The expression of serenity
The subject of Muse endormie is Baroness Renée-Irana Frachon, who modeled for Brancusi in his Paris studio at 54, rue du Montparnasse. She later recalled that the artist “asked me to sit down and to close my eyes, to keep my face still so that he could capture the expression of serenity one has in sleep.” 1 The result was this attenuated female head with pared-down, abstracted features that captures the essence of female beauty.

The series
This is one of three known plaster casts of Muse endormie, which Brancusi first carved in marble in 1909-1910 (Hirshhorn Collection, Washington, D.C.). 2 Muse endormie was a critical work for Brancusi, the first of a series of elegant, ovoid heads that formed a central theme of his mature work. The series culminated in Sculpture pour aveugles of 1916, and Le commencement du monde of 1920, in which the human face is entirely eliminated, leaving only the elemental egg shape. Brancusi believed this shape would serve as the “master key” to his world of form, once asserting: “With this form I could move the universe.” 3

At the Armory Show
In contrast to the huge amount of ink the Armory Show critics spilled over Brancusi’s Mlle. Pogany, Muse endormie was not targeted for specific notice. From New York, the plaster traveled to the exhibition’s Chicago and Boston venues. Photographs of the exhibition’s Chicago venue show that the works were displayed in the same gallery, but Mlle. Pogany was far more prominent because of its vertical orientation and large square base. 4 The plaster of Muse endormie was offered for $270 and was purchased by Mary Harriman Rumsey on April 30, 1913.

[1] Quoted in Anna Chave, Constantin Brancusi: Shifting the Bases of Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 47.

[2] The other plasters are both in the Musée National de l’Art Moderne, Paris.

[3] Chave, 47 and 52.

[4] See Milton Brown, The Story of the Armory Show, rev. ed. (New York: Abbeville Press, 1988), 202.

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957)

The Romanian-born sculptor Constantin Brancusi is widely considered the leading pioneer of modernist sculpture. Working to reveal the essence of his subjects rather than merely copying outward appearances, he introduced abstracted, non-literal representation into the sphere of sculpture. In doing so, he established himself as a key figure in the Parisian avant-garde, while also gaining international notoriety among artists, critics, and the public.

Born to a poor peasant family in an area of rural Romania known for its rich tradition of folk art, particularly woodcarving, Brancusi himself took up woodcarving at an early age. He studied art in Romania at the Scoala de Meserli in Craivo and at the Scoala Natzionala de Arte Frumoase in Bucharest before leaving in 1903 for Munich. From there he went to Paris. Eager to continue his education, Brancusi enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts in 1905, and was subsequently invited to join the workshop of the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Though he revered Rodin, Brancusi left the studio after only a couple of months—he is famously and widely quoted as saying that “nothing grows under the shadow of the great trees.”

Brancusi’s mature style began to emerge about 1907, as his work became increasingly simplified and abstracted. Unlike Rodin, who emphasized theatricality and the accumulation of detail, Brancusi suppressed decoration and explicit narrative references in an effort to create pure and resonant forms that captured the essence of his subjects. His technique is also noteworthy—unlike most of his contemporaries, he focused on direct carving in marble and stone rather than modeling in clay or plaster first. This allowed him to move toward a purification of form, a focus on the essential. He created his first major work carved directly from stone, The Kiss, in 1907-1908.

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