Constantin Brâncuși – the Romanian who carved life out of stone

Constantin Brâncuși is a Romanian sculptor who became famous in France but who got his inspiration from rural Romania, from the small village of Hobița, in Gorj county, where he was born in 1876.

Brâncuși grew up in Hobița, an area known for its rich tradition of folk crafts, particularly woodcarving. His parents were poor peasants and from the age of seven he had to take care of the family’s flock of sheep. Showing talent for carving objects out of wood, Brâncuși often ran away from home to escape the bullying of his father and older brothers. At the age of nine, Brâncuși left the village to work in the nearest large town. At 11 he went into the service of a grocer in Slatina, in Olt county, before becoming a domestic aid in a public house in Craiova, Dolj County, where he remained for several years. At 18, Brâncuși handcrafted a violin using materials he found around his workplace.

Impressed by Brâncuși’s talent for carving, an industrialist entered him in the Craiova School of Arts and Crafts where he pursued his love for woodworking, graduating with honors in 1898.

He then enrolled in the Bucharest School of Fine Arts, where he received academic training in sculpture.

In 1903, Brâncuși traveled to Munich and from there to Paris, where he found a community of artists and intellectuals. His circle of friends included artists and intellectuals in Paris such as Amedeo Modigliani, Ezra Pound, Henri Pierre Roché, Guillaume Apollinaire, Louise Bourgeois, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Rousseau, and Fernand Léger.

While surrounded by the Parisian elite of the time, Brâncuși kept in touch with many Romanian artists and intellectuals who were also living in Paris, such as George Enescu, Theodor Pallady, Camil Ressu, Nicolae Dărăscu, Panait Istrati, Traian Vuia, Eugène Ionesco, Emil Cioran and Paul Celan.

After two years of work in the workshop of Antonin Mercié of the École des Beaux-Arts, Brâncuși was invited to enter the workshop of the famous sculptor Auguste Rodin, which, despite admiring the French artist, he chose to leave after two months saying: “Nothing can grow under big trees.

Soon after leaving Rodin’s workshop, he made his first commissioned work, “The Prayer”, which was part of a gravestone memorial. In the following few years he made many versions of the “Sleeping Muse” and “The Kiss”. His works became popular in France, Romania and the United States.

In 1913 Brâncuși’s work was displayed at both the Salon des Indépendants and the first exhibition in the United States of modern art, the Armory Show.  In Arts Revolutionists of Today (1913), he exhibited a much-discussed portrait bust of Mlle Pogany.

In 1920 he began working on the group of sculptures known as “Bird in Space”; the works are based on his earlier “Măiastra” series. Over the following 20 years, Brâncuși would make 20 some versions of “Bird in Space” out of marble or bronze.

In 1938, he finished the World War I monument in Târgu-Jiu where he had spent much of his childhood. “Table of Silence”, “The Gate of the Kiss”, and “Endless Column” commemorate the courage and sacrifice of Romanian civilians who in 1916 fought off a German invasion, and can still be found in the city’s park.

Some of Brâncuși’s famous works include the Sleeping Muse (1908), The Kiss (1908), Prometheus (1911), Mademoiselle Pogany (1913), The Newborn (1915), Bird in Space (1919) and The Column of the Infinite (Coloana infinitului), popularly known as The Endless Column (1938).

Brâncuși is called the patriarch of modern sculpture, as he is considered by many to be the pioneer of modernism. His works are housed in the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the National Museum of Art of Romania (Bucharest) and the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), as well as in other major museums around the world. The Philadelphia Museum of Art currently has the largest collection of Brâncuși sculptures in the United States. A reconstruction of Brâncuși’s one-time studio in Paris is open to the public.

In his last years, Brâncuși, who never got married and who did not have any children, was cared for by a couple of refugees from Romania. 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. The Romanian sculptor died in 1957 in Paris. His grave can be found in the Montparnasse Cemetery, where some of his friends’ graves were already adorned with his sculptures. Romanian authorities are currently trying to repatriate his remains, with the help of a French law firm hired by the Romanian Government.