Sir Jacob Epstein

views updated May 23 2018

Sir Jacob Epstein

The American-born English sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), known principally for his expressively modeled portrait busts, periodically returned to direct carving throughout his career, predominantly drawing on biblical themes.

Born on the East Side of New York City of Jewish immigrant parents, Jacob Epstein was a pupil of the academic sculptor George Grey Barnard at the Art Students League. Barnard's influence was a formative one, and Epstein's later slightly attenuated figurative style was reminiscent of his teacher's. While a student Epstein helped to support himself by contributing sketches to Century Magazine; he also illustrated Hutchins Hapgood's The Spirit of the Ghetto (1901). In 1902 Epstein left for Paris, where he continued his artistic education briefly at the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts. He remained in Paris until 1905, and his work of this period shows more than a passing reference to the work of Auguste Rodin, especially in the use of the fragmented figure. Several large programmatic schemes that Epstein worked on at this time, while suggestive of Rodin's ambitious Gates of Hell, stylistically drew upon the highly formalized Egyptian sculpture that Epstein saw in the Louvre.

Epstein moved to London in 1905 and subsequently became a British subject. His first significant work appeared in 1907, when he was commissioned to carve 18 figures for the British Medical Association Building in the Strand, London. Completed the following year, these pieces solidly established the young sculptor's reputation; thus began the many privately commissioned portraits, which continued throughout his career. However, Epstein was not content only with modeling portraits, and he simultaneously pursued his interest in direct carving, restricting his subject matter to the larger themes of mankind, a search for the primordial, archetypal image. In his carved works, especially those executed between 1910 and 1915, he addressed himself to cubist and futurist theories. About 1910 Epstein became keenly interested in African sculpture and amassed one of the finest collections of African art in Great Britain. He continued his pursuit of mastering the form language of other cultures and was drawn particularly to the sculpture of Egypt, Assyria, and pre-Columbian America. His memorial for the tomb of Oscar Wilde (1912) in the Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris, reflects that interest in stylized relief carving, which departed radically from the already established esthetic of Rodin.

On his return to London, Epstein became affiliated with two avant-garde groups of artists: the London Group and the Vorticists. From 1913 to 1915 he worked almost exclusively in a highly abstract manner, carving many of his pieces in flenite. The noted critic T. E. Hulme referred to the work of this period as the seeds of a new, constructive geometric art. Epstein's Rock Drill (1913) was his most ambitious statement of this prewar period. By 1915 he had returned to his modeled portraits, and it was not until a decade later that he again turned his chisel to the stone. Epstein's work from 1915 until his death in London in 1959 falls primarily into two categories: the commissioned portraits and the larger carvings. His portraits are characterized by a vigorously modeled, expressionistic surface, the most representative of which are the Self-portrait with a Beard (1918), Joseph Conrad (1924), and Haile Selassie (1936). Although his clientele included the famous men of his time, some of his most successful pieces in bronze are the portraits of his immediate family and the various models who sat for him. Epstein's carvings were the more controversial body of his work, more innovative and abstract than his portraits. They reflect an entirely different set of concerns, an attempt to continue the themes of the Hebraic-Christian tradition into the form language of 20th-century sculpture. His most representative works in this medium are Rima (1924), the W. H. Hudson memorial in the bird sanctuary in Hyde Park, London; Day and Night (1929) for St. James's Underground Station, London; and Lazarus (1948) for New College, Oxford. His later commissions, the Cavendish Square Madonna and Child (1950) at the Convent of the Holy Child, London, Social Consciousness (1951), the Llandaff Cathedral Christ in Majesty (1955), and St. Michael and the Devil for the new Coventry Cathedral (1958), although executed in bronze, reflect as well those continuing themes first stated in his carvings.

Further Reading

The most complete publication on Epstein's sculpture, including a catalogue raisonné of his work, is Richard Buckle, Jacob Epstein, Sculptor (1963). Statements by the artist on his work can be found in Epstein: An Autobiography (1955), an extended and revised edition of Let There Be Sculpture (1940). An excellent account of his early work appears in The Sculptor Speaks (1931), written by Epstein and Arnold Haskell. Bernard van Dieren, Epstein (1920), provides useful critical material and one of the best assessments of the sources for Epstein's style.

Additional Sources

Epstein, Jacob, Sir, Epstein, an autobiography, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Gardiner, Stephen, Epstein, artist against the establishment, London: M. Joseph, 1992. □

Epstein, Sir Jacob

views updated May 29 2018


EPSTEIN, SIR JACOB (1880–1959), English sculptor, considered one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th century, and probably the most famous Anglo-Jewish artist of his time. He was born on New York's Lower East Side into a family of Polish Jewish immigrants and studied at the Art Students League. His first assignment came from the non-Jewish writer, Hutchins Hapgood, who asked him to illustrate a book about the Jewish quarter of New York, The Spirit of the Ghetto (1902, reissued 1967). He used the fee to go to Paris, where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1905 he went to London, which became his home for the rest of his life; he was naturalized in 1910. In 1907 he was commissioned to decorate the facade of the British Medical Association in the Strand. His series of 18 figures, The Birth of Energy, shocked the British public because he had refused to disguise sexual characteristics, and because one figure was of a woman in advanced pregnancy. The nationwide protest made him famous. Epstein remained the subject of heated moral and aesthetic criticism almost to the end of his career.

Epstein was an admirer of the prehistoric carvers, the archaic Greek sculptors, the African, Polynesian, and pre-Columbian image-makers. In creating his works he drew on his vast knowledge of the sculpture of all places and periods, yet always retained the powerful imprint of his own style. His style passed through several successive phases. The Birth of Energy was executed in a naturalistic classical tradition. The Tomb of Oscar Wilde in Paris (1912) is in a very different style. It consists of a strange figure with a human face and swept-back wings reminiscent of the hieratic winged bulls of Assyrian sculpture. The face is surmounted by a crown decorated with representations of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Epstein's only abstract sculptures were executed during the years 1913–15. Rock Drill (1913) is a sculpture romanticizing the power of the machine; Venus i and Venus ii are also experiments in abstraction. In later years Epstein felt that abstract sculpture was of no value in itself, but that it had helped him to develop his sense of form.

In the monumental works executed after World War i, Epstein aroused hostile criticism by his expressionist distortion of form and by his treatment of sacred themes in a deliberately crude and primitive style. By this means he endeavored to express elemental forces. Genesis (1931) is the solid, heavy figure of a pregnant woman with a brooding head like an African mask. The dynamic, advancing figure of Adam (1939) is even more "primitive." Jacob and the Angel (1941) is more naturalistic. His sculptures on Christian themes also gave rise to controversy owing to his unorthodox treatment of traditional subjects. In his day Epstein was probably the most controversial artist in Britain, arousing fierce hostility, often laced with overt or covert antisemitism, from conservatives, but also great praise from many experts.

Throughout his life Epstein cast portraits in bronze, and many critics believe that as a portraitist he was second only to Rodin. Executed in a naturalistic, renaissance style, these works aimed at expressing the personality rather than the mere physical features of the sitter. Characteristic of these bronzes is the pitting and furrowing of the surface to suggest the clay from which they were cast. Among the many eminent figures Epstein portrayed were Albert Einstein, Chaim Weizmann, and Yehudi Menuhin. He was also an excellent draftsman; his drawings included illustrations of the Old Testament, and a series inspired by Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal.

By the end of World War ii Epstein had become acceptable to the British art establishment, and in 1954 he was knighted. Although he had no organizational links with Judaism, he always recalled with great warmth his origins in the New York ghetto, and never lost his broad Lower East Side accent. He said in his memoirs (Let there be Sculpture, 1942): "I imagine that the feeling I have for expressing a human point of view, giving human rather than abstract implications to my work, comes from these early formative years." In his late period, Epstein executed a number of religious works. These are in a sense more conservative than his earlier works and though elements of abstraction and distortion still exist they are no longer so dominant. They include Lazarus in the chapel of New College, Oxford (1947), the Madonna and Child in Cavendish Square, London (1953), the Christ in Majesty (1957) at Llandaff Cathedral, and the St. Michael and the Devil (1959) at Coventry. After his death, 105 of his clay models were donated to the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Lady Epstein. He wrote an autobiography, Let There Be Sculpture (1940), which he published in revised form in 1955 as Epstein: An Autobiography.


R. Buckle, Jacob Epstein, Sculptor (1963). add. bibliography: odnb online; S. Gardiner, Epstein: Artist Against the Establishment (1992); J. Rose, Daemons and Angels: A Life of Jacob Epstein (2002).

[Alfred Werner]

Epstein, Sir Jacob

views updated Jun 11 2018

Epstein, Sir Jacob (1880–1959). Sculptor, painter, and draughtsman. Born in New York, he studied in Paris before settling in London in 1905 and becoming a British citizen two years later. From his first commission in 1907/8, eighteen figures for the BMA headquarters in the Strand, which were attacked as obscene, his work was surrounded by controversy. His Oscar Wilde memorial in Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris (1910–11), was at first banned as indecent. His later work was less controversial and his portrait busts of many of the leading figures of the day, for example, Vaughan Williams, T. S. Eliot, Einstein, were better appreciated. Examples of Epstein's work can be seen in London at the Tate gallery and Imperial War Museum and also in Walsall, where his widow's bequest is held. Two of the best-known monumental sculptures are Christ in Majesty (1954/5) in Llandaff cathedral and St Michael and the Devil (1955/8) at Coventry cathedral. He was knighted in 1954.

June Cochrane

Epstein, Sir Jacob

views updated May 21 2018

Epstein, Sir Jacob (1880–1959) British sculptor, b. USA. He made his most audacious sculptural statements before 1920, starting with a series of 18 nude figures (1907–08), whose explicit representation caused a public outcry. He scandalized Paris with the angel carved for Oscar Wilde's tomb (1912). His most revolutionary sculpture was The Rock Drill (1913–14), an ape that has mutated into a robot. He also produced some extraordinary religious works including the bronze Visitation (1926), the stone Ecce Homo (1934–35), and the alabaster Adam (1939).

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