Jacob Epstein made his name as a sculptor of monuments and portraits, and as an occasional painter and illustrator. In his lifetime he championed many of the concepts central to modernist sculpture, including 'truth to material', direct carving, and inspiration from so-called primitive art, all of which became central to twentieth-century practice.
Epstein was born on 10 November 1880 in New York, of Polish-Jewish parentage. He attended art classes at the Art Students League c.1896 and then went to night school c.1899 where he began sculpting under George Grey Bernard. On the proceeds of illustrating Hutchins Hapgood's The Spirit of the Ghetto (1902) he was able to go to Paris and spent six months at the École des Beaux-Arts, and afterwards studied at the Académie Julian. Epstein settled in London in 1905 and became a British citizen in 1907. He met Picasso, Brancusi, Modigliani in Paris in 1912-13. He then returned to England and worked near Hastings from 1913 to 1916.
Epstein became a founding member of the London Group in 1913, and that same year had his first solo show at the Twenty-One Gallery, Adelphi, London. Thereafter he exhibited mainly at the Leicester Galleries. After 1916 he lived and worked in London for the rest of his life. He briefly visited New York in 1927, to attend his one-man show at the Ferragil Gallery. The Arts Council honoured him with a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1953. He was knighted in 1954 and died in London on 19 August 1959.
Epstein's major public sculptures
Memorial to W.H. Hudson (Rima) in Hyde Park, 1925
Night and Day, 1928-9 (for St James' Underground)
Lazarus, 1947-48 (Oxford, New College Chapel)
Madonna and Child, 1950-52 (Cavendish Square, London)
Social Consciousness, 1951-3 (Fairmount Park, Philadelphia)
Christ in Majesty, 1954-5 (Llandaff Cathedral)
St Michael and the Devil, 1956-8 (Coventry Cathedral)
Jacob Epstein, Epstein: An Autobiography, London 1955
Evelyn Silber, The Sculpture of Jacob Epstein with a Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1986
Evelyn Silber and Terry Friedman, Jacob Epstein: Sculpture and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Leeds City Art Galleries and Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1987
11 June 1997
Sir Jacob Epstein (10 November 1880 – 21 August 1959) was an American-British sculptor who helped pioneer modern sculpture. He was born in the United States, and moved to Europe in 1902, becoming a British subject in 1910.
Early in his career, in 1912, The Pall Mall Gazette described Epstein as "a Sculptor in Revolt, who is in deadly conflict with the ideas of current sculpture." Revolting against ornate, pretty art, he made bold, often harsh and massive forms of bronze or stone. His sculpture is distinguished by its vigorous rough-hewn realism. Avant-garde in concept and style, his works often shocked audiences. This was not only a result of their, often explicit, sexual content, but also because they abandoned the conventions of classical Greek sculpture favoured by European academic sculptors, to experiment instead with the aesthetics of art traditions as diverse as those of India, China, ancient Greece, West Africa and the Pacific Islands.
Such factors may have focused disproportionate attention on certain aspects of Epstein's long and productive career, throughout which he aroused hostility, especially challenging taboos surrounding the depiction of sexuality. He often produced controversial works which challenged ideas on what was appropriate subject matter for public artworks. Epstein would often sculpt the images of friends, casual acquaintances, and even people dragged from the street into his studio almost at random. He worked even on his dying day. He also painted; many of his watercolours and gouaches were of Epping Forest, where he lived for a time. These were often exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in London.
Bronze portrait sculpture formed one of Epstein's staple products, and perhaps the best known. These sculptures were often executed with roughly textured surfaces, expressively manipulating small surface planes and facial details.
His larger sculptures were his most expressive and experimental, but also his most vulnerable.
Epstein was Jewish, and negative reviews of his work sometimes took on an antisemitic flavour, though he did not attribute the "average unfavorable criticism" of his work to antisemitism.
After Epstein died, Henry Moore wrote a tribute in The Sunday Times which included a recognition of Epstein's central role in the development of modern sculpture in Britain. "He took the brickbats, he took the insults, he faced the howls of derision with which artists since Rembrandt have learned to become familiar. And as far as sculpture in this century is concerned he took them first.... We have lost a great sculptor and a great man.": 274