Jacob Epstein Biography

Jacob Epstein




Sculptor, painter, and illustrator Jacob Epstein was born on November 10, 1880 in Lower East Side Manhattan, to Orthodox Jewish parents who had emigrated from Poland. Pleurisy in childhood kept him from attending middle and high school with any regularity, and he dropped out, opting instead to take courses at the Arts Students League as his health allowed. He would sell drawings and take on illustration commissions to support his art pursuits, and also worked for his father's tenements as an inspector, and then at a bronze foundry. His first professional commission was as illustrator of the book The Spirit of the Ghetto by Hutchins Hapgood in 1902. This afforded him the opportunity to go abroad, and he left for Paris in September of that year.

Settling in Montparnasse, Epstein studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts from his arrival until March of 1903, then at Academie Julian through 1904. As with many artists, he would visit various museums to study art works he admired; among these were non-European sculptures from throughout the world, including China, India, and Southeast Asia. He was encouraged by his friend and future wife Margaret Dunlop, an associate of Auguste Rodin, to visit the British Museum in London. This turned out to be a prophetic suggestion as he ended up moving to London in 1905, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1910 and only returning to the U.S. once, in 1927.

Epstein took little time in establishing himself as a sculptor of note upon his arrival. In 1908 and again in 1913 he had been commissioned to create two major works that brought him public attention: the facade for Charles Holden's newly constructed British Medical Association building in London, which highlighted Epstein's unique, East Asian-inspired style, a departure from the Classical Greek that many artists still stuck to; and, in 1913, the tomb for Oscar Wilde in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Both proved to be controversial due to their inclusion of nudity - even if not erotic - and were threatened by campaigns to remove them; neither campaign succeeded.

From the Metropolitan Museum of Art: "While in London, Epstein cultivated an interest in ancient Egyptian and Assyrian art, spurred by his visits to the British Museum. While studying in Paris, Epstein expanded his interest to the arts of Africa and Oceania, which he saw in the collections of artists in Montmartre, the dealers Joseph Brummer and Paul Guillaume, and at the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro. He became a devoted collector during the interwar period, known for his reckless bidding at auctions... He quickly affiliated himself with Wyndham Lewis and other artists interested in Cubism, as well as the philosopher T. E. Hulme and the poet Ezra Pound. ...he cofounded the London Group, an artist cooperative that offered exhibition venues to avant-garde artists in the United Kingdom, including members of the Camden Town Group (Harold Gilman, Sylvia Gosse, Wyndham Lewis), Bloomsbury Group (Clive Bell, Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant), and the Vorticists (Malcolm Arbuthnot, Jessica Stewart Dismorr, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, William Roberts, Helen Saunders). Epstein exhibited his famous [Vorticist] work The Rock Drill in the London Group’s inaugural show at the Goupil Gallery in 1915. Years later, he would disavow the sculpture, which included the found object of its title, as part of a larger rejection of technology by artists following the First World War, and transform it into Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill' (Tate Modern, London)."

Now a British citizen, Epstein was conscripted for combat duty in the British Armed Forces -- as part of the Jewish Legion of the Royal Fusilliers -- in 1917. After a mental breakdown precipitated by scheduled deployment to the Middle East, he was hospitalized and then dishonorably discharged. He continued working and exhibiting, as well as broadening his collection of the work of European artists. He was commissioned to create several more monuments, often controversial, throughout the 1920s and into the '30s until a Dutch art firm commissioned a series of floral still lifes. Never considering himself a painter until then, he nevertheless delved into the project and found himself greatly inspired. After completing the series of twenty pieces for the art firm, he spent the next several years focusing on painting florals, abandoning most other mediums. The advent of the Second World War ended this project, however, and Epstein undertook several commissions for the War Artists' Advisory Committee.

The 1950s saw renewed interest in his work and he was commissioned to create various religious and memorial works throughout London. In 1953, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford, and in 1954 he was knighted by the Queen of England. Two years later, he received his last public commission for the Trades Union Congress headquarters in London. He died on August 21, 1958, at his Hyde Park Gate home. His collection of nearly 350 African and Oceanic artworks was sold at auction by the Arts Council of Great Britain following his death.