Depicting one of Brancusi’s greatest muses, Profil de femme au chignon (Princesse Marie Bonaparte) of 1912 is an exquisitely refined and rare work on paper by the artist, whose entire non-sculptural oeuvre numbers less than two hundred pieces, primarily portraits of women and nudes. The great grand-niece of Napoleon, wife of Prince George I of Greece, and a leading figure of Parisian society, Princess Marie Bonaparte met Brancusi in 1909, when she requested that he carve a bust of her. Inspired by this meeting, Brancusi created Femme se regardant dans un miroir of 1909, but, unsatisfied with the final result, he radically re-carved it, transforming it six years later into the famed Princesse X. ‘It is “Woman,” the very synthesis of Woman,’ he explained of the latter work, infuriated when Picasso likened it to a phallus. ‘It is the eternal female of Goethe, reduced to her essence’ (quoted in Constantin Brancusi, exh. cat., Philadelphia, 1995, p. 138).
Closely related to Femme se regardant dans un miroir, the present work is one of a small series in which Brancusi explored the motif of a young woman in profile, her gaze cast downward, her head and neck forming a single, smooth arc. As in his sculpture, Brancusi often painted and drew in series of variations, with a marked tendency toward simplification as he moved through a theme. ‘In his drawings,’ Margit Rowell has written, ‘Brancusi provides significant clues as to his vision and his priorities’ (ibid., p. 287). He never drew preliminary studies for his sculptures; a few drawings were made after the marbles and bronzes, but most are independent aesthetic explorations. Profil de femme au chignon was executed in 1912, in the midst of a brief, decisive period in which Brancusi attained the elemental purity of form that would define his signature modernist achievement for his entire career.
In Profil de femme au chignon, Brancusi has rendered the model’s head and neck as if marble, radiant and smooth in the light. Heightening the refined beauty of her profile are the rich strokes of vermillion with which Brancusi has created the background. Her curly black hair, piled atop the head, provides a striking contrast in both tone and graphic incident. The purified contours and delicate, attenuated facial features clearly evoke Brancusi’s dreaming, incorporeal female head of 1909-1910, La muse endormie. In 1912, the same year that he painted the present work, Brancusi set this recumbent head upright to form the contemplative but undeniably wakeful figure Une muse. Perhaps we may see in the present gouache an allusion to this process of awakening, as the model slowly raises her head from a state of rapt interiority to engage the world outside.
Although Brancusi’s paintings and drawings demonstrate an approach to form entirely consistent with his sculptural oeuvre, these graphic media encouraged a far greater gestural liberty than wood, stone, or bronze. The works on paper thus offer a glimpse into a more playful, instinctive side of this enigmatic artist, who relished the solitude of his studio and the hard physical labour of sculpture, but also enjoyed the company of women and the delectations of a bon vivant. ‘For this most deliberate of sculptors,’ Sidney Geist has written, ‘line is the realm of spontaneity and lyricism without reserve, the occasion to indulge in the pleasures of immediacy’ (Brancusi: The Sculpture and Drawings, New York, 1975, p. 33).