This cloth for the petits chevaux game was painted on canvas by Marcel Duchamp between 1906 and 1911. Kept by the descendants of André Mare, a regular guest at the petits chevaux parties, it was subsequently bought by Marianne and Pierre Nahon, who found it rolled up in an attic. The floor mat was for a game that was played at these famous Sunday parties. Jacques Bon, another regular at these gatherings, evokes the central role of this games track and its rules: "The track was 1.2m long and 60cm wide, divided into equal spaces for games of snakes and ladders or petits chevaux that each player would progress along in turn, according to the number they rolled on the dice. Obstacles were scattered around the playing field, for which there were penalties if you came across one. At the beginning of the game we played with three dice, then after a certain point, with two, before finishing with just one; ten squares before the final post which made the guests very lively and noisy. A tote was organised by Marcel Duchamp, the youngest brother of Villon and Duchamp-Villon. An entrance fee was collected at the start of the game when we lined up our horses, most of which we made ourselves, registered either on the course itself or on the obstacles, and created a collection of fanciful specimens" (Jacques Bon, Promenades d'hier en aujourd'hui – De Paris à Puteaux 1905-1952, 1959, Puteaux, p.35).
Following his brothers' example, Marcel Duchamp also made his own horse, decorated in a black and white chequered pattern, which he named Gambit, in "reference to a tactic in chess where a piece is sacrificed in order to gain a position...It was as if Duchamp had jokingly sacrificed the horse - the knight -, from chess, to win at petits chevaux" (Judith Housez, Marcel Duchamp, 2006). Gambit took position on this stylised track, which was inspired by the steeplechase course at Auteil, and was punctuated with blue squares representing the water jump. A fanatical player, Duchamp took the same approach to creating his own games, notably, chess.
With this unique object, Marcel Duchamp, who observed the cubists' recreational parties in Puteaux, corrupted the childlike spirit of the steeplechase by turning it into a betting game. Thus, driven by his love of games and risk, Marcel Duchamp, perhaps for the first time, transformed an everyday object, which would become a central approach to all his future artwork.
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