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Constantin Brâncuși

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Constantin Brâncuși

Constantin Brâncuși
Photograph taken by Edward Steichen in 1922
Born (1876-02-19)February 19, 1876
Hobița, Romania
Died March 16, 1957(1957-03-16) (aged 81)
Paris, France
Resting place
Cimetière du Montparnasse Paris
Nationality Romanian
Education École des Beaux-Arts
Known for Sculpture
Notable work(s) Sleeping Muse (1908), The Kiss (1908), Prometheus (1911), Mademoiselle Pogany (1913), The Newborn (1915), Torso of a Young Man (1917-1922), Bird in Space (1919), The Endless Column (1938)
Movement Modernism
Awards Romanian Academy
Patron(s) John Quinn

Constantin Brâncuși (Romanian:  ( ); February 19, 1876 – March 16, 1957) was a Romanian sculptor, painter and photographer who made his career in France. Considered a pioneer of modernism, one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th-century, Brâncuși is called the patriarch of modern sculpture. As a child he displayed an aptitude for carving wooden farm tools. Formal studies took him first to Bucharest, then to Munich, then to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1905 to 1907. His art emphasizes clean geometrical lines that balance forms inherent in his materials with the symbolic allusions of representational art. Brancusi sought inspiration in non-European cultures as a source of primitive exoticism, as did Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, André Derain and others. But other influences emerge from Romanian folk art traceable through Byzantine and Dionysian traditions.[1]

Early years

Constantin Brâncuși, Portrait of Mademoiselle Pogany [1], 1912, White marble; limestone block, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. Exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show.

Brâncuși grew up in the village of Hobiţa, Gorj, near Târgu Jiu, close to Romania's Carpathian Mountains, an area known for its rich tradition of folk crafts, particularly woodcarving. Geometric patterns of the region are seen in his later works.

His parents Nicolae and Maria Brâncuși were poor peasants who earned a meager living through back-breaking labor; from the age of seven, Constantin herded the family's flock of sheep. He showed talent for carving objects out of wood, and often ran away from home to escape the bullying of his father and older brothers.

At the age of nine, Brâncuși left the village to work in the nearest large town. At 11 he went into the service of a grocer in Slatina; and then he became a domestic in a public house in Craiova where he remained for several years. When he was 18, Brâncuși created a violin by hand with materials he found around his workplace. Impressed by Brâncuși's talent for carving, an industrialist entered him in the Craiova School of Arts and Crafts (școala de arte și meserii), where he pursued his love for woodworking, graduating with honors in 1898.[2]

He then enrolled in the Bucharest School of Fine Arts, where he received academic training in sculpture. He worked hard, and quickly distinguished himself as talented. One of his earliest surviving works, under the guidance of his anatomy teacher, Dimitrie Gerota, is a masterfully rendered écorché (statue of a man with skin removed to reveal the muscles underneath) which was exhibited at the Romanian Athenaeum in 1903.[3] Though just an anatomical study, it foreshadowed the sculptor's later efforts to reveal essence rather than merely copy outward appearance.

Working in Paris

Constantin Brâncuși, 1907-08, The Kiss. Exhibited in 1913 at the Armory Show and published in the Chicago Tribune, 25 March 1913

In 1903, Brâncuși traveled to Munich, and from there to Paris. In Paris, he was welcomed by the community of artists and intellectuals brimming with new ideas.[4] He worked for two years in the workshop of Antonin Mercié of the École des Beaux-Arts, and was invited to enter the workshop of Auguste Rodin. Even though he admired the eminent Rodin he left the Rodin studio after only two months, saying, "Nothing can grow under big trees."[2]

After leaving Rodin's workshop, Brâncuși began developing the revolutionary style for which he is known. His first commissioned work, "The Prayer", was part of a gravestone memorial. It depicts a young woman crossing herself as she kneels, and marks the first step toward abstracted, non-literal representation, and shows his drive to depict "not the outer form but the idea, the essence of things." He also began doing more carving, rather than the method popular with his contemporaries, that of modeling in clay or plaster which would be cast in metal, and by 1908 he worked almost exclusively by carving.

In the following few years he made many versions of "Sleeping Muse" and "The Kiss", further simplifying forms to geometrical and sparse objects.

His works became popular in France, Romania and the United States. Collectors, notably John Quinn, bought his pieces, and reviewers praised his works. In 1913 Brâncuși's work was displayed at both the Salon des Indépendants and the first exhibition in the U.S. of modern art, the Armory Show.

Brâncuși's Paris studio, 1920, photograph by Edward Steichen

In 1920, he developed a notorious reputation with the entry of "Princess X" [1] in the Sigmund Freud.[5][6][7][8]

Around this time he began crafting the bases for his sculptures with much care and originality because he considered them important to the works themselves.

He began working on the group of sculptures that are known as "Bird in Space" — simple shapes representing a bird in flight. The works are based on his earlier "Măiastra" [2] series. In Romanian folklore the Măiastra is a beautiful golden bird who foretells the future and cures the blind. Over the following 20 years, Brâncuși would make 20-some versions of "Bird in Space" out of marble or bronze. Photographer Edward Steichen purchased one of the "birds" in 1926 and shipped it to the United States. However, the customs officers did not accept the "bird" as a work of art and placed a duty upon its import as an industrial item. They charged the high tax placed upon raw metals instead of the no tax on art. A trial the next year overturned the assessment.[9][10] Athena Tacha Spear's book, Brâncuși's Birds, (CAA monographs XXI, NYU Press, New York, 1969), first sorted out the 36 versions and their development, from the early Măiastra, to the Golden Bird of the late teens, to the Bird in Space, which emerged in the early '20s and which Brâncuși perfected throughout his life.

Armory Show, 1913, North end of the exhibition, showing some of the modernist sculptures. In Arts Revolutionists of Today (1913), the caption for this photo reads: "At the left of the picture is a much-discussed portrait bust of Mlle. Pogany, a dancer, by Brâncuși. This freak sculpture resembles nothing so much as an egg and has excited much derision and laughter..."[11]

His work became popular in the U.S., however, and he visited several times during his life. Worldwide fame in 1933 brought him the commission of building a meditation temple in India for Maharajah of Indore, but when Brâncuși went to India in 1937 to complete the plans and begin construction, the Mahrajah was away and lost interest in the project when he returned.

In 1938, he finished the World War I monument in Târgu-Jiu where he had spent much of his childhood. "Table of Silence", "The Gate of the Kiss", and "Endless Column" commemorate the courage and sacrifice of Romanian civilians who in 1916 fought off a German invasion. The restoration of this ensemble was spearheaded by the World Monuments Fund and was completed in 2004.

The Târgu Jiu ensemble marks the apex of his artistic career. In his remaining 19 years he created less than 15 pieces, mostly reworking earlier themes, and while his fame grew he withdrew. In 1956 Life magazine reported, "Wearing white pajamas and a yellow gnomelike cap, Brâncuși today hobbles about his studio tenderly caring for and communing with the silent host of fish birds, heads, and endless columns which he created."

Brâncuși was cared for in his later years by a Romanian refugee couple. He became a French citizen in 1952 in order to make the caregivers his heirs, and to bequeath his studio and its contents to the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris

Personal life

Constantin Brâncuși, 1909, Le Baiser (The Kiss), 89.5 x 30 x 20 cm, stone, Cimetière de Montparnasse, Paris

Brâncuși always dressed in the simple ways the Romanian peasants did. His studio was reminiscent of the houses of the peasants from his native region: there was a big slab of rock as a table and a primitive fireplace, similar to those found in traditional houses in his native Oltenia, while the rest of the furniture was made by him out of wood. Brâncuși would cook his own food, traditional Romanian dishes, with which he would treat his guests.[12]

Brâncuși held a large spectrum of interests, from science to music. He was a good violinist and he would sing old Romanian folk songs, often expressing by them his feelings of homesickness. After the installment of communism, he never considered moving back to his native Romania, but he did visit it eight times.[12][13]

His circle of friends included artists and intellectuals in Paris such as Theodor Pallady, Camil Ressu, Nicolae Dărăscu, Panait Istrati, Traian Vuia, Eugène Ionesco, Emil Cioran and Paul Celan.[16]

Brâncuși held a particular interest in mythology, especially Romanian mythology, folk tales, and traditional art (which also had a strong influence on his works), but he became interested in African and Mediterranean art as well.[17]

A talented handyman, he built his own phonograph, and made most of his furniture, utensils, and doorways. His worldview valued "differentiating the essential from the ephemeral," with Plato, Lao-Tzu, and Milarepa as influences. He was a saint-like idealist and near ascetic, turning his workshop into a place where visitors noted the deep spiritual atmosphere. However, particularly through the 10s and 20s, he was known as a pleasure seeker and merrymaker in his bohemian circle. He enjoyed cigarettes, good wine, and the company of women. He had one child, John Moore, whom he never acknowledged.[2][18]

Death and legacy

Constantin Brâncuși on the 500 leu Romanian banknote (1991–1992 issue)

Brâncuși died on March 16, 1957, aged 81. He was buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. This cemetery also displays statues that Brâncuși carved for deceased artists.

At his death Brâncuși left 1200 photographs and 215 sculptures. He bequeathed part of his collection to the French state, after it was refused by the Romanian Communist government, on condition that his workshop be rebuilt as it was on the day he died. This reconstruction of his studio, adjacent to the Pompidou Centre, is open to the public. Brâncuși's studio inspired Swedish architect Klas Anshelm's design of the Malmö Konsthall, which opened in 1975. [19]

Brâncuși was elected posthumously to the Romanian Academy in 1990.[20] Brâncuși's piece "Madame L.R." sold for €29.185 million ($37.2 million) in 2009, setting a record price for a sculpture sold at auction.[21] Google commemorated his 135th birthday with a Doodle in 2011 consisting of seven of his works.[22]

Brâncuși's works are housed in the National Museum of Art of Romania (Bucharest), the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and other museums around the world. The Philadelphia Museum of Art holds the largest collection of Brâncuși sculptures in the United States. [23]

Brâncuși on his own work

(French) "Il y a des imbéciles qui définissent mon œuvre comme abstraite, pourtant ce qu'ils qualifient d'abstrait est ce qu'il y a de plus réaliste, ce qui est réel n'est pas l'apparence mais l'idée, l'essence des choses."[24] [25] "There are idiots who define my work as abstract; yet what they call abstract is what is most realistic. What is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things."
(Romanian) "Am șlefuit materia pentru a afla linia continuă. Și când am constatat că n‑o pot afla, m‑am oprit; parcă cineva nevăzut mi‑a dat peste mâini."[26] "I ground matter to find the continuous line. And when I realized I could not find it, I stopped, as if an unseen someone had slapped my hands."
(Romanian) "Muncește ca un sclav, poruncește ca un rege, creează ca un zeu."[27]

"Work like a slave; command like a king; create like a god."

Selected works

Both Bird in Space and Sleeping Muse I are sculptures of animate objects; however, unlike ones from Ancient Greece or Rome, or those from the High Renaissance period, these works of art are more abstract in style.

Bird in Space is a series from the 1920s. One of these, constructed in 1925 using wood, stone, and marble (Richler 178) stands around 72 inches tall and consists of a narrow feather standing erect on a wooden base. Similar models, but made from materials such as bronze, were also produced by Brâncuși and placed in exhibitions.

Sleeping Muse I has different versions as well; one, from 1909–10, is made of marble and measures 6 ¾ in. in height (Adams 549). This is a model of a head, without a body, with markings to show features such as hair, nose, lips, and closed eyes. In A History of Western Art, Adams says that the sculpture has “an abstract, curvilinear quality and a smooth contour that create an impression of elegance” (549). The qualities which produce the effect can particularly be seen in the shape of the eyes and in the set of the mouth.

Other works

In fiction

  • In Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited, Anthony Blanche remarks in relating a story to Charles Ryder that "I have two sculptures by Brancusi and several pretty things" [sic].
  • In the 1988 movie Short Circuit 2, a man walking through an outdoor exhibition speculates that the stationary Johnny 5 robot, who is also admiring the exhibit, is "an early Brâncuși."
  • In the 2000 film Mission to Mars, the "Face on Mars" is modeled after Brâncuși's "Sleeping Muse".


  1. ^ , The Collection, Sanda Miller, Grove Art Online, 2009 Oxford University PressConstantin BrancusiMoMA,
  2. ^ a b c "Constantin Brâncuși" at (Accessed March 27, 2007.)
  3. ^ Brezianu, B.; Geist, S. (1965). "The Beginnings of Brancusi". Art Journal 25 (1): 15–25.  
  4. ^ Metropolitan Museum of Art website
  5. ^ , Grove Press, 1962De la Sexualité de la FemmePrincess Marie Bonaparte,
  6. ^ , Actions culturelle et pédagogique, Commémorations nationales, recueil 2012, Sciences et techniques, Archives de FranceMarie Bonaparte
  7. ^ , New York,: International Universities PressDrives, affects, behaviorRyudolph Maurice Loewenstein, ed; Schur, Max, ed; Princess Marie Bonaparte, 1882-1962,
  8. ^ , 1961; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, N.Y.Rrose is a rrose is a rrose : gender performance in photographyJennifer Blessing; Judith Halberstam, 1961,
  9. ^ Force Metal ezine
  10. ^ Tomkins, Calvin: Duchamp: A Biography, pages 272, 275, 318. Henry Holt and Company, Inc, 1996.
  11. ^ , vol. 2, 1913, Page 135Walt Kuhn scrapbook of press clippings documenting the Armory ShowArchives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution,
  12. ^ a b Sandqvist, p. 249
  13. ^ Pavel Ţugui, Dosarul Brâncuşi, Editura Dacia, Cluj, 2001, p. 64
  14. ^ Robert Shulman. Romany Marie: The Queen of Greenwich Village (pp. 85-86, 109). Louisville: Butler Books, 2006. ISBN 1-884532-74-8.
  15. ^ John Haber. "Before Buckyballs". Review of  
  16. ^ Sandqvist, p. 249-250
  17. ^ Sandqvist, p. 250
  18. ^ "Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957)".  
  19. ^ "About Malmö Konsthall". Malmö Konsthall. Retrieved 2012-03-09. 
  20. ^ "Comunicat 06.03.2001 - Anunt an Brancusi (Communique 06.03.2001 - Ad Brancusi Year)". The Romanian Academy. 2001-03-06. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  21. ^ Culturekiosque Staff (2009-02-24). "The Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé collection: A bruised beau monde binges". Culturekiosque. Retrieved 2011-02-19. 
  22. ^ Gripper, Ann (9 February 2011). "Constantin Brancusi doodle: Which sculptures make up the Google Doodle?". Daily Mirror. Retrieved 13 February 2013. 
  23. ^ David Netto (2011-02-25). "Hymn to Flight". Wall St Journal. Retrieved 2014-04-01. 
  24. ^ "Sculptura pe Internet" (in Română). Caiete Silvane magazine. Retrieved 2008-11-01. 
  25. ^ original quote: Guilbert, Clair Gilles: Propos de Brancusi Prisme des Arts 12 (Dec. 1957), pages 5-7
  26. ^ Vavila Popovici. "Jurnal American - 21 Septembrie, altă zi la New York" (in Română). Centrul Cultural Pitești. Retrieved 2008-11-01. 
  27. ^ Matei Stircea-Craciun. "Brancusi - De la Maiastra la Pasare in Vazduh (II)" (in Română). Observator Cultural. Retrieved 2011-03-13. 


  • Tom Sandqvist, Dada East – The Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire, MIT Press, 2006, ISBN 0-262-19507-0
  • Adams, Laura S. A History of Western Art. 4th ed. New York: McGraw–Hill, 2005.
  • Richler, Martha. National Gallery of Art, Washington: A World of Art. London: Scala Books, 1998.
  • Neutres, Jerome. Brâncuși New York, 1913-2013. New York: Editions Assouline, 2014. ISBN 9781614281962

External links

  • Support for the inclusion of Heroes’ Way, the most prominent monumental ensemble in the region as well as one of Brâncusi’s major creations, in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites
  • An excerpt from the transcript of Brâncuși versus United States
  • Brâncuși in the Philadelphia Museum of Art
  • Brâncuși in the Guggenheim Museum.
  • Constantin Brâncuși at the Museum of Modern Art
  • Peggy Guggenheim Collection
  • Public domain image resources
  • Brâncuși's atelier at Centre Pompidou, France
  • Petre Țuțea – An encounter with Brâncuși a rare meeting between two unusual personalities
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