From The Collection of Elizabeth Stafford, and acquired directly from Brancusi in 1955, this unique sculpture — a portrait of heiress Nancy Cunard — will be offered at auction for the very first time on 15 May in New York
Constantin Brancusi’s La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard), a unique sculpture conceived in Paris in 1928 and cast in polished brass in 1932, comes from The Collection of Elizabeth Stafford who, with her husband Frederick Stafford, acquired the work directly from Brancusi during a visit to his studio in 1955. It has remained in their collection ever since.
An extraordinarily rare and important work, it is the only existing example in brass of Brancusi’s stylised portrait of the Anglo-American heiress and writer Nancy Cunard. The work (estimate on request) retains the artist’s original hand-carved marble base — a factor of immense significance given the importance Brancusi attached to materials, and the interplay between his sculptures and the pedestals upon which he placed them.
Conor Jordan, Deputy Chairman, Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s in New York, describes it as ‘a daring and exquisite work of art’ and one of the ‘vanishingly small number’ of the artist’s brass sculptures with its original carved base not in a museum collection.
Brancusi (1876-1957) had famously arrived in Paris on foot from Romania in 1904, from ‘beyond the mountains and beyond the stars’ as he liked to say. By the 1920s, he enjoyed a near mythic status among the Parisian avant-garde as the author of a revolutionary visual language. From his studio in Montparnasse he carved works of increasingly radical simplicity, guided by instinct and often using the ovoid form as his starting point.
In La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard), Brancusi’s purity of line renders the cool beauty of Nancy Cunard, who was a major patron of artists and writers in Paris between the wars. Cunard counted Marcel Duchamp, Ezra Pound and James Joyce among her circle, and it was in this context that she first encountered Brancusi in 1923.
The meeting came about through the Dada poet Tristan Tzara, one of her many paramours. The iconoclastic heiress, who openly flouted sexual, racial and class boundaries, struck Brancusi as the very embodiment of the liberated Twenties — a figure of and for the moment. ‘Everything about the way she behaved,’ he recalled, ‘showed how truly sophisticated she was for her day.’
Cunard never posed for Brancusi, and in fact was unaware until many years later that he had sculpted a figure that bore her name. However, with superbly distilled volumes, the artist succeeded in capturing Cunard’s elegance and stylised presentation, creating a precise, individualised characterisation that simultaneously arrives at a universal, essential form.
When the Staffords arrived at Brancusi’s studio, they were astounded by the beauty of his work. Mr. Stafford returned the next day and purchased La jeune fille sophistiquée
In 1955, at a friend’s suggestion, budding collectors Elizabeth and Frederick Stafford visited Brancusi’s studio. Mr. Stafford, who had emigrated from Romania in the 1930s, relished the opportunity to meet Brancusi as a fellow Romanian and learn about his work.
When the couple arrived at his studio, they were astounded by the beauty of his work. Mr. Stafford returned the next day and purchased La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portait de Nancy Cunard) as a 28th birthday gift for Mrs. Stafford. This sculpture would come to define the couple’s collection, and over the course of 62 years the Staffords generously loaned it to prominent institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Guggenheim, Centre Georges Pompidou and New Orleans Museum of Art, among others.
‘It is an honour to have been entrusted with La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard), a tremendously formative object within Brancusi’s oeuvre and the development of modernism as we know it today,’ remarks Alex Rotter, Chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art, New York.
‘The work stands as a unique example of Brancusi’s ability to convey beauty through sheer simplicity and perfection of line,’ he continues. ‘It is these characteristics that make it a masterpiece of the 20th century, which we expect to appeal just as strongly to collectors of Modernism as it will those of Contemporary art. The Staffords built their collection with passion and sophistication, taking joy in every object that they acquired. This remarkable sculpture is a testament to their taste and keen foresight.’
In addition to Modern art, the Staffords acquired an exceptional and diverse grouping of objects that ranged from Old Master and Impressionist pictures to antiquities and 18th-century French furniture. Later this year, Christie’s will continue to celebrate The Stafford Collection, selling the decorative and fine arts in a dedicated auction. Old Master and Impressionist pictures from the collection will also be offered, with further details being released at a later date.