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