Modeled in 1912, Une muse is one of the pivotal compositions of Brancusi's early maturity. It is the culmination of a sequence of sculptures inspired by the features of Baroness Renée-Irana Frachon, who three years earlier had served as the model for La muse endormie, the first in a long sequence of delicate, ovoid heads-- radiant in their formal purity--that would preoccupy Brancusi for well over a decade. With its contemplative pose and sightless, internalized gaze, the present Muse is not only a vision of woman as inspiration, as Brancusi's title suggests, but an embodiment of the artistic process itself.
Brancusi initially carved the Une muse in white marble in 1912 (fig. 1), and within months had produced two plaster versions as well. One of these plasters, most likely the present example, was part of a group of five sculptures by Brancusi that was featured in the ground-breaking Armory Show of 1913, which marked the sculptor's sensational American debut and firmly placed him at the forefront of the avant-garde on both sides of the Atlantic. Acquired the very year of the Armory Show by Walt Kuhn, one of the exhibition's three principal organizers, the present plaster was also among the first works by Brancusi to enter an American collection. Over the course of the ensuing decades, Brancusi's American patrons, captivated by his radical new language of form, would transform the sculptor's fortunes and cement his reputation; as the artist himself proclaimed shortly before his death, "Without the Americans, I would not have been able to produce all this or even to have existed" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1995, p. 68).
The genesis of Une muse may be found in a stylized, mask-like portrait that Brancusi made in 1909 of Baroness Frachon, whom he had met two years earlier (Bach, no. 91; figs. 2-3; a clay portrait from 1908 is now lost). Already clearly evident in La Baronne R.F. are the characteristic anatomical features of the present sculpture: the oval head, textured hair, exaggerated brows, thin nose, and tiny mouth. Later the same year, the baroness posed once again for Brancusi; this time, she later recalled, the sculptor "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" (quoted in A. Chave, op. cit., p. 47). The result was La muse endormie of 1909-1910, an attenuated female head with pared-down, abstracted features and partially effaced eyes (Bach, no. 98; fig. 4). La muse endormie initiated a sequence of elegant, ovoid heads that form a central theme of Brancusi's mature sculpture; this series would culminate with Sculpture pour aveugles, 1916, and Le commencement du monde, 1920, in which the human visage is entirely eradicated, leaving only the elemental egg-shape (Bach, nos. 131 and 162). Anna Chave has explained, "By 1910, the baroness became The Sleeping Muse, no longer a specific person or even a specific Muse but a generic mythological figure who would appear in multiple versions in bronze and marble. Through his protracted experiments with the head of Renée Frachon, Brancusi arrived at that ovoid that would serve as the 'master key' to his world of form. His immense confidence in his egg-like works emerged in a remark he made to a friend in 1926 about one of them: 'With this form I could move the universe'" (ibid., pp. 47 and 52).
The pristine ovoid form of La muse endormie also served as the starting point for the present composition, which Brancusi undertook in 1912. Margit Rowell has written, "The ovoid shape of the head and the delicate facial features indicate that Muse is yet another portrait of Baroness Renée Frachon; the intensified stylization and asymmetrical, attenuated features indeed recall Sleeping Muse. However, in comparison to the simpler, more contained works that preceded it, Muse shows a new sculptural complexity" (exh. cat., op. cit., p. 118). The head is now upright rather than recumbent, supported by an elegantly curving neck and fragment of chest. The left cheek rests lightly against the raised left palm, a gesture that Brancusi had tentatively essayed in Femme se regardant dans un miroir of 1909 (Bach, no. 92; subsequently re-carved as the notorious Princesse X) and to which he would return later in 1912 with Mademoiselle Pogany (Bach, no. 109; fig. 5). In Une muse, the gesture lends the figure a meditative and introspective, but undeniably wakeful, quality. No longer a nascent, quiescent being--the metaphorical egg of creation--the ovoid form has now been incorporated into an image of developed humanity, capable of cognition and creativity.
As he did in Baronne R.F., Brancusi has set the neck at a pronounced angle to the head, which prevents it from reading as neutral, columnar base. Instead, the neck becomes an expressive element in its own right, a key component in the matrix of interlocking forms that makes up the composition. The neck's curious bulge echoes the rounded forms of the head, and its unexpected angle lends the sculpture an element of precariousness that belies the luminous, untroubled calm of the visage. Sidney Geist has written, "It is Brancusi's peculiar feat in A Muse, a wakeful image, to have incorporated almost unaltered an image of sleep, Sleeping Muse. The eyes here have been effaced almost completely; the right cheek rather than the left is now the fuller of the two. The bulging throat, for which there is no counterpart in nature, is a daring invention in itself and contributes to the sinuous movement which animates this frontal organization" (in exh. cat., op. cit., 1969, p. 57).
By the time that Brancusi completed Une muse, preparations for the Armory Show were well underway in New York. In November, the American artists Arthur B. Davies and Walter Pach--two of the exhibition's three principal organizers, along with fellow painter Walt Kuhn--visited Brancusi in his Paris studio to select works for inclusion in the epoch-making event. They chose Une muse, Muse endormie, and Mademoiselle Pogany, as well as the earliest version of Le Baiser (1907-1908; Bach, no. 79; Muzeul de Arta, Craiova). As they were unable to insure the original marble sculptures, Davies and Pach requested that Brancusi provide them with a plaster version of each. The sculptor had already cast eight plasters from Le Baiser and three from La muse endormie, and he proceeded to make two plaster translations of Une muse and one of Mademoiselle Pogany. Together with a marble torso that Davies himself purchased from Brancusi's studio (Bach, no. 110; Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart), and as noted by Freidrich Teja Bach (op. cit., 1987, p. 436) and Sidney Geist, it was this plaster that served to introduce Brancusi's work to American audiences when the Armory Show opened in February 1913 (figs. 6-7).
The Armory Show, which took its name from the large brick building on Lexington Avenue where it was held, proved an immediate succès de scandale. Mounted under the auspices of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (of which Davies was the president and Kuhn the secretary), the exhibition had originally been intended as a showcase for American artists outside the academy. In its final form, however, it represented none other than the sensational introduction of European contemporary art to American audiences, who were completely unprepared for the radical new directions that had been developing across the Atlantic. On opening day, the prominent collector John Quinn--the exhibition's legal counsel and "biggest booster," according to Kuhn (letter to Walter Pach, December 1912; quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Philadelphia, 1995, p. 53)--explained the Armory Show's purpose: "The members of this association have shown you that American artists--young American artists, that is--do not dread, and have no need to dread, the ideas or the culture of Europe. They believe that in the domain of art only the best should rule. The members of the Association felt that it was time the American people had an opportunity to see and judge for themselves concerning the work of the Europeans who are creating a new art" (quoted in P. Hulten et al., op. cit., 1987, p. 90). Although fewer than half of the roughly 1300 works on view came from overseas, these were the works that transformed the New York art world. As the dealer Maurice de Zayas later reminisced, "It was overwhelming, colossal, stupendous, and best of all it was a tremendous success in all respects" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Philadelphia, 1995, p. 51).
The Armory Show represented the American debut for both Brancusi and Duchamp, who together with Matisse received the most attention in the press--some of it predictably bewildered or derisive, but much of it unexpectedly awe-struck and admiring. On February 21st, just days after the exhibition opened, Pach wrote to Brancusi, "You are a huge success at the show--people like your work and the newspapers are full of it" (quoted in P. Hulten et al., op. cit., p. 90). Brancusi replied in mid-March, "I wholeheartedly applaud the incredible success of this exhibition, and I am happy that beauty is beginning to receive its due" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Philadelphia, 1995, p. 51).
Most importantly for Brancusi, the Armory Show introduced his sculpture to American collectors, who would prove his most important lifelong patrons. All four of the plasters by Brancusi that appeared in the Armory Show entered private American collections immediately after the exhibition closed. La muse endormie sold to the heiress Mary Harriman Rumsey and Mademoiselle Pogany to the popular artist Robert W. Chanler, whose painted screens had received great acclaim at the Armory Show. The present sculpture was purchased by Walt Kuhn, who was so taken with the composition that he acquired the second plaster Muse at a later date and kept both until his death. Not to be outdone, Arthur Davies acquired the marble version of the sculpture the following year when it was included in Brancusi's first solo exhibition, at Alfred Stieglitz's Gallery of the Photo-Secession in New York. Finally, Brancusi gave the Armory cast of Le Baiser to Walter Pach as a wedding gift, meaning that each of the Armory Show's three organizers now owned one of the sculptor's most important works.
In 1917, four years after his triumph at the Armory show, Brancusi received a letter from the collector John Quinn, asking whether the artist would consider casting Une muse in bronze. Quinn had purchased his first sculpture by Brancusi in 1914--the marble Mademoiselle Pogany that was included in the Photo-Secession exhibition--and quickly became "the single greatest patron of Brancusi's life, and a man for whom Brancusi's work was, in turn, one of his deepest passions" (ibid., p. 53). Quinn had been impressed by the present sculpture when he saw it at the Armory Show and had unsuccessfully attempted to acquire the marble version in 1914; he wrote to Brancusi in March 1917 of "the woman's head, a plaster cast of which was at the International Exhibition [the Armory Show]... and the marble of which was at the Photo-Secession gallery of Mr. Stieglitz a couple of years ago and was bought by Mr. Arthur B. Davies... You must have a plaster of it... Would you be willing to make a bronze of it for me?" (quoted in P. Hulten et al., op. cit., 1987, pp. 110-111; A. Chave, op. cit., p. 206). After some deliberation, the sculptor agreed to produce a bronze version for Quinn at a price of 3500 francs. In a letter dated June 1917, which included a sketch of Une muse (fig. 8), Brancusi wrote, "I delayed a little in replying on account of the bronze you ask for. I wanted first of all to make sure that I could make a bronze that would really be a bronze and not just a cast of the marble (which I consider would be better done in plaster), and to that end I have had a lot of work to do" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Philadelphia, 1995, p. 168).
The finished bronze, which Brancusi shipped to Quinn in December 1917, differs from the original composition in several important ways (Bach, no. 140a; fig. 9). The upper part of the sculpture has been tipped forward, replacing the contemplative angle of the head in the marble and plaster versions with a more assertive thrust. The arm is now tubular, the bulge in the throat less prominent, and the plane of the chest nearly vertical (and some four centimeters taller); the roughly worked surfaces on the outer side of the arm have been smoothed and the faint indication of eyes eliminated. In the 1912 Muse, the stony shapes and varied surface texture represent the physical traces of the artist's hand, as well as evoking an archaeological fragment from a distant past; the subtle asymmetries of anatomy and posture convey a sense of humanity and hint at an individual likeness (in this case, that of Baroness Frachon). In the bronze, all this has been regularized and rationalized, in keeping with Brancusi's belief that the gleaming, reflective surface of the medium demanded the relentless modernity of "absolute forms" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 1969, p. 86). The sculptor explained in a draft of a letter to Quinn, "Each material has a particular language that I do not set out to eliminate and replace with my own, but simply to make it express what I am thinking, what I am seeing, in its own language, that is its alone" (quoted in A. Chave, op. cit., 1993, p. 206).
Shortly after dispatching the first bronze Muse to America, Brancusi produced two additional bronze casts, one the same height as the Quinn version and the other cut down to the height of the original marble (Bach, nos. 140b-c; fig. 9, and Private collection). He also made two plaster casts of the slightly altered composition, both of which are housed today in the Musée national d'art Moderne, Paris; it is most likely one of these that is visible in a photograph of Brancusi's studio from 1925 (fig. 10).
The present plaster continued to enjoy a distinguished history long after its inclusion in the Armory Show. In 1955, Walt Kuhn's widow gave the sculpture (along with the second plaster Muse) to the Guggenheim Museum, whose newly appointed director James Johnson Sweeney was an enthusiastic proponent of Brancusi's work. Later the same year, Sweeney mounted Brancusi's first museum exhibition ever, a comprehensive retrospective that originated at the Guggenheim and then traveled to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The present plaster is listed as No. 5 in the catalogue of this watershed show, which definitively established the eighty-year-old sculptor as a monumental figure in modern art. Even before the year was over, Art News announced their decision that "the palm for The Most Important Exhibition of Modern Art goes for 1955 to the first comprehensive American view of the sculpture of Constantin Brancusi" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Philadelphia, 1995, p. 68). The present plaster remained part of the Guggenheim's holdings of Brancusi's work for nearly a quarter-century, before passing into an esteemed private collection; it has not been on the market or seen in public in more than twenty-five years.
(fig. 1) Constantin Brancusi, Une muse (marble), 1912. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
(fig. 2) Baroness Renée-Irana Frachon, the model for the present sculpture.
(fig. 3) Constantin Brancusi, La Baronne R.F., 1909. Private collection.
(fig. 4) Constantin Brancusi, La muse endormie I, 1909-1910. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
(fig. 5) Constantin Brancusi, Mademoiselle Pogany I, 1912. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
(fig. 6) Poster, Armory Show, New York, 1913.
(fig. 7) Installation of the Armory Show at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1913; with Une muse visible in the foreground.
(fig. 8) Constantin Brancusi, Muse, 1917. John Quinn Memorial Collection, New York Public Library.
(fig. 9) Constantin Brancusi, Une muse (polished bronze), 1917. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
(fig. 10) Brancusi's studio in 1925, with a plaster Muse in the upper right.