THE FIRST BOOK ever written about Epstein ( Jacob Epstein by Bernard Van Dieren, London, 1920), started with the rather pessimistic statement: "The world does not forgive talent." In its way, this statement may be true enough, but its validity hardly applies to the career of Jacob Epstein.
There has been no dearth of excitement over Epstein's sculpture. Almost all of his major works have been greeted with considerable publicity and comment, and not all of it was, by any means, adverse comment. Twenty years ago there may have been good and sufficient reason for Van Dieren's attitude, but today quite a different feeling is in order.
Epstein has taken his position as one of the great figures of contemporary art. His work, acclaimed and recognized, has been placed in our most important museums. And there are few who question its right to be there.
Epstein has devoted his life to the pursuit of his art. The fascination in tracing out the facts and incidents of his living is the fascination of watching a great talent slowly expand until it reaches its fruition in a fine artist.
Jacob Epstein was born and brought up on the lower East Side of New York. Though known as an English artist, for he has lived for many years in London, Epstein spent his first twenty-two years in and about Hester Street.
Even now, he is fond of recalling the old East Side days, from 1880 to 1902. There was fascination for him in the vivid swarms of people who crowded the streets. He began drawing earlier than he can now remember, and there was always the adventure of finding a new type or a new race. These people were Poles, Greeks, Russians, Germans, and Chinese--the East Side was nothing if not cosmopolitan.
To his Polish-Jewish parents, Epstein was a "different" child. True, he liked to swim off the East River docks with the other boys; but he also spent much time alone, preoccupied with reading, drawing, and later with sculpture. His folks were puzzled over this development, and as he grew closer to manhood, they warned him that he would never be able to make a living "out of such business".
The Epsteins were not poor, and as Jacob grew up, so apparently did the family fortunes. But when the family moved "uptown", to a "nicer" neighborhood, Jacob remained. He was much too interested in the life and color of the East Side, to give it up for the sake of more prosaic, if more genteel surroundings.