Epstein was born at 102 Hester Street, New York, on 10 November 1880. He was the third child of Max and Mary Solomon Epstein.
Mary and Max had another five surviving children after Jacob’s birth, but Jacob was isolated from family life when he contracted pleurisy aged around six and was ill for two years. During this period he read and drew constantly. This early talent for drawing resulted in an art competition prize at the Cooper Union in 1891. He began to study at the Art Student’s League in 1893, where he drew from models and painted. However, his main source of inspiration remained Hester Street.
Hester Street was at the centre of New York’s Lower East Side Jewish community. The street consisted of crowded tenement buildings and open air market stalls; Epstein was fascinated by the mass of people moving beneath his window and would select individuals to follow and draw. When the Epstein family moved to Madison Avenue in 1899 Epstein remained in Hester Street, in a rented room. To support himself, he worked as a physical education instructor and a tenement inspector. He also began to sell his drawings.
Epstein’s decision to turn to sculpture was made during a winter spent in a small cabin on the shores of Greenwood Lake with his friend Bernard Gussow, a Russian artist. Epstein felt that he could give greater reality to his drawings by studying sculpture, and when he returned from Greenwood Lake he went to work at a bronze casting foundry and in 1901 enrolled for evening modelling classes at the Art Student’s League. In the same year he received a commission to illustrate Hutchins Hapgood’s The Spirit of The Ghetto. His growing interest in sculpture led to his decision to go to Europe; there were limited opportunities for him to study in New York and he wanted to see originals of Michelangelo and Donatello. He used the money from the Hapgood commission to book a passage to Paris.
Little of Epstein’s work from this period survives, as a fire destroyed his Hester Street studio in 1902. Extant sketches include his Self Portrait of 1901, The Sweat Shop or Lunch in the Shop and Men with Mice and Birds or Fortune Telling with Rats.