The ovoid first emerged as a smooth, flawless form in Brancusi's art in The Sleeping Muse of 1910 and Prometheus of 1911, both of which are heads whose features have been absorbed into a surface of almost undisturbed convexity. The head is treated as an autonomous object rather than a fragment of the body, a state of self-sufficiency made possible once the object has been liberated from all references to the internal anatomical armature. The polished bronze version of Prometheus is so advanced in its absence of detail that it is less a representaion of a head than a single cell. The features have virtually disappeared; expression is only generated by a vestigial neck, an ear mark, and an arched, continuous line indicating the bridge of the nose and brows. This orb-like form, with its suggestion of birth, evidences the legend of Prometheus who formed the human race from clay. Given its glowing luminosity and concern with form as a manifestation of surface, the sculpure also calls to mind the myth of Prometheus as lightbearer: the Titan who stole fire from heaven to benefit mankind, honored in classical mythology as the founder of the arts and sciences. The Titan, a mediator between god and man, can be identified with the artist trapped between earthly confines and transcendental pursuits. In point of fact, Prometheus reads as a self-portrait of Brancusi.
The theme of Prometheus witnessed great popularity during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries among Romantic and Symbolist artists who were particularly drawn to the punishment scene showing the Titan chained to a rock with an eagle eating his liver. Brancusi disregarded such literal portrayals, stating: "I could not very well depict this great myth by an eagle tearing at the liver of a man's body chained to a peak in the Caucasus" (quoted in P. Hulten, et. al., op. cit., p. 84). Instead, he found inspiration in Goethe's poem Prometheus, written in 1774, a translation of which he had received from his friend and model, the Hungarian art student Margit Pogany. The only sign indicating the Titan's suffering is the slight inclination of the head, backward and to one side, falling in a gesture of pain, a stylistic device previously used by Brancusi in Tourment of 1907 (Geist 1975, no. 36).
Besides the present work, Brancusi made three other casts in bronze (The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Muse National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Private collection), one in marble (The Museum of Art, Philadelphia), two in plaster (Muzuel de Arta, Bucharest; Muse National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) and two in black cement (The University of Cambridge, England; Private collection). The latter version was originally purchased by the English pianist Vera Moore who met Brancusi in 1931 through the art critic H.S. Ede. Although rarely discussed by scholars, Vera Moore became close friends with the artist, and in 1934 she gave birth to Brancusi's sole and illegitimate son, John Moore. Vera Moore liked to keep Prometheus on her piano, perhaps to seek inspiration while she was playing, and Brancusi commended her choice. In light of this context, the child-like head of Prometheus can be read not only as Brancusi's alter-ego, but also as a representation of his newborn son. The artist actually likened the intimate countenance of the sleeping head with the delicate intimacy of an embryo from which life emerges. With this motif, Brancusi gave way to a long series of works whose theme was creation itself, concluding in the most succinctly ovoidal form, Commencement du monde of 1924 (Geist 1975, no. 161).
Signed 'C. Brncusi' (on the base)
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Philadelphia, Museum of Art and Chicago, The Art Institute, Constantin Brancusi, 1876-1957: A Retrospective Exhibition, August-October 1969, p. 49 (illustrated).
New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, Brancusi + Mondrian, December 1982-January 1983, no. 1 (illustrated).
Height: 5.3/8 in. (13.8 cm.) Width: 6.7/8 in. (17.5 cm.) Depth: 5.3/8 in. (13.8 cm.)
C. Zervos, Constantin Brancusi, sculptures, peintures, fresques, dessins, Paris, 1957, p. 34 (marble version illustrated).
I. Jianou, Brancusi, Paris, 1963, p. 96.
A.T. Spear, "A Contribution to Brancusi Chronology," The Art Bulletin, vol. XLVIII (no. 1), March 1966, p. 53, no. 43.
S. Geist, Brancusi, A Study of the Sculpture, New York, 1968, p. 218, no. 63b (illustrated).
B. Brezianu, "Paciurea si Brncusi," Arta, vol. XXI (no. 1), January 1974, no. 21 (another cast illustrated).
S. Geist, Brancusi, The Sculpture and Drawings, New York, 1975, p. 178, no. 79a (illustrated, p. 59).
B. Brezianu, Brancusi in Romania, Bucharest, 1976, no. 26 (illustrated).
S. Geist, "Brancusi + Mondrian: A Sum, A Summa," Artforum, vol. XXI (no. 6), February 1983, no. 79 (another cast illustrated).
P. Hulten, N. Dumitresco and A. Istrati, Brancusi, New York, 1986, pp. 86, 89, 112, 122 and 285, no. 66b (marble version illustrated, p. 285).
F.T. Bach, Constantin Brancusi, Metamorphosen Plastischer Form, Cologne, 1987, pp. 433-434, no. 105a (illustrated, p. 433).
Eileen Lane Kinney, Washington, D.C. (gift from the artist circa 1920-1930).
Estate of Eileen Lane Kinney, Washington, D.C.; sale, Sotheby's, New York, 21 May 1981, lot 549.
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner.