When Constantin Brancusi moved to Paris from his native Romania in 1904, he was introduced to Auguste Rodin, the French master sculptor who was then at the height of his career. He invited Brancusi to join his atelier as an apprentice, but the younger artist—with the confidence, stubbornness, and independence of youth—declined, claiming that "nothing grows in the shade of a tall tree." Brancusi rejected Rodin's 19th-century emphasis on theatricality and accumulation of detail in favor of radical simplification and abbreviation; he suppressed all decoration and explicit narrative referents in an effort to create pure and resonant forms. His goal was to capture the essence of his subjects—which included birds in flight, fish, penguins, and a kissing couple—and render them visible with minimal formal means.
Brancusi often depicted the human head, another favorite subject, as a unitary ovoid shape separate from the body. When placed on its side, it evokes images of repose. Some of Brancusi's streamlined oval heads, whose forms recall Indian fertility sculptures in their fusion of egglike and phallic shapes, suggest the miracle of creation.
Brancusi's marble Muse (La muse, 1912) is a subtle monument to the aesthetic act and to the myth that woman is its inspiration. The finely chiseled and smoothly honed head is poised atop a sinuous neck, the curve of which is counterbalanced by a fragmentary arm pressed against the ear. The facial features, although barely articulated, embody the proportions of classical beauty. As in the sculptor's Mlle Pogany, also of 1912, the subject's hair is coiffed in a bun at the base of the neck. But while Mlle Pogany is the image of a particular woman, The Muse is the embodiment of an ideal.