Brancusi was perhaps the most revolutionary and influential sculptor of the twentieth century. Danaïde is one of most delicate works in the artist's oeuvre and represents one of the central themes of his early sculpture: portraiture. In its formal purity, radical simplicity, and physical radiance, the present work embodies the most important characteristics of his art. Like Mademoiselle Pogany (Bach 116), Danaïde is at the center of Brancusi's achievement as a sculptor.
As in the celebrated Mademoiselle Pogany series, Danaïde is clearly another portrait of Margit Pogany, however differently conceived. In 1907-1909, Brancusi first experimented with the Danaïde subject matter, carving a stone version (fig. 2; Bach 89). The forms in this early version are still very life-like and as the artist had not yet met Pogany, her likeness is not present. Brancusi met Pogany, a Hungarian art student, in Paris in 1910, and it was in this year that Brancusi returned to the theme and carved a marble version (fig. 3; Bach 100). It is this version which Pogany recalled seeing in Brancusi's studio, as she later recounted:
For several years I studied painting in Paris. It was there that I met Mr. Brancusi. I cannot remember how often we had met when one day he asked me to come to his studio and see some work he had just finished. He seemed very eager to show it, wanting me to come that very day. I went with a friend of mine and he showed us his sculptures. Among them was a head of white marble which attracted me strongly. I felt it was me, although it had none of my features. It was all eyes. Brancusi was awfully pleased I recognized myself. (Quoted in S. Geist, Constantin Brancusi, exh. cat., Edobori Gallery, Osaka, 1989)
Following this initial visit, Pogany returned to Brancusi's studio for formal sittings. These sessions, held in Brancusi's studio at 54, rue du Montparnasse in December 1910 and January 1911, were the starting point for both the Danaïde and Mademoiselle Pogany series, which was to preoccupy the sculptor over the next twenty years. Brancusi destroyed the clay studies he made in Pogany's presence and only a few drawings survive from these sittings, examples of which are housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Graphische Sammlung, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart.
Comparison with the photograph of Pogany (fig. 4) reveals how at this stage Brancusi was concerned to create a pared-down image of his model, concentrating on her large eyes and smooth, austere coiffure, creating a twisting composition. The artist himself defined the simplicity of his essential form by stating, "Simplicity is complexity resolved" (quoted in F.T. Bach, op. cit., p. 23). Comparable to that of the finest ancient Egyptian examples, Brancusi preserved the essence of the sitter while effectively eliminating personal detail. A reduction, yet generation of form.
Visual references to Cycladic and archaic Greek sculpture (such as the well-known Kouros figures) are found throughout Brancusi's oeuvre (fog. 5). The sculptor's titles supply verbal clues to his ancient sources: Prométhée; Léda; Caryatide; Une muse; La chimère; Socrate; and Le narcisse, among others. According to Greek mythology, the Danaïdes were the fifty daughters of King Danaos of Argos, who was in conflict with his brother Aegyptos, father of fifty sons. The fifty sons went to Argos to propose marriage to the Danaïdes as a conciliatory gesture towards Danaos, who continued to resent his brother. Danaos ordered his daughters to murder their bridegrooms on their wedding night, and all but one complied. As a result of their crimes, the Danaïdes were sentenced to the underworld where their unending penance was to fill pierced jugs with water. However, the content of the story appears to have held little interest for Brancusi. All documentation regarding Brancusi's relationship with Pogany supports a friendly relationship and certainly not one where the powerful, destructive woman is an element. The title Danaïde is therefore essentially a guide to the past precedents that Brancusi evokes in his radically reductionistic style.
It is significant to note the treatment of the bronze in the present work. Upon viewing this same cast of Danaïde at Steiglitz's 1914 Brancusi exhibition at his '291' gallery (fig. 1), "the critic Henry McBride likened it to a 'Japanese noblewoman' in its enigmatic expressiveness. This indirect comparison with Japanese art does not seem arbitrary: it refers to more than the simplified masses and the contemplative angle of the head. In fact, the first two casts were actually gilded, and the hair patinated black, a combination of finishes found in East Asian sculptures of the Buddha, which Brancusi probably saw at the Musée Guimet. In simplicity of form and refinement of finish, as well as in such highly stylized details as the delicate curves of the eyelids and the lock of hair on the left side of the neck, the piece recalls the precious, classicizing, Japanese-influenced objects of the 1920s Art Deco style. But the early date of Danaïde shows that Brancusi was in fact a precursor" (M. Rowell in Constantin Brancusi, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, p. 124).
Danaïde was included in the ground-breaking 1914 exhibition at Alfred Stieglitz's The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (291), where the installation had been directed by Edward Steichen and the transporation costs of the entire show had been paid for by Eugene and Agnes Meyer. These prominent patrons and generous friends of the artist became the first owners of the present work through their purchase at the exhibition. As Agnes Meyer remembered, "my friendship for Brancusi was later shared by my whole family and has lasted to this day, because we all, including every one of the children, love the man's quizzical, witty and profoundly honest temperament as well as his art" (A.E. Meyer, Out of These Roots: The Autobiography of an American Woman, New York, 1953, p. 82). Introducing the sculptor to an American audience for the first time following his sensational U.S. debut at the 1913 Armory show, the historic Photo-Secession exhibition firmly placed Brancusi at the forefront of avant-garde modernism on both sides of the Atlantic and the legacy of the relationship of friend and patron has not been diminished. Today, one can view the marble Agnes E. Meyer (Bach 242), the polished bronzes Bird in Space (Bach 213) and Maïastra (Bach 112) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. thanks to the generosity of the Meyer family.
In addition to the present work, there are six bronze casts of Danaïde. They are housed in the Musée Nationale d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (gilded); Kunstverein, Winterthur, Switzerland; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Tate Gallery, London; Rhode Island School of Design; and Muzeul National de Arta al Romaniei, Bucharest (gilded).
(fig. 1) The present work on view (far right) at the Brancusi exhibition held at The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, March-April 1914.
(Photo by Alfred Stieglitz)
(fig. 2) Constantin Brancusi, Danaïde, 1907-1909.
Muzeul National de Arta al Romaniei, Bucharest.
(fig. 3) Constantin Brancusi, Danaïde, 1910.
(fig. 4) Margit Pogany, 1910.
(fig. 5) Kore figure, circa 530 BC.
Akropolis Museum, Athens.
(fig. 6) List of works and prices for Brancusi exhibition, March-April 1914.
Entry "D", Danaïde, is the present work.
(fig. 7) Checklist for the Brancusi exhibition, March-April 1914.