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Prodigal Son

Constantin Brancusi, French (born Romania), 1876 - 1957

Made in France, Europe

c. 1914-1915

Oak; limestone base

17 1/2 x 8 1/16 x 8 1/16 inches (44.4 x 20.5 x 20.5 cm) Base: 12 5/8 inches (32 cm)

© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

* Gallery 188, Modern and Contemporary Art, first floor (Brodsky Gallery)

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950

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Additional information:
  • PublicationConstantin Brancusi: 1876-1957

    Prodigal Son is Brancusi's earliest wood sculpture surviving in its original state. The sculpture appears to be elaborated from an existing work rather than carved from a fresh block of wood. The dark stain, unworked back face, and several splits and cuts in the surface are probably inherent to the wood Brancusi selected. The white residue of gypsum (calcium sulfate) suggests that a plaster mold may have been made from the sculpture, although none is known today.

    As is true for many of Brancusi's most radical efforts, innovation is grounded in a traditional subject. The biblical story of the prodigal son was a favorite for artists exhibiting in the salons at the turn of the century. The sculptor formerly had chosen this title for his first work in wood, now destroyed (see Head of a Child, Musée d'Art Moderne, Centre de Georges Pompidou). Better known as The First Step, the sculpture much more obviously depicted a walking figure, conceivably returning home.

    In the present work, the image of a kneeling figure is implied in the sharply faceted planes and open volumes of the wooden form. The attitude of supplication is reinforced by the rising steps of the limestone base. The sculpture's complexities of balance, asymmetry, and montage, especially evident when the work is viewed from different angles, are unprecedented in Brancusi's work. Surely these qualities are indebted to the artist's interest in African sculpture, an inspiration that provided an otherwise unimaginable alternative to the polished surfaced and closed volumes of his recent work in stone. The sculptures' subject provides continuity with the past, but its formal innovations signal a moment of departure rather than return. Ann Temkin, from Constantin Brancusi 1876-1957 (1995), p. 130.

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