Brancusi was perhaps the most revolutionary and influential sculptor of the twentieth century. La muse endormie II is an outstanding example of his work. It represents one of the central themes of his mature sculpture, and in its formal purity, radical simplicity, and physical radiance, it embodies the most important characteristics of his art. Like Mademoiselle Pogany and L'oiseau, La muse endormie is at the center of his achievement as a sculptor.
From the beginning of his career, Brancusi was fascinated by sleep as a subject for sculpture, and the present work is ultimately rooted in such pieces as Le repos, 1906 (Bach, no. 51), L'enfant endormi, 1906-1907 (Bach, no. 53), and the heavily Rodinesque Le sommeil (fig. 1). It is also connected to one of the pivotal projects in Brancusi's career, a series of portraits of Baroness Renée Frachon that he began in 1908 (fig. 2). These marked a fundamental rejection of Rodin and of Romanticism; in turn they inspired Brancusi to make his first interpretation of La muse endormie, a white marble version executed between 1909 and 1910 (fig. 3). As Margit Rowell has remarked:
The formal and expressive perfection of this idealized portrait marks a radical shift in Brancusi's sculpture. He was to take up the same motif again at intervals over a period of some fifteen years... The numerous reprises show both the importance that this sculptural theme had for Brancusi and the timeless quality that he attributed to it. (M. Rowell, exh. cat., Constantin Brancusi, Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 1995, p. 102)
In 1910 Brancusi made five bronze and three plaster casts of La muse endormie I. Over the course of the next half-dozen years, he made a number of related works, including Tête d'enfant, 1914-1915 (Bach, no. 121), Le nouveau-né, 1915 (Bach, no. 126) and Sculpture pour aveugles, 1916 (Bach, no. 131).
In 1917, Brancusi started La muse endormie I, a revised version in alabaster (fig. 3). As Geist has explained:
[It is] dated by a letter from Brancusi to John Quinn, postmarked Paris, December 27, 1917. The letter included a photograph of the work of which Brancusi said that it was "not yet finished but one can see the end."
Brancusi's letter, in referring to both Yellow Bird (Yale University Art Gallery) and this Sleeping Muse says: "They must not be considered as reproductions of the first ones, for they are conceived differently and I have not taken them up again simply to do them in another way, but to go further."
Sleeping Muse II eliminates the short neck visible in the first version... The changes on the face are rendered, if anything, more fluid, the bulge of the eyes is more subdued (and this time they have been carved as though closed), and the eyebrows sweep upward in an extraordinary fashion that defies nature. Sleeping Muse II is a more independent object than the first, a dream in stone. (S. Geist, exh. cat., Constantin Brancusi 1876-1957, A Retrospective Exhibition, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1969, p. 88)
Brancusi subsequently made molds from this alabaster, and in the early to mid-1920s, he cast five bronze and three plaster versions of La muse endormie II. Geist has written about these bronzes:
Sleeping Muse II was surely created with a polished metal version in view. At any rate, the bronzes from this work are dazzling objects, evocations of sleep and feminine beauty whose blending of the fragilely human and the uncompromisingly metallic supplies a new frisson. (Ibid., p. 89)
And Rowell has commented, "The resulting piece [La muse endormie II] is even more mysterious and enigmatic than its antecedents" (M. Rowell, op. cit., p. 198).
This series illustrates the evolution of Brancusi's art. Brancusi's earliest sculptures of sleeping figures conform to Rodin's idiom, but in La muse endormie I and La muse endormie II, the sculptor overturns the Romantic mode of Rodin in favor of a more radical, elemental and modern ideal. Brancusi throughout his career increasingly pared down his sculptures to a degree of simplicity and purity all but unprecedented in Western art. Indeed, it is striking that Brancusi even defined sculpture as the act of eliminating the inessential and accidental in search of a kind of metaphysical essence; he stated:
Sculpting--sculptura in Latin--consists of carving directly into the material so as to divest it of unnecessary parts. (Quoted in P. Hultén, N. Dumitresco and A. Ostrati, op. cit., p. 73)
Furthermore, in 1920 the artist told an interviewer:
To express that entity, to bring back to the world of the senses that eternal type of the ephemeral forms, I spent five years honing my work. And at last I have, I believe, emerged triumphant and transcended the material. Besides, it is such a pity to spoil a beautiful piece by digging out little holes for eyes, hair, ears. And my material is so beautiful, with its sinuous lines that shine like pure gold and sum up in a single archetype all of the female effigies on earth. (Quoted in ibid., pp. 130-131)
In this interview, Brancusi was talking specifically about La Princesse X (Bach, no. 130), but his comments apply equally to La muse endormie II.
The sense of the formal purity of the present sculpture is enhanced by its material, polished bronze. Bach has written:
A polished, reflective surface is the logical corollary and indeed reinforcement of the rigor of perfect form, but there is more to it than that. The polish simultaneously undermines the closed mass of form; it disturbs its clarity by wrapping its outlines in a play of multiple reflections that leaves the eye uncertain where exactly the sculptural form begins and where it ends. The essential form has total definition, but the reflective gloss of its surface opens it up to the images of the random objects that surround it. As many of Brancusi's own photographs show, he often intensified the effect of the high polish by carefully manipulating the lighting. (F. Bach, in exh. cat., op. cit., Philadelphia, 1995, p. 25)
The first owner of the present sculpture was Jacques Doucet, the great couturier and patron of the arts, who also purchased Danaïde (Bach, no. 115) in 1921. Doucet introduced Brancusi's work to Ezra Pound, and Pound was extremely enthusiastic. He wrote to John Quinn, the American collector, "From what I have seen I think he is by far the best sculptor here" (quoted in ibid., p. 377). Later that year, Pound published an essay on Brancusi in Little Review, illustrated with twenty-four photographs by Brancusi of his works. In this classic essay, Pound explained that Brancusi "has set out on the maddeningly more difficult exploration toward getting all the forms into one form" (quoted in ibid., p. 47). Or as Brancusi himself stated, "Simplicity is not an end in art, but we arrive at simplicity in spite of ourselves, as we approach the true sense of things (quoted in S. Geist, op. cit., 1969, p. 14).
(fig. 1) Constantin Brancusi, Le sommeil, 1908
Muzeul National de Arta al României, Bucharest
(fig. 2) Constantin Brancusi, Baroness Renée Frachon (Tête de femme), circa 1909
(fig. 3) Constantin Brancusi, La muse endormie I, 1909-1910
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Washington, D.C.
(fig. 4) Photograph of Brancusi's studio, circa 1925
La muse endormie II
Signed on the right side 'C. Brâncusi'--indistinctly signed again on the back 'C. Brâncusi'
Bucharest, Muzeul de Arta al Republicii Socialiste Romania, C. Brancusi, 1972 (illustrated)
Duisberg, Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum, Constantin Brancusi: Klassiker der modernen Plastik, Nov., 1975-May, 1976, pp. 39 and 94 (illustrated)
11¼ x 6 5/8 x 7 in. (28.5 x 16.9 x 17.8 cm.)
M. de Micheli, "Constantin Brancusi," I Maestri della Scultura, Milan, 1966 (another cast illustrated on the cover)
S. Geist, Brancusi: A Study of the Sculpture, New York, 1968, p. 45 (another cast illustrated, pls. 78-79)
S. Geist, Brancusi, The Sculpture and Drawings, New York, 1975, pp. 119 and 187, no. 166e (another cast illustrated in color, p. 119)
S. Geist, Brancusi/The Kiss, New York, 1978, pp. 39 and 69
F.T. Bach, Constantin Brancusi, Metamorphosen Plastischer Form, Cologne, 1987, pp. 480-481, no. 216 (another cast illustrated, p. 480)
P. Hultén, N. Dumitresco and A. Ostrati, Brancusi, New York, 1987, p. 299, no. 132e (another cast illustrated)
Jacques Doucet, Paris
Harold Diamond, New York
Anon. sale, Palais Galliéra, Paris, March 21, 1974
Andrew Crispo Gallery, New York
Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kaszon, Lugano