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Jacob Epstein

British Sculptor

Born: November 10, 1880 - New York City, New York
Died: August 19, 1959 - London England
"Intellectually it [sculpture] requires a far greater effort of concentration to visualize a work in the round. I find it difficult to work on more than two busts in the same period. Also in carving there is absolute finality about every movement. It is impossible to rub out and begin again. This fight with the material imposes a constant strain. A sudden flaw or weakness may upset a year's work."
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Jacob Epstein Signature
"There are infinite modes of expression in the world of art, and to insist that only by one road can the artist attain his ends is to limit him."
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Jacob Epstein Signature
"My parents did not discourage me but could not understand how I could make a living by art. Their idea of an artist was a person who was condemned to starvation."
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Jacob Epstein Signature
"My earliest recollections are of the teeming East Side where I was born. This Hester Street and its surrounding streets were the most densely populated of any city on Earth; and looking back at it, I realize what I owe to its unique and crowded humanity."
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Jacob Epstein Signature
"Early on I saw the plastic quality in colored people and had friends among them; and later was to work from colored models and friends, including Paul Robeson, whose splendid head I worked from in New York. I tried to draw Chinamen in their quarter, but the Chinese did not like being drawn and would immediately disappear when they spotted me."
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Jacob Epstein Signature
"Epstein at work was a being transformed...the man himself, his movement, his stooping and bending, his leaping back, poised, then rushing forward...while he scrutinized the work from all angles, was the equivalent of dance."
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Clare Sheridan, portrait sculptor who sat for Epstein
"He was a modeler, rather than a carver. To put it in other terms, his was a visual rather than a mental art, and with him the emphasis was on subject rather than on form. He was an intensely warm man, who in his work transmitted that warmth, that vitality, that feeling for human beings immediately. His master was Donatello, rather than Michelangelo: and in Rembrandt, whom he also studied most carefully, it was the direct and personal warmth that affected him perhaps more than the formal side."
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Henry Moore Signature

Summary of Jacob Epstein

Jacob Epstein was a sculptor who sought to express the power and grandeur of human life in works which, at the same time, expressed the power of the materials that he used to create them. For Epstein, both the subject matter he carved and the material he carved it in had an inherent dignity. From New York, to Paris, to London, Epstein found an exciting, changing new world emerging as the 20th century began. As one of the leading innovators of modern sculpture, Epstein felt the direct expression of the qualities and strengths found in human life and in natural materials could produce art works which captured the truth about people and their world. Works like Rock Drill (1913), captured how the advances of the modern period could either liberate humanity or serve as another means of oppressing it. His portrait busts of Albert Einstein (1933) and Paul Robeson (1928) expressed the essential humanity and the struggle of these famous men. In his creative process, Epstein rejected the limitations of European tradition and conventional morality, which he felt attempted to dictate what was proper subject matter for art and thus control and repress the creative process. As a result, he was considered to be a highly controversial figure, while at the same time one of the key figures in the development of modern sculpture.


  • For Epstein, artistic creation and the sexual act were intrinsically and inexplicably linked. Sexuality and creativity were chaotic processes that expressed the most powerful drives in the human and natural world, and both resulted in the creation of something new. As a result of his frank and realistic sexual imagery, conventional artists, reviewers, and collectors considered him scandalous, yet in works like his Facade of the British Medical Association (1907-08) and Tomb of Oscar Wilde (1909-1912), he remained committed to sexual imagery.
  • Epstein was one of the first sculptors to look beyond the boundaries of Europe for subject matter and materials. He embraced the aesthetics and drew influence from the cultures of India, Africa, Native Americans, and the Pacific Islands. For Epstein, art was an expression of human life, and thus needed to embrace all of humanity. His global outlook can be seen in works like Genesis (1929).
  • Epstein is often mentioned as one of the most important practitioners of Direct Carving - the work does not begin with a sketch or smaller clay model of the subject matter, which is then repeatedly crafted in other material until the artist feels the final, modeled image has been reproduced. Instead, the sculptor works directly upon the chosen material, attempting to spontaneously express the image the artist believed already existed, in some undiscovered manner, within the material. Epstein stressed that his choice of material was a part of the creative process, and often referred to this method as "truth to material".

Important Art by Jacob Epstein

Progression of Art

The Strand Statues for the British Medical Association, London

In 1907, Epstein was commissioned to carve this series of eighteen over-sized nude, caryatid-like figures. The work, depicting old age and pregnancy, created much controversy by challenging accepted social norms and taboos of Edwardian England. By putting the nude figures on the facade of a public building, Epstein took a bold step toward affirming himself as a modern sculptor, not willing to submit to what was considered appropriate during a time when women were still wearing tight corsets and single mothers suffered terrible poverty.

The BMA commission marked the beginning of Epstein's experimentation with non-Western styles and specifically with the Hindu sculptural tradition. Running along the rim of the building's facade, the sculptures narrated the human life-cycle. The work was one of the first of Epstein's to be received as scandalous and controversial, establishing a trend among certain art critics and social commentators of focusing on the social impact of his work, rather than its artistic merit.

The Strand - London


The Rock Drill

This enigmatic sculpture received much critical and scholarly attention, and is considered the most radical of Epstein's works. The sculpture is read within the context of the avant-garde and of Futurism. Critics compared its importance to Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). However, it is an error to over stress the Futuristic connection, as this work stands out as an exception, rather than an indication of a certain trend within Epstein's artistic output. An example of an early readymade, The Rock Drill consists of a plaster figure mounted on a miner's rock drill. The head of the creature is elongated and beak-shaped, while the torso contains an embryo-like form.

In The Sculptor Speaks, Epstein observes: "The Rock Drill is not entirely abstract. It is a conception of a thing I knew well in New York and in my feeling of that thing as a living entity, translated in terms of sculpture". While we do not know what Epstein is referring to when he talks about a "conception of a thing", the work can be seen as a premonition of the horrors of WWI. The creature, with its hands tightened in the back, looks both threatening and threatened. It could be a perpetrator or a victim. Another possible interpretation highlights man's relationship with machinery, a hybrid between the human and mechanical. The penetrating and violent nature of the drill is also a metaphor for male sexual energy and libido.

Plaster and industrial rock drill - Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery


The Risen Christ

After WWI, Epstein re-evaluated his fascination with the concepts of the mechanical (Avant-garde), as well as life-force (Vitalism). His works now reflected a certain religious shift. The Risen Christ is one of his most controversial bronzes, because of the lack of either Christian or Jewish iconography. The sculpture points to the complexity of possible interpretations of the personality of Christ in the Gospels. In his autobiography Epstein wrote: "It stands and accuses the world for its grossness, inhumanity, cruelness and beastliness, for the First World War. [...] The Jew - the Galilean - condemns our wars, and warns us that Shalom, Shalom, must still be the watchword between man and man. "The sculpture was modeled after the mask of a sick friend, Dutch composer Bernard Van Dieren. In his friend's suffering, Epstein recognized the suffering of Christ. Stylistically, the elongated, even emaciated body of Christ reveals an influence of Romanesque portal sculpture. By pointing a finger toward the stigma on his palm, he brings the viewer's attention to the idea of suffering. Neither his face, nor his body, bears any emotion. The Christ depicted here could be any human being. In a metaphorical way, the "Risen" Christ here "rises" against the cruelty of war. While the concept of the Risen Christ certainly creates a friction with the Jewish tradition, it can be viewed within the larger phenomenon of Jewish modernism, a movement particularly strong in Poland and parts of the Russian Empire. Members of this movement perceived Judaism as part of a broader spirituality, and oftentimes were inspired by the tribal cultures of Africa and Hasidism. The movement spread not only to art, but also to literature and other forms of creativity. The movement indicated a new beginning for the Jewish-Christian dialogue, however, it was brought to an abrupt end by the rise of Nazism.

Bronze - National Galleries of Scotland



Described as the "strangest and most disturbing of all his works", it is perhaps one of the most controversial of Epstein's non-commissioned carvings and probably the most misunderstood. Carved in marble, Genesis portrays a heavily pregnant woman with exaggerated thighs, hands and stomach, with a face reminiscent of an African mask. In his Autobiography (1940), Epstein explains: "I felt the necessity for giving expression to the profoundly elemental in motherhood, the deep down instinctive female, without the trappings and charm of what is known as feminine; my feminine would be the eternal primeval feminine, the mother of the race. [...] She is serene and majestic, an elemental force of nature. How a figure like this contrasts with our coquetries and fanciful erotic nudes of modern sculpture". The work was criticized for combining two disparate qualities - nobility and ugliness, some critics calling it a "blasphemy in stone". Other critics were supportive, emphasizing the sublime quality of the Genesis, and the idea that the power of a work of art cannot be explained in words. It was also seen as a piece emphasizing humanity and demonstrating the shared background of all races.

Interestingly, the photograph of the sculpture, with Epstein standing alongside, appeared in the book Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew; Munich, 1937), a collection of photographs of art objects labeled by the Nazis as "degenerate art". In this example of vicious anti-semitic propaganda, Epstein was accused of turning to "primitive, Neanderthalic art".

Marble - Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester


Albert Einstein

Einstein is the roughest and most impressionistic of all Epstein's portraits. In it, the intense contrasts of dark and light and the deeply broken surface, in which every fragment of clay is distinctly visible, results in a sculptural impasto. Epstein stated he wished the bust to capture Einstein's sense of humor and wild hair, as well as his deep commitment to humanism. Of the bust, Epstein remarked, in a comment which captures his thinking about portrait sculpting, "it is the rough surface which gives both character and likeness to the face."

On September 11th, 1933, The Times reported that Einstein had arrived in the United Kingdom as a refugee, escaping persecution from the Nazis. He was placed in a secret refugee camp. It was during this short time that Epstein modeled Einstein's portrait. Einstein entertained the sculptor by playing the piano or violin during breaks in the sitting.

Bronze - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Oscar Wilde's Tomb

In 1908, Charles Holden, a British architect and a long-time fan of Epstein's work, commissioned him to create a tomb for Oscar Wilde. The figure of a flying "demon-angel" was carved on three sides of a rectangular block, stylistically resembling Assyrian monumental sculpture. Created at the time when Epstein was deeply interested in sexual aspects of Indian and Near Eastern Art, the tomb could be read as a complex message regarding Wilde's sexuality. Following the principles of Direct Carving, he skillfully displays the tension between the curving rhythm of the hard surface and sheer mass of the stone.

The tomb has become a pilgrimage site for fans of the writer, and for those looking to honor his contribution to gay rights. In 2011, his tomb had to be fenced off, to protect it from the tradition of people wearing lipstick kissing it, and leaving red lip marks all over the marble. The tomb has long been a source of scandal and sensationalism. When it was unveiled in 1912, French authorities covered its genital region with a carved bronze butterfly. Epstein was furious that his work was altered, but other artists adventurously responded to his anger. The British poet and occultist Aleister Crowley approached Epstein in a Paris café one morning, with the bronze butterfly on a necklace, and informed Epstein his work was now free! The genitals of the sculpture went missing in the 1960's. Eventually, in 2000, multimedia artist Leon Johnson installed a replacement made of silver.

Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise, Paris, France

Biography of Jacob Epstein

Childhood and Education

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.

Mature Period

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

Later Period

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.

Influences and Connections

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Jacob Epstein
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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Jacob Epstein Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 11 Dec 2015. Updated and modified regularly
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