A stunning example of feminine physical beauty at its finest, Undine (Nadja) is one of the first figural sculptures by the American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who is known primarily for his post-war abstractions. Cast at the Roman Art Foundry in Queens in 1927, the present sculpture is the only bronze to have been made from the artist's original 1926 plaster form, which has since been destroyed. One of a kind, this unique bronze has been largely unknown for nearly a century and sheds new light on the young sculptor's talents in the months before beginning his apprenticeship with Brancusi at the end of the 1920s.
Undine was probably modeled after a Russian dancer named Nadja Nikolaiova, who was known in the 1920s for her interpretation of the dance called "The Serpent." It has been alleged that Nadja and Noguchi were lovers, and the undeniable sensuality of the present work makes this story all the more plausible. While this sculpture was created around the same time as Harriet Whitney Frishmuth's strikingly similar Crest of the Wave, Noguchi clearly surpassed his colleague's efforts in capturing the erotic potential of his model.
Noguchi's subject here is a romantic figure of Western lore called an undine, an immortal water spirit known to inhabit waterfalls or woodland ponds. Similar to mermaids or sirens, these beautiful nymphs had both romantic and sinister aspects to their character. According to popular interpretations from 19th century literature, an undine's only chance for attaining a soul was to seduce a man and bear his child. Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, Maurice Ravel and Goethe had brought this tragic creature to life with their various interpretations of the story, but none of them capture her seductive appeal with the same compelling force as Noguchi has in this glorious rendition in bronze.
New York, Grand Central Art Galleries, 1927
Height: 76 3/4 in. 195 cm
Sam Hunter & Isamu Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi, New York, n.d., illustration of the plaster p. 33
Nancy Grove & Diane Botnick, The Sculpture of Isamu Noguchi, 1924-1979, A Catalogue, New York & London, 1980, no. 23B, catalogued p. 4
Bruce Altschuler, Noguchi, New York, 1994, illustration of the artist with the plaster p. 13
Valerie J. Fletcher, Isamu Noguchi, Master Sculptor (exhibition catalogue), Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. & Whitney Museum of American Art, 2004, illustration of the artist with the plaster p. 20
Masayo Duus, The Life of Isamu Noguchi, Journey without Borders, Princeton, 2004, illustrated p. 106.
Sale: Samuel T. Freeman & Co., Philadelphia May 20, 2007, lot 103
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner