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 on Sir Jacob Epstein

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 Biography Sources

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

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