Constantin Brâncuşi, or Brancusi, (February 19, 1876 – March 16, 1957), was an internationally renowned Romanian sculptor, whose sculptures blend simplicity and sophistication that led the way for modernist sculptors.
Brâncuşi was born in Hobiţa, Gorj, near Târgu Jiu, and grew up in a village in Romania's Carpathian Mountains, an area known for its rich tradition of folk crafts, particularly ornate woodcarving. The simple geometric patterns of the craftsmen is seen in his mature works. His parents, Nicolae and Maria Brâncuşi, were poor peasants who earned a meagre living through back-breaking labor, and from the age of seven he herded the family's flock of sheep. He showed remarkable talent for carving objects out of wood. Strong-willed and determined, he often ran away from home to escape the bullying of his father and older brothers. At the age of nine Brâncuşi left the village to work at menial jobs in the nearest large town. At 13 he went to Craiova where he worked at a grocery store for several years. When he was 18, impressed by Brâncuşi's talent for carving, his employer financed his education at the Craiova School of Crafts (Şcoala de Meserii). There he indulged his love for woodworking, taught himself to read and write, and graduated with honors in 1898.
He then enrolled in the Bucharest School of Fine Arts,where he received academic training in sculpture. He worked hard, and quickly distinguished himself as talented. One of his earliest surviving works, under the guidance of his anatomy teacher, Dimitrie Gerota, is a masterfully rendered écorché (statue of a man with skin removed to reveal the muscles underneath) which was exhibited at the Romanian Athenaeum in 1903. Though just an anatomical study, it foreshadowed the sculptor's later efforts to reveal essence rather than merely copy outward appearance.
In 1903 Brancusi traveled to Munich, and from there to Paris. In Paris, he was welcomed by the community of artists and intellectuals brimming with new ideas. He worked for two years in the workshop of Antonin Mercié of the École des Beaux-Arts, and was invited to enter the workshop of Auguste Rodin. Even though he admired the eminent Rodin he left the Rodin studio after only two months, saying, "Nothing can grow under big trees."
After leaving Rodin's workshop, Brâncuşi began developing the revolutionary style for which he is known. His first commissioned work, "The Prayer", was part of a gravestone memorial. It depicts a young woman crossing herself as she kneels, and marks the first step toward abstracted, non-literal representation, and shows his drive to depict "not the outer form but the idea, the essence of things." He also began doing more carving, rather than the method popular with his contemporaries, that of modeling in clay or plaster which would be cast in metal, and by 1908 he worked almost exclusively by carving.
In the following few years he made many versions of "Sleeping Muse" and "The Kiss", further simplifying forms to geometrical and sparse objects.
His works became popular in France, Romania and the United States. Collectors, notably John Quinn, bought his pieces, and reviewers praised his works. In 1913 Brâncuşi's work was displayed at both the Salon des Indépendants and the first exhibition in the U.S. of modern art, the Armory Show. His circle of friends included artists and intellectuals in Paris such as Ezra Pound, Henri Pierre Roché, Guillaume Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Rousseau, and Fernand Léger. He was an old friend of Romany Marie, who was also Romanian, and referred Isamu Noguchi to her café in Greenwich Village.
Brâncuşi was complex and rather mysterious, yet charming and gregarious. He was short and lively, wore a beard and simple peasant garb. His interests ran from science to music, and he was a talented singer and violinist with eclectic musical tastes. He was known for the traditional Romanian meals he prepared. A talented handyman, he built his own phonograph, and made most of his furniture, utensils and doorways. His worldview valued "differentiating the essential from the ephemeral," with Plato, Lao-Tzu and Milarepa as influences. He was a saint-like idealist and near ascetic, turning his workshop into a place where visitors noted the deep spiritual atmosphere. However, particularly though his 20s he was known as a pleasure seeker and merrymaker in his bohemian circle. He enjoyed cigarettes, good wine and the company of women. He had one child who he never acknowledged.
In 1920 he added to his growing fame with the entry of "Princess X" in the Salon. The phallic shape of the piece scandalized the Salon, and despite Brâncuşi's explanation that it was an anonymous portrait, removed it from the exhibition. Around this time he began crafting the bases for his sculptures with much care and originality because he considered them important to the works themselves.
He began working on the group of sculptures that are known as "Bird in Space" — simple shapes representing a bird in flight. The works are based on his earlier "Maiastra" series. In Romanian folklore the Maiastra is a beautiful golden bird who foretells the future and cures the blind. Over the following 20 years, Brâncuşi would make 20-some versions of "Bird in Space" out of marble or bronze. Edward Steichen, a prominent photographer, purchased one of the "birds" in 1926 and shipped it to the United States. However, the customs officers did not accept the "bird" as a work of art and placed a duty upon its import as an industrial item. They charged the high tax placed upon raw metals instead of the no tax on art. A trial the next year overturned the assessment.
His work became popular in the U.S., however, and he visited several times during his life. World-wide fame in 1933 brought him the commission of building a meditation temple in India for Maharajah of Indore, but when Brâncuşi went to India in 1937 to complete the plans and begin construction, the Mahrajah was away and lost interest in the project when he returned.
In 1938, he finished the World War I monument in Tîrgu-Jiu where he had spent much of his childhood. "Table of Silence", "Gate of the Kiss", and "Endless Column" commemorate the courage and sacrifice of Romanian civilians who in 1916 fought off a German invasion.
The Târgu Jiu ensemble marks the apex of his artistic career. In his remaining 19 years he created less than 15 pieces, mostly reworking earlier themes, and while his fame grew he withdrew. In 1956 Life magazine reported, "Wearing white pajamas and a yellow gnomelike cap, Brâncuşi today hobbles about his studio tenderly caring for and communing with the silent host of fish birds, heads, and endless columns which he created."
Brâncuşi was cared for in his later years by a Romanian refugee couple. He became a French citizen in 1952 in order to make the caregivers his heirs, and to bequeath his studio and its contents to the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris.
He died on March 16, 1957 at the age of 81 leaving 1200 photographs and 215 sculptures. He was buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. Also located in that cemetery are statues carved by Brâncuşi for several fellow artists who died; the best-known of these is "Le Baiser" ("The Kiss").
His works are housed in the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and in the National Museum of Art of Romania (Bucharest), as well as in other major museums around the world. The Philadelphia Museum of Art currently has the largest collection of Brancusi sculptures in the United States.
A reconstruction of Brancusi's onetime studio in Paris is open to the public. It is close to the Pompidou Centre, in the rue Rambuteau. He bequeathed part of his collection to the French state on condition that his workshop be rebuilt as it was on the day he died.
Brâncuşi was elected post-mortem to the Romanian Academy in 1990.
In 2002, a sculpture by Brâncuşi named "Danaide" sold for $18.1 million, the highest that a sculpture piece had ever sold for at auction. In May 2005, a piece from the "Bird in Space" series broke that record, selling for $27.5 million in a Christie's auction.