Constantin Brancusi is often regarded as the most important sculptor of the twentieth century. His visionary sculptures often exemplify ideal and archetypal representations of their subject matter. Bearing laconic titles such as Fish, Princess X, and Bird in Space, his sculptures are deceptively simple, with their reduced forms aiming to reveal hidden truths. Unlike the towering figure of Auguste Rodin, for whom Brancusi briefly assisted early in his career, Brancusi worked directly with his materials, pioneering the technique of direct carving, rather than working with intermediaries such as plaster or clay models.
The second of four children, Brancusi was born in the small farming village of Hobitza, Romania, in 1876. He had a difficult childhood, in part due to challenging relationships with his father, a property manager of a monastery, and the children from his previous marriage. After several attempts to leave home, Brancusi finally did so permanently in 1887, at the age of eleven.
From 1889 to 1893, Brancusi lived in the Romanian city of Craiova, working variously as a waiter, cabinet-maker, and fortune-teller, while attending the School of Arts and Crafts part-time. In 1894, he enrolled full-time at the school, where he excelled in woodworking and ultimately graduated with honors in 1898. Brancusi then studied modeling and life sculpture at Bucharest’s National School of Fine Arts (1898-1902), winning awards for his work in competitions. In 1904, he moved from Romania to Paris, famously travelling most of the way on foot. This story became part of the legend surrounding Brancusi as a peasant with an exotic heritage; the mythology was actively promoted by the artist himself, who took to wearing Romanian peasant clothing, even on formal occasions, and carved all of his own furniture.
From 1905 to 1907, Brancusi trained in sculpture and modeling at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, in the sculpture studio of Antonin Mercie. Brancusi began working as a studio assistant to Auguste Rodin in 1907, but left after only a month, explaining, “Nothing grows under the shadow of big trees.” Yet, his month-long tenure in Rodin’s workshop was critical in shaping Brancusi’s aesthetic, taking Rodin’s work as a point of departure from which to develop his own drastically different artistic practice, characterized by the use of direct carving rather than working from a clay model.
After leaving Rodin’s studio, Brancusi began establishing his own style, beginning with squared works such as The Kiss (1907-08). Despite having the same title as one of Rodin’s most famous sculptures, Brancusi’s work was its complete opposite in material and its handling of form and subject. Around 1909, Brancusi started creating smoother, more contoured sculptures in marble and bronze. He produced multiple, yet distinct versions of works such as The Kiss, Maiastra, and Sleeping Muse, and, by 1912, this career-long method of creating serial versions on the same theme was an established practice in his oeuvre. Brancusi was a pioneering force in modern sculpture, paving the way for many generations of artists. His use of biomorphic forms and integration of his sculptures with their bases influenced the work of such artists as Isamu Noguchi, another major contributor to 20th-century sculpture. Brancusi’s embrace of his materials’ distinctive qualities and focus on the technique of direct carving were taken up by such sculptors as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Jacob Epstein. With its pared-down aesthetic, the reduced forms of his sculptures also had a major impact on the artists associated with the Minimalist movement of the 1960s.