The term readymade was first used by French artist Marcel Duchamp to describe the works of art he made from manufactured objects. It has since often been applied more generally to artworks by other artists made in this way

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  • Marcel Duchamp, 'Fountain' 1917, replica 1964
    Marcel Duchamp
    Fountain 1917, replica 1964
    © Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Marcel Duchamp, 'Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy?' 1921, replica 1964
    Marcel Duchamp
    Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy? 1921, replica 1964
    Mixed media
    unconfirmed: 114 x 220 x 160 mm
    Purchased 1999© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Marcel Duchamp, 'Fresh Widow' 1920, replica 1964
    Marcel Duchamp
    Fresh Widow 1920, replica 1964
    Mixed media
    object: 789 x 532 x 99 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1997© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002


Duchamp’s earliest readymades included Bicycle Wheel of 1913, a wheel mounted on a wooden stool, and In Advance of the Broken Arm of 1915, a snow shovel inscribed with that title. In 1917 in New York, Duchamp made his most notorious readymade, Fountain, a men’s urinal signed by the artist with a false name and exhibited placed on its back. Later readymades were more elaborate and were referred to by Duchamp as assisted readymades.

For his readymades Duchamp deliberately chose ordinary, functional – and rather dull – objects. His choice was:

‘…based on a reaction of visual indifference, with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste…’
Duchamp as quoted in The Art of Assemblage: A Symposium, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 19, 1961

Although the term readymade was invented by Duchamp to describe his own art, it has since been applied more generally to artworks made from manufactured objects. For example works by YBA artists Damien Hirst, Michael Landy and Tracey Emin, (such as Emin’s My Bed 1998) can be described as readymades.

Tracey Emin My Bed 1998
Tracey Emin My Bed 1998

In focus: Duchamp’s theory of the readymade

The theory behind the readymade was explained in an anonymous editorial published in the May 1917 issue of avant-garde magazine The Blind Man run by Duchamp and two friends:

Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.

There are three important points here: first, that the choice of object is itself a creative act. Secondly, that by cancelling the ‘useful’ function of an object it becomes art. Thirdly, that the presentation and addition of a title to the object have given it ‘a new thought’, a new meaning. Duchamp’s readymades also asserted the principle that what is art is defined by the artist. Choosing the object is itself a creative act, cancelling out the useful function of the object makes it art, and its presentation in the gallery gives it a new meaning. This move from artist-as-maker to artist-as-chooser is often seen as the beginning of the movement to conceptual art, as the status of the artist and the object are called into question. At the time, the readymade was seen as an assault on the conventional understanding not only of the status of art but its very nature.

A readymade term…!

Interestingly, the term chosen by Duchamp to describe his new approach to art making is in itself one that is ‘readymade’. By the end of the nineteenth century the term ‘ready-made’ was being used to describe objects that were manufactured as opposed to being handmade.

In context

Exhibition: Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia
Find out more about the development of Duchamp’s ideas in the context of his friendship and collaborations with other leading avant garde artists Man Ray and Francis Picabia. The powerful intellectual chemistry these artists shared allowed them to respond freely to each other’s ideas in an artistic dialogue filled with in-jokes and innuendos.

The unholy trinity
Read this article to gain more insights into how the friendship between Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia influenced the development of their work.

Gabriel Orozco Shoebox
Controversial? Gabriel Orozco's 'Empty Shoe Box' (1993)

Gabriel Orozco and the empty shoebox…
Since its first presentation as an art object in 1917 Duchamp’s Fountain has provoked lively discussion about art, ideas and meaning. Find out what happened nearly a century later when, in the spirit of Duchamp, artist Gabriel Orozco placed an unexplained empty shoebox on the gallery floor in his 2011 Tate Modern exhibition.

Other perspectives

Is it art? Is it a wind-up? Find out how people responded to Duchamp’s Fountain 1917 when it was taken out of an art gallery and displayed in a public toilet…

Richard Hamilton’s Readymade Shadows 2005-6
Discover how Duchamp’s readymades inspired artist Richard Hamilton to create photographs which responded to the shadows formed by their shapes and movement.

Now is for ever, again
For his readymades Duchamp utilised ordinary, everyday objects. This article explores the continuing fascination that artists have with making use of everyday objects and actions as art.

Ceal Floyer Helix 2002 Mixed media
Ceal Floyer
Helix 2002
Mixed media
Dimensions variable

In detail

Duchamp’s Legacy: Richard Hamilton and Sarat Maharaj
Watch artist Richard Hamilton and writer and curator Sarat Maharaj discuss the legacy of Marcel Duchamp’s work.

Related glossary terms

Found object, assemblage, conceptual art, postmodernismavant-garde, Dada