly no one has the author­i­ty to say what it is. It’s more of a French scat­o­log­i­cal bur­lesque joke, and even by Ducham­p’s time this kind of thing was already ancient his­to­ry.

  • R.MUTT says:

    If the attri­bu­tion to Duchamp is dis­missed, and instead ‘The Foun­tain’ is attrib­uted to Elsa von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven, how does that change the mean­ing of the work? It is men­tioned here that Bre­ton brought atten­tion back to the Foun­tain in 1935, and that Duchamp accept­ed author­ship and began with repli­cas. If this is so, might this not have con­tributed sig­nif­i­cant­ly to its sta­tus as an impor­tant art­work to begin with? Regard­less of post-mod­ernism or Warhol or any­thing or any­one else, the fact that it passed into the stage of gen­er­at­ing ‘mul­ti­ples’, some­thing which in one way or anoth­er Duchamp (and oth­ers) had already been work­ing with, it would have start­ed to beg more ques­tions and elab­o­rate more prob­lems of inter­pre­ta­tion — thus pro­vid­ing a rea­son for its sig­nif­i­cance. You folks are treat­ing this like it’s a draw­ing by a Renais­sance artist who every­one thought was by one artist, but turns out it is by anoth­er. The ‘Foun­tain’ does­n’t func­tion that way. So to repeat the ques­tion: if the work turns out to be by Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven, how does that change the mean­ing of the work? Have a rea­son for writ­ing this arti­cle. Would it cause his­tor­i­cal revi­sion­ism? It’s very nice and charm­ing the 500 peo­ple think it is so impor­tant, but all that proves is that 500 peo­ple can all agree on some­thing. It’s a lot eas­i­er to achieve that in the world of art and acad­e­mia today than it would have been 30 or 40 years ago.

  • E says:

    “‘My fix­a­tion with these artists went beyond fem­i­nism,’ she writes, ‘if it had any­thing to do with it at all.’ ” There’s real­ly no rea­son to make this unfem­i­nist, is there

  • R.MUTT says:

    So what is it about the ‘Foun­tain’ that makes it fem­i­nist? For the last 40 years, and count­ing, we’ve had fem­i­nist essen­tial­ism, par­tic­u­lar­ly Mary Daly who I think is one of the great thinkers of the late mod­ern peri­od although so many fem­i­nists would dis­agree. Even the idea that the ‘Foun­tain’ is sig­nif­i­cant sole­ly for hav­ing been con­ceived and made by a woman does­n’t real­ly add up giv­en the vagaries of its influ­ence. That is, even by the terms of the arti­cle.

  • Francis M. Naumann says:

    The idea that Baroness Elsa was the real author of Mar­cel Ducham­p’s Foun­tain was first pro­posed by Glyn Thomp­son in 2008, and has now attained the sta­tus of a full-blown con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry. It was an absolute­ly pre­pos­ter­ous claim when it was intro­duced, and it was quick­ly embraced by any­one who thinks a female artist was wronged and the author­ship of this game-chang­ing arti­fact was stolen from her. Every shred of evi­dence pre­sent­ed to sup­port this the­o­ry is pure­ly cir­cum­stan­tial, but what few peo­ple real­ize is that it was pre­sent­ed with an agen­da: to dis­cred­it Duchamp and there­by all of con­tem­po­rary art that fol­lowed from his exam­ple. The main rea­son it won’t go away is because of the MeToo Move­ment and a twist­ed fem­i­nist agen­da. Of course, it is a lauda­to­ry impulse to resus­ci­tate inter­est in the work of a for­got­ten female artist, but using Baroness Elsa for this pur­pose is unques­tion­ably mis­guid­ed and serves no legit­i­mate fem­i­nist agen­da. She is an artist wor­thy of atten­tion in her own right, and not as some­one who had her ideas stolen by a more pow­er­ful male artist, because that sim­ply did not hap­pen in this case.

  • R.MUTT says:

    Well at least the ‘Foun­tain’ can still cause a stir in North Amer­i­ca it seems, even if the rest of the world has moved on. No one here is talk­ing about the actu­al object and the poten­tial­ly inter­est­ing result of attribut­ing it to some­one oth­er than Duchamp. You guys just seem to be bureau­crat­i­cal­ly vain, try­ing to score ado­les­cent debat­ing points, and unin­ter­est­ed in the effect of art on soci­ety — specif­i­cal­ly this work.

  • Frank W Krasicki says:

    These asser­tions have been kick­ing around for a long time and fail the sniff test. Duscham­p’s work was broad­er than just the uri­nal piece.
    See ‘An Audi­ence of Artists’ and a recent Art Forum dis­cus­sion of Duschamp for a rich­er and more accu­rate view­point.

    None of which, btw, dimin­ish­es Elsa’s work.

    These kinds of wish­ful rewrites of his­to­ry should not be advanced by Art His­to­ry depart­ments at major Uni­ver­si­ties ded­i­cat­ed to, well… His­to­ry.

  • Seralyn says:

    Sure there is. A great num­ber of peo­ple [unfor­tu­nate­ly and with­out good rea­son] write things off that have ties to fem­i­nism. If the goal here is expo­sure and wide­spread accep­tance, it behooves the author to dis­con­nect from any thought styles con­sid­ered by oth­ers as ‘rad­i­cal’. Whether fem­i­nism is actu­al­ly ‘rad­i­cal’ is beside the point.

  • susan gilbert says:

    The ques­tion may go a lit­tle fur­ther. I’ve been under the impres­sion that the first to ask a ques­tion about Foun­tain’s author­ship was Irene Gam­mel, though I need to go back to check. How­ev­er my point is that dada in both it’s New York and Zurich incar­na­tions was high­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive. Elsa notably worked with both Duchamp and Man Ray, her work and her body appeared in the only edi­tion of New York Dada 1921. She was a remark­able artist and deserves far more recog­ni­tion, her art has been dis­missed as fem­i­nine dada when it was tru­ly fem­i­nist dada. How­ev­er the col­lab­o­ra­tive ethos of much of dada sure­ly makes the attri­bu­tion of a sin­gle arti­fact to one artist rather than anoth­er rather unim­por­tant.
    There is right­ly a great admi­ra­tion for Duchamp, his was a unique mind but I believe that with­out the con­tri­bu­tions of the group of oth­er minds around him, his impact on pos­ter­i­ty would have been far less. For­tu­nate­ly he was open to oth­er ideas, they all were.

  • Glyn Thompson says:

    Read­ers wish­ing to judge the impar­tial­i­ty of Mr Naumann’s unsub­stan­ti­at­ed opin­ion that the de-attri­bu­tion of Mutt’s ges­ture from the oeu­vre of Mar­cel Duchamp, and its re-attri­bu­tion to that of Elsa von Frey­tag Lor­ing­hoven, con­sti­tutes a “con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry,” might find it help­ful to con­sult the fol­low­ing:

    [1]‘Sloppy Vir­tu­os­i­ty at the Tem­ple of Puri­ty No. 23: Fran­cis Naumann’s Rec­cur­rent Haunt­ing Ghosts.’
    [2] ‘Only in Philadel­phia.’ Moore Women Artists. Philadel­phia.
    [3] ”God” by Baroness Elsa von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven and Mor­ton. L. Scham­berg. / Reviews.
    [4] ‘Elsa in Philadel­phia.’ Sum­mer­hall, Edin­burgh. 2017.
    [5] ‘Duchamp’s Uri­nal? The Facts Behind the Façade.’ Wild Pan­sy Press, 2015.

    As for “cir­cum­stan­tial” evi­dence, Mr Nau­mann fails to men­tion that the mis­at­tri­bu­tion of Mutt’s uri­nal to Duchamp was made not in 1917 but in 1935, by Andre Bre­ton, who cit­ed no evi­dence what­so­ev­er in sup­port of his airy fan­cy. This is hard­ly sur­pris­ing, since, as Mr Nau­mann also to fails to note, there is none.

  • R.MUTT says:

    Does any­one here actu­al­ly give a toss about the work itself? What a fem­i­nist read­ing of it might bring to light?

  • Peter Hess says:

    The propo­si­tion that Elsa von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven and not Duchamp cre­at­ed Foun­tain is an inter­est­ing one. The well con­sid­ered response by Lach­lan Phillips in the com­ments sec­tion car­ries weight as well. The one thing I can­not under­stand is the con­tention from John Hig­gs that “Foun­tain is base, crude, con­fronta­tion­al and fun­ny… Those are not typ­i­cal aspects of Duchamp’s work.” Wrong, those are pre­cise­ly aspects of Ducham­p’s work.

  • Peter Maaswinkel says:

    See also:
    Mar­cel Duchamp. The Enig­ma of the Uri­nal. L’énigme de l’uri­noir. Ham­burg: Tred­i­tion, 2017.

  • Petroschek Wulgarow says:

    Mar­cel Duchamp is now also offi­cial­ly a fraud. Not that I ever felt any oth­er way about his “art” espe­cial­ly the “foun­tain”. While every­one was hyp­ing him for that piece of shit­house I always thought: “Oh wow. How dar­ing. You real­ly showed them, Mar­cel. A toi­let. Signed. Wooooo.” It has become clear that Duchamp claimed the work of Dada Artist Elsa von Frey­tag-Lor­ing­hoven. Anoth­er nice exam­ple on how men in pow­er exploit women. But also an empow­er­ing mes­sage for all female artists today: women can do shit (ty) art too. I hope the Duchamp fre­net­ic crowd of art his­to­ri­ans learned their les­son — frick­ing vic­ar­i­ous agents of the art mar­ket.

    That’s my state­ment under a pic­ture of your arti­cle:

  • Bryan Ray says:

    Dear Lach­lan Phillips, thank you for your com­ment. What you said here was extreme­ly help­ful to me.

  • KM says:

    FYI: you link to the Art Sto­ry page for this artist, but Art Sto­ry still attrib­ut­es Foun­tain to Duchamp.

  • Gaffe Prices says:

    It seems entire­ly plau­si­ble that Ms. Frey­tag was the cre­ator behind the idea of “foun­tain”. That’s the prob­lem with mod­ernist art; it’s even eas­i­er to steal a work of art (an idea) than it is to break into a stu­dio and steal an oil paint­ing that result­ed from a painters skill. It also seems inevitable that ideas would be in play so that Duchamp and oth­ers (Joseph Cor­nell, for exam­ple), would pur­sue as ready made sculp­tures.

  • Alastair Brotchie says:

    For an updat­ed sum­ma­ry of the actu­al facts, see

  • allen mersereau says:

    haha­ha, mod­ern art was such a scam any­ways, clas­sist delu­sions, noth­ing more. It is impor­tant that a woman take cred­it for the mess thought, right on!!!

  • Raphael says:

    Well I think Lach­lan Phillips com­ment real­ly puts an end to the dis­cus­sion. Even if it was­n’t by Duchamp, which it is, it would be by Louise Nor­ton before Elsa Frey­tag. Just because some hypoth­e­sis has ele­ments enough to say it could be true, does­n’t mean it real­ly is true, spe­cial­ly if the actu­al sto­ry is much more plau­si­ble.

    And for those dimin­ish­ing Ducham­p’s work or the impor­tance of dada and fol­low­ing move­ments… maybe you have to study a lit­tle more and open your mind for new con­cepts, or maybe you have to work on your feel­ings, because this urg­ing hate that dri­ves you to an arti­cle just to rant at it, that’s love, not hate. You real­ly like it, but you’re not allow­ing your­self for some rea­son. So you com­pen­sate express­ing hate. Oth­er­wise, you would­n’t even both­er.

  • Dr Marius O’Shea says:

    What amus­es me about the Uri­nal, giv­en its con­fig­u­ra­tion, is that if we’re used for it’s designed pur­pose a chap would get their out­put back in full mea­sure. It real­ly is a “piss take.”

  • Bradley Bailey says:

    The infor­ma­tion giv­en by Glyn Thomp­son above regard­ing when and by whom “Foun­tain” was attrib­uted to Duchamp is ver­i­fi­ably incor­rect. See “Duchamp’s ‘Foun­tain’: the Baroness The­o­ry Debunked” (The Burling­ton Mag­a­zine, 2019),

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