In the 1930s Epstein embarked upon a series of nature and flower studies which were highly unusual in his oeuvre. Renowned as an avant-garde and often controversial sculptor whose work had challenged audiences and critics by rejecting western traditions in favour of an aesthetic inflected by the art of Africa, Asia and Polynesia, Epstein reverted in these works to a more orthodox subject-matter and style.
Both this painting and Dahlias (Tate T05758) were executed during a stay at Baldwin's Hill in Epping Forest in Essex, where Epstein had rented a number of properties since 1922. In what he described as 'a frenzy of painting' (Epstein, p.165), Epstein began the series after Ascher & Velker, a Dutch firm of dealers in Old Masters, commissioned him to paint some flower studies, following the success of an exhibition of Epping Forest watercolours held at Arthur Tooth & Sons in December 1933 (see Epping Forest c.1933 Tate T05760). 'I said I would paint twenty,' Epstein later recalled in his autobiography, 'and in the end I painted sixty. Not content with this, I went on painting, giving up sculpture for the time being, and painted three hundred more. I lived and painted flowers. My rooms were piled with flowers, and this was a wonderful and colourful period' (Epstein, pp.165-6). The painting spree continued even after his return to London when Ascher & Velker, delighted with his work, sent Epstein weekly crates of fresh flowers by air freight until the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939.
The flower watercolours and gouaches make direct reference to European artistic tradition, in particular recalling the work of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch flower painters such as Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621), Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) and Jan van Huysum (1682-1749). Yet whereas these earlier artists had been concerned with intricate botanical detail, arranging flowers of different seasons together in highly contrived, dramatically lit studio settings, Epstein's focus was on the vibrancy and fecundity of the flowers in their natural habitat. Contained neither by a vase nor within the confines of a domestic interior, they emerge from the earth in an ebullient swirl, as if swept together by a sudden gust of wind. The influence of Epstein's contemporaries can also be detected here. In their bright palette the flower pieces show the influence of Matthew Smith (1879-1959), whose still lifes and flower paintings Epstein had collected since 1913, while their expressive intensity and vibrant brushwork shows an affinity with the work of David Bomberg (1890-1957).
While the flower studies might seem at odds with Epstein's more notorious and radical sculpture, they do in fact display similarities both in technique and sensibility. The thickly applied pigment and expressionist technique of the watercolours recalls the vigorous textured surface of many of Epstein's portrait sculptures such as Jacob Kramer 1921 (Tate N03849) and Albert Einstein 1933 (Tate N04754). Indeed Epstein's work as a sculptor seems to have had some bearing on his practice as a draughtsman and painter. As he commented, 'I do not think a knowledge of painting is an aid to the sculptor, but a knowledge of modelling is certainly a very great help to the painter' (quoted in J. Epstein and A. Haskell, The Sculptor Speaks: Jacob Epstein to Arnold L. Haskell: A Series of Conversations on Art, London 1931, p.131). In addition, Epstein's expressive response to the flora of the Epping Forest countryside recalled his lifelong interest in the 'primitive' spirit of nature. Just as he had been inspired between 1912 and 1916, after an unproductive stay in Paris, by the solitary landscapes at Pett Level in Sussex, in the 1930s Epstein retreated from the bustle of London to find his inspiration in the ancient woodland at Epping.
In an intriguing blend of human and plant forms, Epstein had used the sunflower motif in one of his most 'primitivist' early sculptures, the stone head Sunflower c.1912-13 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, reproduced Richard Cork, Jacob Epstein, London 1999, p.25 in colour), whose mask-like visage was reminiscent of the African Fang reliquary heads which he so avidly collected. His sculptural concern for the 'primitive' essence of man and natural forms was thus re-visited here in his concern for the 'primitive' essence of the forest and its flowers.
Epstein: The Flower Paintings, exhibition catalogue, David Messum, London 1992
Jacob Epstein, Let There Be Sculpture: An Autobiography, London 1940
Stephen Gardiner, Epstein: Artist Against the Establishment, London 1992, pp.347-50 and 353