Biography of Constantin Brancusi, Romanian Modernist Sculptor

Constantin Brancusi
Bettmann / Getty Images

Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) was a Romanian sculptor who became a French citizen shortly before his death. He was one of the most important and influential sculptors of the 20th century. His use of abstract forms to represent natural concepts led the way toward minimalist art in the 1960s and beyond. Many observers consider his "Bird in Space" pieces to be among the best abstract representations of flight ever created.

Fast Facts: Constantin Brancusi

  • Known For: Sculptor
  • Styles: Cubism, minimalism
  • Born: February 19, 1876 in Hobita, Romania
  • Died: March 16, 1957 in Paris, France
  • Education: Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, France
  • Selected Works: "The Kiss" (1908), "Sleeping Muse" (1910), "Bird in Space" (1919), "Endless Column" (1938)
  • Notable Quote: "Architecture is inhabited sculpture."

Early Life and Education

Born into a farming family in the foothills of Romania's Carpathian Mountains, Brancusi began working at age seven. He herded sheep while showing early skills at carving wood. Young Constantin was a frequent runaway, attempting to escape abusive treatment by his father and brothers from an earlier marriage.

Brancusi finally left his home village at age 11. He worked for a grocer, and two years later he moved to the Romanian city of Craiova. There, he held a range of jobs, including waiting tables and building cabinets. The income allowed him to enroll in the School of Arts and Crafts, where Brancusi became a skilled woodworker. One of his ambitious projects was the carving of a violin out of an orange crate.

While studying sculpture at the National School of Fine Arts in Romania's capital, Bucharest, Constantin Brancusi won competitive awards for his sculptures. One of his earliest works still in existence is a statue of a man with skin removed to expose the muscles underneath. It was one of his first attempts to show the internal essence of something instead of merely the outside surfaces.

After first moving to Munich, Germany, Brancusi decided to further his art career in 1904 by moving to Paris. According to legends surrounding the artist, he walked most of the way from Munich to Paris. Reportedly, he sold his watch to pay for the boat crossing across Lake Constance where Germany, Switzerland, and Austria meet.

Brancusi enrolled in the Paris Ecole des Beaux-Arts from 1905 through 1907. It served as a ticket into the circles of some of the era's most famous artists.

Constantin Brancusi
Constantin Brancusi in 1905. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Rodin Influence

Constantin Brancusi began working as a studio assistant to Auguste Rodin in 1907. The elder artist was by then recognized as one of the greatest sculptors of all time. Brancusi only lasted for a month as an assistant. He admired Rodin, but he claimed, "Nothing grows under the shadow of big trees."

Although he worked to distance himself from Rodin, much of Brancusi's earliest Parisian work shows the impact of his short tenure in the famed sculptor's studio. His 1907 sculpture, titled "A Boy," is a powerful rendering of a child, emotional and realistic in form. Brancusi had already began smoothing out the edges of the sculpture, taking him away from Rodin's trademark rough, textured style.

Constantin Brancusi boy sculpture
"A Boy" (1907). Nina Leen / Getty Images

One of Brancusi's first important commissions was a funeral monument for a wealthy Romanian landowner in 1907. The piece, titled "The Prayer" is a young girl kneeling. It is perhaps one of the best examples of a bridge between Rodin's emotionally powerful gestures in carving and Brancusi's later simplified forms.

Echoes of Primitive Art

Brancusi's first version of "The Kiss," completed in 1908, is notable for a significant break from the work of Auguste Rodin. The two figures embracing each other are highly simplified, and they fit into a suggested cube-like space. Although it would not become the main thrust of his work, many observers see Brancusi's "The Kiss" as an early form of cubism. As with other works, the artist created many more versions of "The Kiss" throughout his career. Each version simplified the lines and surfaces more and more to move closer and closer to abstraction.

Constantin Brancusi the kiss
"The Kiss" (1916). Francis Miller / Getty Images

"The Kiss" also echoes the materials and composition of ancient Assyrian and Egyptian art. The piece is perhaps the best representation of Brancusi's fascination with primitive sculpture, which followed him throughout his career.

Late in his active career, Brancusi explored Romanian mythology and folklore with wood carvings. His 1914 work "The Sorceress" is carved from a tree trunk at the point where three branches met. He drew inspiration for the subject matter from a tale about a flying witch.

Clean, Abstract Shapes in Sculptures

Brancusi's most celebrated and influential sculptural style appeared in his first version of the "Sleeping Muse," created in 1910. It is an oval-shaped disembodied head cast in bronze with the details of the face modified into polished, smooth curves. He returned to the subject many times, creating works in plaster and bronze. The 1924 sculpture titled "The Beginning of the World" represents a logical conclusion to this line of exploration. It's an entirely smooth oval shape without any details to disturb the surface.

Impressed by the beauty and peaceful appearance of "Sleeping Muse," patrons requested commissioned heads, busts, and portraits by Brancusi throughout his career. Baroness Renee-Irana Frachon was the subject of the first version of "Sleeping Muse." Other notable abstract sculptures of heads include 1911's "Head of Prometheus."

Birds became an obsession in Constant Brancusi's mature style of work. His 1912 work "Maiastra," named after a bird from Romanian legends, is a marble sculpture with the bird's head raised as it flies. Twenty-eight other versions of "Maiastra" followed over the next 20 years.

Perhaps Brancusi's most celebrated sculptures are from his series of polished-bronze pieces titled "Bird in Space," which first appeared in 1919. The form is distilled so precisely that many observers believed Brancusi accurately caught the spirit of flight in a still form.

Another concept that Brancusi frequently explored was the stacking of rhomboid pieces, one on top of another to create a tall column. His first experiment with the design appeared in 1918. The most mature example of this idea is the "Endless Column" completed and installed outdoors in the Romanian city of Targu Jiu in 1938. Standing nearly 30 meters tall, the sculpture is a memorial to Romanian soldiers who fought in World War I. The height of the column stretching into the sky represents the infinite connection between heaven and earth.

Constantin Brancusi Endless Column
"Endless Column" (1918). Ion Gheban / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 3.0

Although Brancusi's most important work points in the direction of complete abstraction, he considered himself a realist. He was continually searching for the inner reality of his subjects. He believed that every object had a fundamental nature that could be represented in art.

Peak Career Success

Constantin Brancusi's work first appeared on display in the United States at the landmark 1913 Armory Show in New York. Dada artist Marcel Duchamp drew some of the most strident criticism from art critics. He became a significant collector of Brancusi's work and helped introduce him to many more fellow artists.

Photographer Alfred Stieglitz, later husband of Georgia O'Keefe, hosted Brancusi's first solo show in New York. It was a success and positioned Brancusi as one of the most acclaimed rising sculptors in the world.

Constantin Brancusi with sculpture
George Rinhart / Getty Images

Among Brancusi's expanding circle of friends and confidants were the artists Amadeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Rousseau. Although he was a vital member of the Parisian avant-garde, Brancusi always maintained strong connections with Romanian artists both in Paris and in Romania. He was known for frequently dressing in the costume common to Romanian peasants, and his studio echoed the design of peasant homes from the area where Brancusi grew up.

Constantin Brancusi was unable to avoid controversy as his star rose. In 1920, "Princess X," his entry into a Parisian Salon show, caused a scandal. While abstract, the sculpture is phallic in form. When public outrage caused it to be removed from display, the artist expressed shock and dismay. Brancusi explained that it was merely designed to represent the essence of womanhood. He later explained that the sculpture was his depiction of Princess Marie Bonaparte looking down with the founded base representing her "beautiful bust."

A version of "Bird in Space" caused controversy in 1926. Photographer Edward Steichen purchased the sculpture and had it shipped from Paris to the United States. Customs officers did not allow the usual duty exemption for works of art. They insisted that the abstract sculpture was an industrial piece. Brancusi ultimately won the ensuing legal proceedings and helped set an important standard that sculpture did not have to be representational to be accepted as a legitimate work of art.

Later Life and Work

By the 1930s, Brancusi's fame extended around the world. In 1933, he earned a commission from the Indian Maharajah of Indore to build a meditation temple. Unfortunately, when Brancusi finally traveled to India in 1937 to begin construction, the Maharajah was away on travels. He ultimately died before the artist could construct the temple.

Brancusi visited the United States for the last time in 1939. He participated in an "Art In Our Time" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The sculpture "Flying Turtle" was his last major completed work.

Constantin Brancusi La Negresse Blonde II
"La Negresse Blonde II" (1933). Sissssou / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 4.0

The first major retrospective of Brancusi's work took place at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1955. It was a significant success. Constantin Brancusi died on March 16, 1957, at age 81. He bequeathed his studio, with carefully placed and documented sculptures, to the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. It can be visited in a reconstructed version in a building outside the Pompidou Center in Paris.

Brancusi's caretakers in his later years were a Romanian refugee couple. He became a French citizen in 1952, and that allowed him to make the caretakers his heirs.

Legacy

Constantin Brancusi was one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century. His use of abstract forms derived from natural concepts influenced a wide range of future artists such as Henry Moore. Works like "Bird in Space" were landmarks in the development of minimalist art.

Constantin Brancusi head of Prometheus
"Head of Prometheus" (1911). Nina Leen / Getty Images

Brancusi always maintained a secure connection to his humble beginnings in life. He was a skilled handyman, and he made most of his furniture, utensils, and home carpentry. Late in life, many visitors to his home commented on the spiritually comforting nature of his simple surroundings.

Sources

  • Pearson, James. Constantin Brancusi: Sculpting the Essence of Things. Crescent Moon, 2018.
  • Shanes, Eric. Constantin Brancusi. Abbeville Press, 1989.