Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait bust of Albert Einstein (1879-1955) 

Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959)

Portrait bust of Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Sir Jacob Epstein
20th Century
20 ¼ in. (52 cm.) high
Obelisk Gallery, London 1955; Bought from the above by Mrs C. M. Spafford; Thence by descent until 2016
E. Silber, The Sculpture of Epstein, 1986, p. 174, Cat. 234, no.9
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This bust of Albert Einstein is regarded by many to have been one of Jacob Epstein’s greatest portraits. Although Epstein did not number editions, the one at hand has the rare distinction of being fully documented and can be shown to have been created and sold within the artist’s lifetime.

Einstein sat for Epstein in September of 1933, a year that was pivotal in the life of the scientist. Hitler had come to power in January of the same year, a development that caused Einstein to renounce both his German citizenship and membership of the Prussian Academy. Einstein spent the majority of his time at Le Coq, Belgium, near to Ostend, from where he made two visits to England. During the first of these, he met the charismatic journalist-cum-politician Oliver Locker-Lampson (the son of the Victorian poet Frederick Locker-Lampson). When in England Locker-Lampson introduced Einstein to Prime Ministers former and future, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill; the latter made a great impression on Einstein, who lauded him as an “eminently wise man”.

It was under Locker-Lampson’s hospitality that Einstein sat for sculptor Jacob Epstein during his second visit to England. As a fellow Jew, Einstein’s plight was bound to have resonated with Epstein. Fears on the part of Einstein’s wife Elsa that Nazi threats to assassinate the scientist would materialise caused Locker-Lampson to insist that the scientist would stay under guard at his secluded beach-hut in Cromer, Norfolk. When there, Einstein was kept under watch by an eccentric coterie of guardians, which numbered two female secretaries, two detectives, and one rifle-wielding farmhand.

Epstein was later to recount the claustrophobic circumstances in which the commission was executed in entertaining detail. In his autobiography, the sculptor describes how the sittings “took place in a small hut, which was filled with a piano” that barely left space to move. He proceeds to recollect how he “worked for two hours every morning, and at the first sitting the Professor was so surrounded with tobacco smoke from his pipe that I saw nothing. At the second sitting, I asked him to smoke in the interval”. For Epstein, it was the qualities of Einstein’s glance, which “contained a mixture of the humane, the humorous, and the profound” that particularly delighted him. Epstein notes that the scientist “resembled the ageing Rembrandt”.

It would seem that the sculptor deliberately sought to play up to these qualities in the bust at hand. Elsewhere, Epstein praises the sculptural qualities of Rembrandt’s self-portrait in the National Gallery, qualities that Epstein translates to the bust’s surface. The bronze is worked to produce a kind of sculptural impasto effect that is redolent of Rembrandt’s late portraits. Epstein was never again to work with such sculptural freedom and energy, which draws out both the humane intelligence of the sitter’s face and the “wild hair floating in the wind” by which the scientist was to become popularly known. Einstein’s journey to London to deliver a landmark anti-Nazi address to a packed Royal Albert Hall cut his sittings with Epstein short; despite this, the sculptor’s biographers are unanimous in their praise for this captivating and unforgettable likeness of one of the great men of the twentieth-century. With both sculptor and subject at the height of their powers, this bust represents a truly remarkable meeting of minds and forges an unprecedented image of scientific genius in twentieth century European iconography.

Evelyn Silber, in her seminal monograph ‘The Sculpture of Epstein’, lists twenty three casts of the Einstein bust offered for sale within Epstein’s lifetime. None of the Einstein busts are numbered, so it is quite possible that multiple entries relate to the same bust, and the total size of the edition is therefore probably much lower. Given that Epstein’s wife often recast sculptures after his death, unbroken provenance dating back to the Epstein’s lifetime, such as that seen here, is of paramount importance.
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