In November 1912, the American painters Arthur B. Davies, Walter Pach, and Walt Kuhn spent a whirlwind ten days in Paris, rounding up the best and most advanced art that they could find for the upcoming Armory Show in New York. This transformative and epoch-making exhibition was to represent the sensational introduction of European modernism to American audiences, and the three organizers sought works that would embody the audacious new directions that had been evolving across the Atlantic in recent years. When they entered Brancusi’s studio, they knew immediately that they had come to the right place. “That’s the kind of man for whom I’m giving the show,” Davies famously exclaimed (quoted in Constantin Brancusi, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, p. 50).
Thrilled with the radically reduced and vehemently anti-classical sculptural language that Brancusi had developed since late 1907, when he cast off the shackles of his long academic training and embraced direct carving with an almost religious fervor, Davies and his cohorts selected five of the sculptor’s most innovative and emblematic works for inclusion in the landmark Armory Show. One of these was the plaster Muse endormie offered for sale here. Depicting an attenuated female head with pared-down, abstracted features and partially effaced eyes, La muse endormie was the first in a long sequence of refined, ovoid heads–radiant in their formal purity–that would come to define Brancusi’s transcendent and unerringly modern visual poetry. “With this form,” he declared, “I could move the universe” (quoted in A. Chave, Constantin Brancusi: Shifting the Bases of Art, New Haven, 1993, p. 52). Davies, Pach, and Kuhn agreed with Brancusi’s bold assessment, and the present plaster–which traveled to New York as Number 617 in the Armory Show–thus secured a decisive and enduring place in the annals of twentieth-century modernism.
From his earliest years in Paris, Brancusi had been fascinated by the theme of sleep. Between 1906 and 1908, he sculpted several heads of sleeping women and children, all of which retain the descriptive naturalism that he had learned from his first mentor Rodin, treating the head not as an autonomous sculptural entity but as a fragment of the body. La muse endormie represents a daring break with these early experiments. The model was his friend Baroness Renée-Irana Frachon, whom he had depicted at least twice in 1908-1909–first in a relatively naturalistic clay sketch, then in an increasingly stylized and mask-like stone portrait, both now lost. The next time she posed, the Baroness later recalled, Brancusi “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 ibid., p. 47).
Brancusi now concentrated on the beauty of the head alone, which he translated into an almost perfect oval, the pristinely smooth surface marked only by subtle, attenuated allusions to his model’s physical features. The hair is indicated with parallel incisions that culminate in a small bun on the back of the head; faint bulges demarcate the eyes, evoking the internal and imaginary vision of sleep. The head tilts and lifts ever so slightly at the forehead, and to an even lesser degree at the chin, as if afloat from the incorporeality of dreaming. “The Sleeping Muse is a prime example of the aims that Brancusi was to reaffirm throughout his career: distancing from the individual model; subtle expression of inner vitality barely apparent through the skin surface; formal autonomy in the use of elementary, universal forms,” Margit Rowell has written. “The formal and expressive perfection of this idealized portrait marks a radical shift in Brancusi’s sculpture” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1995, p. 102).
Brancusi first carved La muse endormie in white marble in 1909-1910 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.), and by 1912 had created three plaster versions (the present sculpture and a pair of casts in the Musée national d’art moderne, Paris) and five bronze ones. Over the course of the next decade, the elemental egg-shape would become a central theme of his oeuvre, both formally and conceptually. “Through his protracted experiments with the head of Renée Frachon, Brancusi arrived at that ovoid form that would serve as the ‘master key’ to his world,” Anna Chave has written. “In the case of the Sleeping Muse, with her sealed eyelids, Brancusi effectually likened the complex interiority of sleep to the interiority of an egg, where an entire animal and its universe exist in embryo in a cellular form” (op. cit., 1993, pp. 52 and 125).
In 1912, Brancusi set the sleeping head upright on a fragmentary torso to create Une Muse, which has a meditative, 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 profoundly evolved humanity, capable of cognition and creativity. In 1917-1918, Brancusi created two new and increasingly abstract interpretations of the original recumbent sculpture, La muse endormie II and III, in which the brows are expressed as a spare, geometric ridge, the chignon is reduced to a minimum, and the eyes have melted away. Finally, in Sculpture pour aveugles and Le commencement du monde, Brancusi refined the ovoid form to its limit, obliterating the visage entirely and leaving only the memory of a human head, organic form at its simplest. “The egg, shell and substance, is what is needed,” Brancusi explained. “Fullness and volume are necessary in order to give the shock of reality”–that is to say, of life (quoted in ibid., p. 128).
Brancusi’s fascination with the theme of creation, prefigured by the primary form of the egg, also speaks powerfully of his own artistic ambitions. Could the ovoid form of La muse endormie–at once blissfully pacific and pulsing with life–suggest the incipient birth of a new kind of art, and Brancusi himself as its author? “The sculptor’s obsession with the moment of origin,” Ann Temkin has proposed, “reveals his aspirations toward originality, perhaps the preeminent claim to merit among the modernist vanguard. The serial motifs that characterize Brancusi’s work prove his originality by testing it: the seeming repetitiveness of his sculptures only demonstrates more compellingly the individual distinction of each” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1995, p. 136).
It was not long after Brancusi sculpted La muse endormie that this vaunted originality would gain its widest audience yet. The Armory Show, which took its name from the large brick building on Lexington Avenue where it was held, opened to the public on February 17, 1913. Mounted under the auspices of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, of which Davies was the president and Kuhn the secretary, the ambitious exhibition was unlike any New York had ever seen. The massive hall contained some 1300 paintings and sculptures by more than 300 European and American avant-garde artists. On opening day, the collector John Quinn, the exhibition’s legal counsel and one of its biggest boosters, explained the Armory Show’s aim: “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, Brancusi, New York, 1987, p. 90).
By all accounts, the exhibition was a great success–“overwhelming, colossal, and stupendous,” the dealer Marius de Zayas later reminisced (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1995, p. 51). The show represented Brancusi’s American debut and established him firmly at the forefront of the avant-garde on both sides of the Atlantic. Along with the present Muse endormie, there were plaster versions of Le Baiser, Mademoiselle Pogany, and the upright, wakeful Muse on view, plus a marble torso that Davies had purchased from Brancusi for his own collection (Bach, no. 110; Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart). Together with Duchamp and Matisse, Brancusi received more attention in the press than any other artist in the exhibition–some of it predictably bewildered or derisive, but much of it unexpectedly awe-struck and admiring. On 21 February, 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, op. cit., 1987, p. 90). The sculptor 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., 1995, p. 51).
At the Armory Show, La muse endormie caught the eye of Mary Harriman Rumsey, the young heiress to the Harriman railroad fortune, who would remain a lifelong friend and patron of Brancusi. She purchased the plaster head on April 30, 1913, making it one of the very first of the artist’s works to enter an American collection. During the ensuing decades, when the sculptor lacked for defenders back home, it would be Brancusi’s passionately devoted coterie of American patrons who would transform his fortunes and cement his reputation. “Without the Americans,” he proclaimed late in his life, “I would not have been able to produce all this or even to have existed” (quoted in ibid., p. 68).
In 1933, when Mary Rumsey decided to trade the present Muse endormie for La muse endormie III, Brancusi recognized the older sculpture’s abiding importance and instructed Duchamp, who was acting as his agent, that it should not be re-sold but instead donated to a museum. His letter crossed in the mail, however, with one from Duchamp reporting that the sculpture had entered another prominent American collection, that of the social, political, and civil rights activist Ida Espen Guggenheimer. The plaster subsequently belonged to Benjamin Garber, art advisor to Lila Acheson Wallace of Reader’s Digest, who is said to have coveted the sculpture but never purchased it. Today, just past the hundredth anniversary of the legendary Armory Show, the plaster–an enduring icon of modernism of the utmost historic magnitude–remains in private hands in the United States.
Brancusi in his studio, circa 1914-1915.
Brancusi’s studio, circa 1924-1925, with La muse endormie II at the upper left.
Baroness Renée-Irana Frachon, the model for the present sculpture.
Constantin Brancusi, Baroness R.F., 1909. Whereabouts unknown.
Constantin Brancusi, Le Sommeil, 1908. Muzeul National de Arta al României, Bucharest.
Constantin Brancusi, La muse endormie I, 1909-1910 (marble). Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Constantin Brancusi, Une Muse, 1912 (plaster). Sold, Christie’s, New York, 7 November 2012, lot 36. This sculpture was exhibited in the Armory Show with the present Muse endormie.
Constantin Brancusi, La muse endormie II, 1917-1918 (plaster). Musée national d’art moderne, Paris.
Brancusi’s sculptures at the Armory Show, New York, 1913, with the present plaster visible.
Cover of the catalogue for the 1913 Armory Show.
Constantin Brancusi, La muse endormie I, 1910 (bronze). Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris (gift of Renée-Irana Frachon).
Constantin Brancusi, Sculpture pour aveugles I, 1916. Philadelphia Museum of Art.