Zorach, William

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ZORACH, WILLIAM (1887–1966), U.S. sculptor and painter. Lithuanian-born William Zorach immigrated with his parents to the United States in 1891, settling in Ohio. Zorach only completed school up to the eighth grade, forced into working because of the family's impoverishment. He studied lithography in the evenings at the Cleveland School of Art in 1903 and soon thereafter he began earning a wage as a commercial lithographer. After he had saved some money, Zorach moved to New York City in 1907 where he received two years of additional training at the National Academy of Design. Again funded by money earned from his work as a lithographer, Zorach went to Paris to study art at La Palette in 1910. In Paris, Zorach met Marguerite Thompson, an American also studying at La Palette. Marguerite's influence, as well as the avant-garde atmosphere in France, effected Zorach's painting style, which became Fauvist in conception. His colorful paintings were first exhibited publicly at the Salon-d'Automne (1911). Financial circumstances forced Zorach back to Cleveland in late 1911, but by December 1912, he had earned enough money as a lithographer to return to New York, where he and Marguerite married. Zorach's paintings remained Fauvist-inspired until around 1916, at which time he adopted a Cubist idiom.

Zorach carved his first sculpture in 1917. He gave up painting entirely to focus on sculpture in 1922. Early sculptures were stylized and angular in conception, akin to the Cubist style of his canvases. Soon Zorach adopted the more rounded, simplified, classicized forms for which he is best known in directly carved works such as the 36-inch-tall mahogany Mother and Child (1922, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). His first solo exhibition of sculpture was held at the Kraushaar Galleries in New York (1924). Many of Zorach's sculptures, mostly carved out of wood and stone, focus on themes of family.

He executed several public commissions, including a monumental marble figure of Benjamin Franklin (1936–37) for the Benjamin Franklin Post Office in Washington, d.c., and a 16-foot-tall group sculpture, Builders of the Future, for the 1939 World's Fair. Upon request, Zorach submitted a design for a proposed memorial for the Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Although the memorial never materialized, a plaster model titled Monument to Six Million Jews (1949, Zorach family collection) survives. Designed to be viewed in the round, on one side of the tombstone shaped pedestal topped by a menorah stands a woman protecting her child and on the other side a man looking upward to heaven beseechingly.

In addition to his artistic production, Zorach wrote articles on art and two books: a primer on sculpture and his autobiography. He also taught at several institutions, including the Art Students League for 30 years beginning in 1929 and Columbia University (1932–35).


P.S. Wingert, The Sculpture of William Zorach (1938); W. Zorach, Zorach Explains Sculpture (1947); J.I.H. Baur, William Zorach (1959); W. Zorach, Art Is My Life (1967).

[Samantha Baskind (2nd ed.)]

William Zorach

views updated May 29 2018

William Zorach

William Zorach (1887-1966), American sculptor and painter, sought to vitalize the traditional figurative sculpture by turning to African, Egyptian, and Near Eastern art for inspiration. He pioneered in carving directly in wood and stone.

William Zorach was born in Eurberg, Lithuania. His father emigrated to America in the hope of bettering his condition. The Zorachs settled in Ohio, and William attended the public schools. In 1903 he went to Cleveland to learn a trade and attended art school at night. He studied painting at the National Academy of Design in New York City (1907-1910) and then went to Paris. There he saw his first modern art and was particularly attracted to cubism. Before long Zorach was painting abstractly. In 1911 he returned to America. Two of his paintings were accepted for the famous 1913 Armory Show in New York.

In 1917 Zorach made his first sculpture. Though it was done merely as a diversion, he was soon devoting himself entirely to carving. One of his early works, Two Children (a mahogany, 1922), was successful enough to convince him to make sculpture a full-time occupation. In 1924 he executed his first piece in stone: a portrait head of his wife.

Though Zorach was completely self-taught as a sculptor, he knew what he wanted. "Real sculpture," he said in 1925, "is something monumental, something hewn from solid mass, something with repose, with inner and outer form, with strength and power." Such qualities are seen in Child with Cat (1926). Carved from Tennessee marble, it is compact and simple. The quality of the stone as a hard, resisting material is not violated—that is, not made to suggest flesh, fur, hair, or any other substance.

Zorach had his first one-man show in 1924. In 1929 he accepted a post at the Art Students' League, where he taught for more than 30 years. He received national attention with his Mother and Child (1931), a monumental marble. He began receiving commissions for monumental pieces, among them Benjamin Franklin (1937) for the Post Office Building, Washington, D.C. His basreliefs for the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. (1952-1953), are considered among his best efforts in architectural decoration.

During the 1940s Zorach did a series of heads of a monumental character. Best known is his Head of Christ (1940). Christ is represented unconventionally as being like a peasant, a tough yet beautiful man. He often returned to favored themes, such as the mother and child in the Future Generation (1942-1947) and the lovers in Youth (1936) and Lovers (1958). Critics found Zorach's later pieces sentimental and less inventive than earlier work.

Further Reading

Zorach's own writings are Zorach Explains Sculpture (1947) and Art Is My Life: The Autobiography of William Zorach (1967), essential reading for the Zorach scholar. Recommended studies are Paul S. Wingert, The Sculpture of William Zorach (1938), and John I. H. Baur, William Zorach (1959). □

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