Jacob Epstein was an American-born British sculptor who helped pioneer modern sculpture. He produced controversial works which challenged taboos on what was appropriate subject matter for public artworks.
Epstein's parents were Polish Jewish refugees, living on New York's Lower East Side. His interest in drawing came from long periods of illness. He studied art in his native New York as a teenager, sketching the city, and joined the Art Students League of New York in 1900. For his livelihood, he worked in a bronze foundry by day, studying drawing and sculptural modeling at night. Epstein's first major commission was to illustrate Hutchins Hapgood's Spirit of the Ghetto. The money from the commission was used by Epstein to move to Paris.
Moving to Europe in 1902, he studied in Paris at the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts. He settled in London in 1905 and married Margaret Dunlop in 1906. He served briefly in the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers aka the Jewish Legion during World War I. In London, Epstein involved himself with a bohemian and artistic crowd. 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 his audience. This was not only a result of their (often explicit) sexual content, but also because they deliberately 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, West Africa, and the Pacific Islands. Such factors may have focused disproportionate attention on certain aspects of Epstein's long and productive career.
London was not ready for Epstein's first major commission : 18 large nude sculptures made in 1908 were initially considered shocking to Edwardian sensibilities, again mainly due to the perception that they were over-explicit sexually. In art-historical terms, the sculptures were controversial because they represented Epstein's first thoroughgoing attempt to break away from traditional European iconography in favour of elements derived from an alternative sculptural milieu. One of the most famous of Epstein's early commissions is the tomb of Oscar Wilde in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, "which was condemned as indecent and at one point was covered in tarpaulin by the French police."
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. 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 from where he lived. Epstein was Jewish, and negative reviews of his work sometimes took on an antisemitic flavor, though he did not attribute the "average unfavorable criticism" of his work to antisemitism. Epstein met Albert Einstein in 1933 and had three sittings for a bust. He remembered his meeting with Einstein as, "His glance contained a mixture of the humane, the humorous and the profound. This was a combination which delighted me. He resembled the ageing Rembrandt."
Despite being married to and continuing to live with Margaret, Epstein had a number of relationships with other women that brought him five children. Margaret generally tolerated these relationships except one Kathleen Garman, and in 1923 Margaret wounded Kathleen in the shoulder." Margaret died in 1947 and he married Kathleen Garman in 1955. Epstein died 21 August 1959 in London. His art is displayed all over the world; highly original for its time, its influence on the younger generation of sculptors such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth was significant.