This painting, which Marcel Duchamp identified as a self-portrait, was probably begun during December of 1911 in Neuilly, while he was exploring ideas for the controversial Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 of 1912. In Nude (Study), Sad Young Man on a Train his transitory though acute interest in Cubism is manifested in the subdued palette, emphasis on the flat surface of the picture plane, and in the subordination of representational fidelity to the demands of the abstract composition.
Duchamp’s primary concern in this painting is the depiction of two movements, that of the train in which we observe the young man smoking and that of the lurching figure itself. The forward motion of the train is suggested by the multiplication of the lines and volumes of the figure, a semitransparent form through which we can see windows, themselves transparent and presumably presenting a blurred, “moving” landscape. The independent sideways motion of the figure is represented by a directionally contrary series of repetitions. These two series of replications suggest the multiple images of chronophotography, which Duchamp acknowledged as an influence, and the related ideas of the Italian Futurists, of which he was at least aware by this time. Here he uses the device not only to illustrate movement, but also to integrate the young man with his murky surroundings, which with his swaying, drooping pose contribute to the air of melancholy. Shortly after the execution of this and similar works, Duchamp lost interest in Cubism and developed his eccentric vocabulary of mechanomorphic elements that foreshadowed aspects of Dada.