Sir Jacob Epstein

Jacob and the Angel

1940–1

On display at Tate Britain

Medium
Alabaster
Dimensions
Unconfirmed: 2140 x 1100 x 920 mm, 2500 kg
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and the Henry Moore Foundation 1996
Reference
T07139

Summary

This monumental group depicts an episode from the book of Genesis (Chapter 32, verses 24-32). According to the Biblical story, Jacob was forced to wrestle with an unknown assailant through the night. In the morning his opponent blessed him because he had not abandoned the struggle, and revealed himself to be an angel and messenger from God. Jacob gave thanks saying, 'I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved'. During the early 1930s Epstein had read and re-read the book of Genesis and executed a series of unconventional water-colours on Old Testament stories. The subject of Jacob and the Angel fascinated him and may have had personal significance, not least because of the fact that Epstein's first name was Jacob.

Before executing the large alabaster carving, Epstein made a watercolour entitled Jacob Wrestling which was included in his 1932 exhibition at the Redfern Gallery. Another drawing of the same subject was one of Epstein's illustrations for Moshe Oyved's Book of Affinity (1933).

In the carving, the night-long struggle between Jacob and his assailant is translated into a strangely ambiguous embrace between two colossal male figures. Jacob is depicted with his eyes closed and head thrown back; the angel is holding him in a tight grasp, as if squeezing his last breath from him. 'The Herculean proportions of the figures permitted the sculptor to generalise and balance the relationship of the masses while simultaneously maintaining the impact of their embrace. True to his usual practice in carving, the primary views reflect the mass the original block, but the interlocked arms also encourage the viewer to move around it. Some areas, such as Jacob's back and the angel's wings, can be read abstractly; Epstein's habitual relish for the subtle interplay of barely perceptible assymetries manifests itself in the rhythmic cadence of back, buttock, thigh and calf.' (Evelyn Silber, The Sculpture of Jacob Epstein with a Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1986, p.54)

Jacob and the Angel was completed in 1940, and can be seen as one of a group of large carvings dealing with religious themes. These included: Behold the Man, 1934-5 (Coventry Cathedral); Consummatum Est, 1936 (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) and Adam, 1938-9. These works showed Epstein's interest in so-called primitive sculpture. John Rothenstein later wrote how, in Jacob and the Angel, Epstein 'seems to have tapped the mysterious source of energy that so often animates primitive sculpture, without imitating any actual features'. (Epstein, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1961, [p.4]). The use of this primitivist style when dealing with religious subject matter was found shocking by many of Epstein's contemporaries.

Further reading:
Epstein, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1961 (essay by John Rothenstein)
Evelyn Silber, The Sculpture of Epstein with a Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1986
Richard Cork, Image from Stone, in Jacob Epstein Sculpture and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Leeds City Art Galleries and Whitechapel Art Gallery 1987

Mary Horlock
11 June 1997

Display caption

The Old Testament tells how Jacob tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him the birthright belonging to Esau, his elder brother. Later, at a crisis in his life, Jacob wrestles through the night with an unknown assailant, who restrains him by dislocating his thigh. Here, the angel is supporting Jacob, who has just collapsed. Jacob realises he has been fighting God. In the morning the angel blesses him for not giving up. This sculpture has been seen as representing an artist struggling with his materials, as well as the struggles of European Jews during the Second World War.

Gallery label, September 2016

Technique and condition

The sculpture, carved from a monolith of English alabaster stands on its own integral base. The block of alabaster ranges in colour from milky white, through pink to brown, with areas of differing transparency and opacity. Weighing over two and a half tonnes, the sculpture was created using a variety of carving tools to produce rough and smooth textures. The bodies of the figures have a smooth surface with vertical lines incised into the wings, contrasting with a coarse-textured chiselled-tooled finish in the crevices and undercuts.

There is a natural fault line in the stone from Jacob’s left wrist down through to the palm of his hand and across his little finger. Previous breaks to the base and wing had been repaired prior to acquisition. The surface of the sculpture was cleaned in 2000, restoring the ‘soapy’ translucency indicative of alabaster. The old breaks have been refilled using a more visually sympathetic fill material and the surface has a soft matt sheen as opposed to the pre-restoration polished gloss.

Bryony Bery
April 2004

Audio

Jacob and the Angel by Jacob Epstein 2

Curator Chris Stephens on how this work was recieved
Audio

Jacob and the Angel by Jacob Epstein 1

Which non-Western cultures inspired the artist? Curator Chris Stephens
Tate Etc.

Miracle or monstrosity?

Jacob Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel. Currently on display at Tate Liverpool, this much-loved work was once viewed as ...

Tate Etc.

MicroTate 13

Microtate, Tate Etc issue 13; Pae White, Peter Schjeldahl, Vincent Katz and Mary Richards