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.
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).