A Muse, 1917
French
Polished brass with limestone base
19 5/8 × 11 11/16 × 9 5/8 in. (49.8 × 29.7 × 24.4 cm)
Museum purchase funded by Mrs. Herman Brown and Mrs. William Stamps Farish

Habits of Mind

  • OVERCOME FEAR Overcome fear of ambiguity / fear of failure or being wrong / fear of the unknown

GRADE LEVEL

  • 9

SUBJECT AREA

  • Social Studies

A Muse

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Resources

Resources Available to Order

Check our online collection module for further information.

Assessment

  • Research Greek Cycladic period sculpture. Compare the figures and heads to A Muse. Which sculpture looks older? Which looks more modern? Could it be argued that both were made at the same time? How?
  • What are the characteristics of bronze? What does it look like when it is unpolished? How would it look if it were weathered, for instance if A Muse were placed in an outdoor sculpture garden? How would this change the appearance and mood of the sculpture?
  • Compare this work to Alberto Giacometti’s Large Standing Woman I. How do both artists treat the human form? What do their choices say about the artists? Which do you prefer?
  • Brancusi infuses the styles of ancient Greek art with modernist abstraction. Using Brancusi as an inspiration, students create a sculpture that infuses modern style with an ancient form.

Subject Matter

  • Choose a significant historical event. Imagine the muse is a silent observer of the event. Write a detailed account of the historical event from this muse’s point of view.

Conversation

Work of Art

Born in Hobita, Romania, Constantin Brancusi left his abusive family at age thirteen to find work in a nearby city. The young Brancusi soon enrolled in the Craiova School of Arts and Crafts, where he studied academic subjects such as math and physics. He continued his education at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bucharest, although he received no formal training in sculpture there. In 1903 Brancusi began a two-year walking journey from Romania to Paris. When he reached Paris he studied under Antonin Mercié, a premier French sculptor of the time, at the Academie des Beaux-Arts.

Brancusi, like many 20th-century artists, gathered inspiration from non-European cultures. His work underwent a drastic stylistic change in 1907, when he turned away from sculpture representing realistic objects and toward simplified block-like forms. Brancusi continued working in this style that eliminated detail and utilized a characteristic ovoid human form for the next several decades. Even though Brancusi continued to create works for Romanian patrons, he maintained his Paris residence until his death in 1957.

In Greek mythology, the Muses were the nine daughters of Zeus, the king of the gods, and Mnemosyne, the titan of memory. The Muses served as patron goddesses of the liberal arts and sciences, thus the ancient Greeks prayed to them for assistance with their own academic pursuits. Ancient sculptures of the muses often included secondary objects, such as lyres or scrolls that identified the muse and indicated her specialty.

A Muse is an example of Brancusi’s simplified human figures that are characterized by the absence of personalized detail. Unlike a painted portrait, the figure does not represent an individual human identity. Instead, the minimal features and varying texture represent the essence of the figure, creating the form with nominal formality to make the object hardly recognizable to the viewer.

The ovoid, or egg-shape form, used in A Muse is characteristic of Cycladic sculpture. Cycladic civilization thrived around 3,000-2,000 B.C. during the same time as ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations, and is believed to be the precursor of Classical Greek civilization.

Brancusi enjoyed creating sculptures of the Cycladic style, and held a great interest in Greek philosophy, especially that of Socrates and Plato. He was particularly attracted to Plato’s theory of forms or ideas that states that “all objects in the universe are but imperfect imitations of supreme models”. The lack of detail in Brancusi’s rendering of physical objects comes from his desire to make the meaning of his works implicit. The fusion of modernist abstraction with pre-Grecian and ancient Greek made Brancusi a truly innovative artist of his time.

In the early 20th century, preceding the First World War, Paris was the premier site for culture, entertainment, and economic prosperity. However, the entrance of France into the war in 1914 rendered the city lifeless and deserted, its population diminishing by a third in a matter of years. And like the rest of the world, poverty and social disorder plagued Paris in the years following the war, making rebuilding costly and challenging. Many Parisian artists’ work alluded to war inspired themes during this time, but Brancusi chose to avoid thematic reference to social problems, and to represent the natural essence of the human being.


The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider