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Jacob Epstein, 1880 - 1959
Albert Einstein, 1933
Bronze
M.7-1933

If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor.

When he reputedly said this, the great Austrian physicist Albert Einstein was referring to his own notorious scruffiness. The observation could apply just as well, however, to this portrait of him by his contemporary, Jacob Epstein. Rough and unpolished as it may be, the viewer is nevertheless persuaded that the subject is being presented in a truthful way.

Detail
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Compared to Antoine Chaudet’s similar sized head of Napoleon Bonaparte made in 1808, left [M.1-1866], with its smooth, glossy finish and idealized features, Epstein’s work does indeed lack conventional elegance. There is none of the dignified distance between viewer and subject, none of the classical hauteur, that characterized so much portrait sculpture in the 18th and 19th centuries. Instead there is a strong and immediate sense of character, of psychological truth. Epstein said of his sitter here, “his glance contained a mixture of the humane, the humorous and the profound,” and these are qualities superbly bought out in the bronze.

Detail
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If one were unfamiliar with Einstein’s face, with his drooping eyelids, melancholy eyes, wild hair and unkempt moustache, one would not perhaps immediately identify him as an eminent scientist. His appearance contrasts sharply, for instance, with the bust of Sir Isaac Newton seen in the background of a portrait by William Hogarth from the late 1730s, left [648]. There the great mathematician looks out beyond the viewer, his serious brow and loose fitting garments recalling the Emperors of Ancient Rome.

Detail
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Epstein said of Einstein, "he resembled the ageing Rembrandt," and looking at the great Dutch artist’s Self-portrait drawing at a window, in the Fitzwilliam, left [AD.12.39-1], we can recognise the same likeabe mixture of humility and deep intelligence, the same rather shabby charisma. There is also a striking similarity between this bronze and the image of Terminus on the reverse of a medal designed for the great Renaissance philosopher, Erasmus of Rotterdam, right [CM.28-1979].

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Epstein’s sculpture is as affably informal as Albert Einstein himself is reputed to have been: genius has here been humanized. This is the Nobel Prize winner, the revered academic who, when asked to explain his groundbreaking Theory of Relativity, reportedly said: “Put your hand on a stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

But it is also the man who had only a few months earlier been forced to flee Berlin where he had been Director of Theoretical Physics at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Hitler had come to power in January 1933, the Nazis had condemned Einstein’s ‘Jewish physics,’ and he had left Germany in fear of his life, a bounty of 1000 guineas on his head. He eventually ended up with a Professorship at Princeton in America, but before leaving Europe he spent time in Norfolk at the invitation of the Conservative MP and ally of Winston Churchill, Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson. And at Roughton Heath near Cromer on the North Sea coast, in a beach hut containing a piano, Einstein smoked his pipe and chatted as Epstein, a fellow Jew, modelled his head in clay. It has been suggested that the American born sculptor was instrumental in persuading the scientist to speak out publicly against Hitler.

Epstein is said to have regretted not being able to work for longer on the sculpture before his subject left England. But one wonders how much more he would have really done. He was criticised in his lifetime for the unfinished look of his portrait bronzes, and what he said in his defence is eminently true of this work: “It is the rough surface which gives both character and likeness to the face...


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