How Brancusi’s Beloved Dog Influenced His Art
Constantin Brancusi with his dog Polaire, 192. Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images.
Today’s lesson in canine art history concerns Constantin Brancusi’s Samoyed, Polaire. The Romanian sculptor’s beloved pet, whom he purchased in 1921, was a fixture on the Parisian art scene. They were a double act: Brancusi took Polaire with him to the hottest cafés and theaters, and even to the movies. “She became, in her own way, a celebrated Parisian beauty and friends would ask after her in their letters,” writes artist and historian John Golding in Vision of the Modern (1994).
Brancusi’s love life is scattered and mysterious, but he was unduly dedicated to his dog. Ever the loyal mistress, Polaire barked at female callers and protected his studio from intruders in the dubious Montparnasse alleyway known as the Impasse Ronsin. Throughout her glorious life, Polaire was photographed and petted by great modernists, including Man Ray and Edward Steichen. Brancusi himself took many selfies with her. On International Dog Day, let this article serve as a nomination of Polaire to the canon.
In The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists (2010), scholar Jon Wood examines Polaire as a device through which the artist communicated his creative principles. The fluffy, all-white dog was “a symbolic studio prop kept to enhance the sculptor’s white studio and facilitate his artistic identity,” he writes. Wood also observes that in French, polaire means both “polar,” like the bear, and is a shorthand for l’étoile Polaire, or “the North Star.”
Brancusi’s whitewashed studio, Wood contends, was a place for the artist to stage his art and life. In one photograph taken by the sculptor in his atelier in about 1921, Polaire sits atop the base of an unfinished work, which would become the appropriately titled Chien de Garde,or “Watch Dog” (ca. 1922). “This by all accounts devoted and protective animal has here been commemorated and platformed as a sculpture,” Wood writes. Wood goes so far as to suggest that in staging this photograph, Brancusi has applied his dogma of “truth to materials”—his mission to bring out the essential forms of a subject by leaning into the natural properties of his medium—to Polaire’s fidelity. The artist has “tamed” the “animate material of his studio home.”
Tragically, Polaire was struck and killed by a car in 1925. “Brancusi was desolated,” Golding writes, “although characteristically he also remarked that her disappearance would enable him to concentrate harder on his sculpture.” Brancusi buried her in a pet cemetery at Asnieres. Then he got back to work.
In the last three decades of Brancusi’s career, before his own death in 1957, “depictions of animals far outnumber those of people,” Golding notes. The artist was inspired not just by his love of Polaire, but by his well-worn copy of La Fontaine’s Fables—classic French stories that, like most fables, “characterizes human frailty in terms of animal behaviour.”
Brancusi never replaced Polaire with another companion, whether dog or human. The American poet William Carlos Williams described how Brancusi began to resemble Polaire in his solitary later years. “The man, now well over 70, living alone…has now become famous for his broiled steaks cooked by himself at his own fire, which he himself serves as though he were a shepherd at night on one of his native hillsides under the stars,” he wrote. “A white collie named Polaire used to be his constant companion reinforcing the impression of a shepherd, which, with his shaggy head of hair, broad shoulders and habitual reserve, he seemed to his friends to be.”
Polaire’s impact on Brancusi’s life and art is indisputable—and indisputably adorable.