Jacob Epstein - Biography and Legacy
New York City, New York
Biography of Jacob Epstein
Childhood and Early Training
Jacob Epstein was born on the Lower East Side of New York City, on November 10th, 1880. His parents emigrated from Poland to New York in the 1860s. Jacob's father became a successful businessman and eventually owned many tenements. There were five children in the family. Jacob had a sickly childhood and spent almost two years sick at home. In his autobiography, published in 1955, Epstein wondered whether his "sickness" set him apart from other children, as he spent his time inside studying, drawing, and reading intensively.
In the 1890s, Epstein won a prize in an art competition at the Cooper Union. He also attended classes at the Art Students' League, and studied under famed sculptor George Grey Bernard. The vibrant cultural life of New York City inspired him and led him to use Jewish, Black, Asian, and Italian communities as a backdrop for his early drawings, none of which survive. His political (namely, socialist) and artistic interests led him away from Orthodox Judaism, although throughout his life, he remained keenly interested in the ceremonial aspect of his religion:
"Saturday in the synagogue was a place of ennui for me, and the wailing prayers will get on my nerves...Certainly I had no devotional feelings, and later, with my reading and free-thinking ideas, I dropped all practice of ceremonial forms...The Passover Holidays always interested me for the picturesque meal ceremonies...The earnestness and simplicity of the old Polish Jewish manner of living has much beauty in it, and an artist could make it the theme of very fine works".
By 1901, Epstein had decided to become a sculptor. However, drawings were still a part of his artistic output: he accepted a commission to illustrate Hutchins Hapgood's book, The Spirit of the Ghetto: Studies of the Jewish Quarter in New York (1902). The book described the process of adjustment and assimilation that Eastern European Jewish immigrants experienced upon arrival in the new world. Epstein's illustrations depict what he perceived to be the everyday life of the residents of the Jewish quarter in the Lower East Side of New York. A quote from Hapgood's book illustrates what Epstein's interaction with the traditional world of his parents might have been like:
"The Orthodox Jewish influences, still at work upon him, are rapidly weakened. He grows to look upon the ceremonial life at home as rather ridiculous. His old parents, who speak no English, he regards as greenhorns. English becomes his habitual tongue, even at home, and Yiddish he begins to forget".
The money and fame that he earned from illustrating Hapgood's book allowed Epstein to move to Europe. Arriving in Paris, he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts. He did not enjoy his time there, finding the teaching style limiting. As a foreigner, he was treated with suspicion by the other students. Despite these hardships, he explored Paris' museums religiously, taking particular interest in Egyptian, early Greek, Iberian, and Chinese art.
In 1904, after a visit to the British Museum, Epstein decided to move to London. While he eventually established residency in England, he spent the years before the war traveling between the artistic communities of Paris and London, and became a fixture in cafés and coffee houses.
In 1907, Epstein was commissioned to carve a series of eighteen over-sized nude, caryatid-like figures for the new British Medical Association headquarters in London. The work, depicting old age and pregnancy, created controversy by challenging accepted social norms and taboos of Edwardian England. One of the nudes in this series, Maternity (1908) established Epstein's reputation as a bold, controversial and important British sculptor.
Together with mason and stone carver Eric Gill, Epstein started to experiment with Direct Carving, which had been introduced a few years earlier by Brancusi. The method allowed the final shape of a sculpture to be dictated by the process of carving, rather than by the pre-conceived idea for a sculpture, and respected the natural qualities and shape of the material.
Paris captivated young Epstein. During his six-month stay there in 1913, he met and became friendly with Picasso, Brancusi, and Modigliani. It was also around this time that he began to collect African and Pacific art.
The First World War shattered the dreams of a whole generation of European artists. Epstein, although not enlisted until 1917, was nevertheless shaken by the death of two of his close friends, sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and art critic and poet Thomas Hulme. Upon entering the service as part of the 38th Jewish Battalion, Epstein's regiment was to be shipped off to Palestine; however he went absent without leave before the regiment departed. Soon after, Epstein had to spend some time in the hospital (due to a nervous breakdown) but was finally discharged.
Epstein spent several years recovering from the nervous breakdown. He returned to the artistic scene in 1920 with The Risen Christ, begun before the war, and which provoked, a great deal of controversy when completed. Appealing to neither Christian nor Jewish narrative, the sculpture can be read as a memorial to the inhumanity and cruelty of war.
The 1920s marked Epstein's turn toward a more lucrative career. A one-man show at the Leicester Galleries in London, where he exhibited a number of sculptural portraits, helped his reputation as a celebrated modeler. Commissions started to pour in, peaking during the 1930s and 1940s, with over 100 portraits commissioned. Critics observed that Epstein expressed the personality of a sitter with an almost "surgical objectivity". However, despite his reputation as a leading British sculptor, he was rejected as a candidate for the Chair of Sculpture at the Royal College in 1924.
The duality and drama of Epstein's artistic life, for example his interest in the avant-garde while at the same time resenting it, was reflected in his personal affairs. For decades, he maintained two families: one with his wife Margaret Dunlop (married 1906; daughter Peggy Jean), and another with his partner, a young student Kathleen Garman (met in 1921; children Theo, Kitty and Esther). Prone to anger and swift of temper, Epstein made life challenging for Margaret and Kathleen. Interestingly, in his autobiography of 1939 he never even mentioned Kathleen
Although Epstein continued creating pieces in the style of Direct Carving, including works like Genesis (1929) which challenged taboos by depicting pregnancy and motherhood in a straightforward and provoking way, most of his career through the 1930s-1950s was focused on portrait sculpture. Albert Einstein (1933) was probably the most rough and impressionistic of all Epstein's portraits, and was done during a short visit to the United Kingdom during his escape from Nazi Europe. The bust received a great deal of praise in the press.
There is almost no information available on Epstein's reaction to the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust. While Poland, the country where his family came from, was being invaded, he wrote in his autobiography Let There Be Sculpture: "Artists are of all races and climes, and to band together in racial groups is ridiculous. I am most annoyed, rather than flattered, to be told that I am the best or foremost Jewish artist. Surely to be an artist is enough."
In the following years, Epstein secured a number of high profile commissions for portrait busts of personalities, including Winston Churchill and Princess Margaret, as well as a number of high-profile public sculptures. Although he became a British citizen in 1911, his acceptance by the British cultural elite culminated in1953, when he was finally offered membership of the Royal Society of British Sculptors, and was knighted a year later in 1954.
Despite the success of his late years, Epstein was distressed by the tragic deaths of two of his children, Theo and Esther, in 1954. Both suffered from years-long struggles with depression.
Jacob Epstein died August 19, 1959 in London, at the age of 79. Although he was Jewish, the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral performed his burial ceremony.
The Legacy of Jacob Epstein
Epstein's influence on 20th-century art has been underestimated. He is remembered for the most part as a portraitist and a modeler. This opinion, however, does not take into consideration Epstein's importance to the development of avant-garde sculpture from 1910 to 1915, nor his dedication to Direct Carving. Epstein's work influenced generations of younger British sculptors, including Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.
Epstein also helped to change the Eurocentric viewpoint of many artists and critics. His excellent collection of African and Pacific sculpture, probably one of the best private collections of non-Western art at the time, was purchased by the British Museum after his death. Some two hundred of his plaster casts were donated to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and to kibbutz Ain Herod in Galilee. Other artists followed the path Epstein blazed into non-Western art.