Jacob Epstein was born at 102 Hester Streetin New York on November 10th 1880. He was the third child of Max and Mary Solomon Epstein. His parents had emigrated from Poland to escape persecution and pogroms, and his father became a successful tailor and property investor in America. Epstein was seriously ill with pleurisy for several years as a child, and spent much of his time reading and drawing. In his autobiography he states that he could not recall a time when he did not draw, and that he was able to neglect the studies he hated at school (mathematics and grammar) because his teachers were proud of his drawing ability.In 1894 Epstein joined the Art Student’s League of New York. He worked in a bronze foundry during the day and studied drawing and sculpture at night. Two years later he moved to Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts. He settled permanently in England in 1905, and married a Scottish woman – Margaret Dunlop – in 1907.
Epstein received his first major public commission in 1908. The commission was for the decoration of the new British Medical Association Building in the Strand. Epstein carved 18 larger than life size figures in varying stages of nudity. The figures caused a public outcry and Epstein became notorious. As a consequence of this notoriety Epstein was only offered three large public commissions during the next thirty years. The most famous of these is the tomb of Oscar Wilde in Pere Lachaise cemetery, which was condemned as indecent and at one point was covered in tarpaulin by the French police.
In spite of this infamy Epstein received a steady stream of commissions for bronze portraits, and exhibited watercolours, portrait drawings and life studies at the Leicester Galleries. He also produced numerous large stone carvings such as “Genesis” (1930) and “Lazarus” (1947), many of which returned to his studios unsold after exhibition.
In 1921 Epstein met Kathleen Garman, who became his mistress and later his second wife. In 1927 he moved back to America temporarily, but returned to England the following year.
In 1949, when Epstein was sixty nine, he began to receive public commissions again. Margaret Epstein died the same year. He was knighted in 1954, and Kathleen Garman became Lady Epstein when they married in June 1955.
Epstein died of a heart attack in August 1959.