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Jacques Lipchitz

American (born Lithuania), 1891 - 1973

View Objects By Jacques Lipchitz >>

One of the most acclaimed and innovative sculptors of the twentieth century, Jacques Lipchitz was born in 1891 in Druskieniki, Lithuania. He arrived in Paris in 1909 at the age of 18, where he trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian. He is perhaps best known for the Cubist work he made there over the next several years.

When the Nazis invaded France in May 1940, Lipchitz and his first wife, Berthe, fled Paris and settled in Toulouse, a city in southern France, ultimately arriving in New York in 1941. The artist eventually settled in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, where he worked in a purpose-built studio until his death in 1973.

Experiments with Cubism

1914 witnessed an important transition in Lipchitz's career, in which the vestiges of his academic training began to give way to the influence of the Cubist painters-Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Diego Rivera among them-with whom he was becoming friends. The "proto-cubist" Sailor with Guitar, for example, still retains a degree of realism, as it was based on Lipchitz's direct observation of a young Spanish sailor attempting to charm a pretty girl by dancing and playing his guitar. The combined frontal and profile views of the woman's body and face in Woman with Braid further suggest the artist's interest in both Cubism and non-Western art forms, such as Egyptian relief sculpture.

In 1915, at the pinnacle of his experimentation with Cubism, Lipchitz made Half Standing Figure-a work that reduced the human figure to a set of streamlined, interlocking planes. He defined this period in his art as "the epoch of cathedrals," and compared this upward-reaching piece to the soaring heights of Gothic architecture. The vertical layering of forms and planes gives Half Standing Figure a clarity that the artist would strive to retain in his subsequent sculptures, whose more clearly legible human subjects show a distinct shift away from the architectural structure of this work.

Lipchitz became close friends with the Cubist painter Juan Gris the following year. Their intense and fruitful discussions of art, science, and poetry brought about a profound change in their respective work, and in the late autumn of 1917, Lipchitz helped Gris with Harlequin, the Spanish artist's only serious attempt at sculpture. Although Lipchitz later claimed that he only assisted with technical problems associated with the making of Harlequin, the figure nonetheless owes a substantial debt to Lipchitz's own works of the same year.

The Barnes Foundation

Though he was born in Lithuania and worked for many years in Paris, Lipchitz proudly described himself as Philadelphia's "chosen son." His involvement with the city spanned more than half a century, beginning in 1922, when Dr. Albert C. Barnes commissioned him to execute seven limestone reliefs for the Barnes Foundation building in nearby Merion, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Barnes assembled one of the world's great collections of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century French art, including paintings by Paul Cézanne, Auguste Renoir, Henri Rousseau, and Henri Matisse. He had been largely unmoved by the works of Cubist artists until he met with Jacques Lipchitz in 1922, when the two men were introduced by Paul Guillaume, an art dealer with whom Dr. Barnes visited the sculptor's Paris studio. Although he had come specifically to see Lipchitz's prized African and Oceanic artifacts, the wealthy collector was so impressed by the artist's Cubist sculptures that he purchased eight pieces on the spot.

They met again the following day, and this time Dr. Barnes offered Lipchitz a commission to design seven bas-relief carvings for the exterior of his art gallery and home, designed by Paul Cret and then under construction. Lipchitz initially refused, believing that his Cubist sculpture would clash with the building's classic, French Renaissance-influenced architecture. In the end, however, he was won over by Dr. Barnes's offer of complete artistic freedom and his argument that the mix of styles would create a visually striking effect. Indeed, the Philadelphia collector gleefully stated at the time, "When the public see those Lipchitz carvings right on the outside of the building they will say I am not only a radical but a Bolshevist."

Ultimately, the Barnes Foundation commission brought international fame and recognition to Lipchitz at a time when he was tiring of the formal restrictions imposed by the Cubist idiom.

Religious and Mythological Themes

In the early 1930s Lipchitz began to express his concerns about the unchecked rise of Fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe through sculptures that utilized Judeo-Christian and mythological themes. Figures from the Old Testament, including Hagar and Isaac, as well as characters from Greek myth, such as Prometheus and Theseus, took on a contemporary significance for the artist after the National Socialist Party seized power in Germany. As a defiant and outspoken opponent of Adolf Hitler's racist and nationalist dogma, the Jewish artist was increasingly persecuted for the political content of his art.

Rescue of the Child was one of the first sculptures that dealt with Lipchitz's fear of war, violence, and the end of democracy. In this work, a man struggles to free his wife and child from encroaching serpents. The presence of these writhing snakes reflects the dangers lurking in Europe at the time, including the mounting menace of anti-Semitism and the inability of the individual to escape.

When the Nazis invaded France in May 1940, Lipchitz fled Paris and settled in Toulouse. Flight, the only surviving sculpture from his stay there, shows a man and woman running, reflecting the artist's emotional state at the time. Lipchitz made Arrival, a companion piece to Flight, soon after he arrived in New York in June 1941. The image of a mother holding a child aloft, in a gesture of triumph and euphoria, expressed the artist's jubilation at having reached the safety of the United States. He offered this work as an ecstatic prayer of thanks for having been spared the dreadful fate of so many of his friends and relatives.

In New York, Lipchitz continued to make allegorical works that reflected the terrible human suffering he had seen in Europe. Through these anguished sculptures, the artist conveyed his own emotional suffering during wartime: his feeling of helplessness, his fears for the family and friends he left behind in Europe, and his desire for a crushing defeat of the Nazis by the Allies. Mother and Child, for example, depicts a legless woman raising her arms in pitiful supplication (a Christian prayer gesture called the orans) as her baby desperately clings to her neck. 1943's The Prayer shows an aged, broken man draped in a prayer shawl, holding a rooster (reminiscent of the ancient Jewish atonement ritual known as kapparot) and a flame-engulfed book inscribed with the Kol Nidre, a Jewish prayer of atonement. The artist later recalled that he had cried throughout the making of this emotional work, which was his heartfelt prayer for the innocent victims of Hitler's atrocities.

Lipchitz returned to the theme of sacrifice in two bronze studies (First Study for Sacrifice and Second Study for Sacrifice), works that depict a hooded man carrying out the same ritual slaughter of a rooster that Lipchitz explored four years earlier in The Prayer. The mood of these sculptures is heavy and dark, as the man stabs the bird with a brutal force that is both inconsistent with the ancient practice of slitting the bird's throat and far removed from the suffering evident in The Prayer. Lipchitz related Sacrifice to the birth of the state of Israel in 1948 and to his continuing feelings of anger at the Holocaust and the escalating violence in the Middle East.

Study for Hagar: Maquette No. 1 recounts the biblical story of Hagar, a young Egyptian maidservant who was dismissed from Abraham's household by his wife, Sarah, and forced to wander the desert with her son, Ishmael. Although an angel eventually rescued the mother and child, Lipchitz chose to focus on their despair rather than celebrate their survival. The artist related Hagar's plight to the long-standing conflict between the Arabs and the Jews, the Arabs being the traditional descendants of Ishmael and the Jews the descendants of Abraham's other son, Issac. Lipchitz offered the work as a prayer for future peace between the two peoples.

Prometheus Strangling the Vulture and R. Sturgis Ingersoll

The Greek myth of Prometheus became Lipchitz's dominant theme in the years leading up to World War II. The son of a Titan, Prometheus was condemned by Zeus to eternal torment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to the first humans. His punishment was to be chained to a rocky cliff, where a giant vulture plucked at his liver, which regenerated nightly. The fire-bearing hero was eventually freed by Hercules and was hailed by the ancient Greeks as the benefactor of mankind and the father of the arts and sciences. For Lipchitz, Prometheus signified the ideal of heroic spiritual suffering and the eventual triumph of good over evil.

One of the earliest versions of Lipchitz's beloved theme was developed for his ill-fated commission to decorate the Palace of Discovery and Invention at the 1937 World's Fair in Paris. This gigantic plaster sculpture was destroyed shortly after the close of the fair by right-wing sympathizers who correctly intuited that Lipchitz had invoked the Prometheus myth as a political allegory to address the imminent threat posed by Hitler's anti-Semitic and expansionist policies. That Lipchitz had intended the work to represent the forces of democracy vanquishing the vulture of Nazi Germany is clear from his placement of a Phrygian cap, an ancient symbol of liberty, on his hero's head.

Undaunted by this violent opposition, Lipchitz reprised the Prometheus theme in other commissions, such as the bronze sculpture he made for the Ministry of Education and Health Building in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The artist created a large number of studies for this 1943 commission, including a large-scale plaster version that was exhibited at the 147th Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1952.

That same year, however, a devastating fire gutted the sculptor's studio in Washington Square, New York, destroying much of the work he had made since his arrival in the United States. The event caused R. Sturgis Ingersoll, President of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1948 to 1963, to move swiftly to acquire the massive plaster sculpture. The $25,000 purchase represented the Museum's largest payment to date for a work of art by a living sculptor, and, as Ingersoll recalled, it "set Jacques spiritually and materially on his feet." Lipchitz later cast the work in bronze, exchanging it for the original plaster, and today Prometheus Strangling the Vulture is permanently installed on the steps of the Museum's East Entrance, facing the Philadelphia skyline.

Through Ingersoll, Lipchitz developed a special connection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The two men had met in 1942 and soon became fast friends, with Ingersoll eventually replacing Dr. Barnes as the artist's foremost patron and collector. As Lipchitz later explained, Ingersoll's friendship, support, and encouragement helped to convince him that he could repeat the success of his Paris years in the United States. He commemorated their friendship in a striking bronze portrait, which was commissioned by the trustees and staff of the Philadelphia Museum of Art upon Ingersoll's retirement as president of the Museum's board.

Public Monuments

During the last three decades of his life Lipchitz was a frequent visitor to Philadelphia, where he worked on two major public commissions that would become a significant part of the city's history of outdoor sculpture.

In 1950 Philadelphia's Fairmount Park Art Association asked the artist to create a large bronze sculpture on the theme of "constructive enterprise," which would embody "the vigor, the power of harnessed nature, or the strength of men harnessing nature and making it conform to their uses and desires. The physical power of men, their imaginative dreams, the surge of their material expansion, the skill of craftsmanship, the power of labor."

The theme of American enterprise inspired Lipchitz to propose a triumphant explorer of the New World, who peers into the distance with one hand shading his forehead as if surveying the land of opportunity ahead. In his left hand, he carries a caduceus, the winged staff with entwined serpents that is the symbol of Mercury, the Roman god of commerce and transportation. A great eagle, perched on a stump, guides him in his quest, a reference to the westward journeys of the pioneer settlers as they crossed the plains and mountains in search of a new life.

The Spirit of Enterprise has a resolutely optimistic message. A symbol of unchained motivation and unfettered ideals, the sculpture stands in stark contrast to Lipchitz's earlier portrayal of Prometheus locked in combat with a ferocious vulture, reflecting the changing political situation and the artist's growing identification with the patriotic values of his adopted country. The Spirit of Enterprise can be seen in Fairmount Park, installed on Kelly Drive at Girard Avenue, the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial Sculpture Garden.

Lipchitz's last public commission in the United States, Government of the People, is installed at the Municipal Services Building Plaza opposite City Hall (Municipal Services Broad Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard). It follows an intricate, three-tiered structure: a family group of father, mother, and child entwine at the base, while a man and a woman turn in a spiral motion at the center of the composition as they hold aloft a cloudlike formation of reclining nudes at the top. The work's title suggests the themes of civic pride and good government, but the sculpture also embodies Lipchitz's view of humanity's struggle to make a better world through mutual support and dedication.

Government of the People was Lipchitz's most controversial public commission in the United States. In 1972, Philadelphia Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, dissatisfied with the work, abandoned funding for it. Lipchitz was extremely surprised and disappointed by the controversy. The artist's great friend R. Sturgis Ingersoll immediately came to his defense, and fortunately, the Fairmount Park Art Association stepped in to ensure the sculpture would be installed for the nation's Bicentennial in 1976, three years after the artist's death.

Jacques Lipchitz died on May 26, 1973 in Capri, and was buried in Jerusalem, a place he regarded as his spiritual home.

Jacques Lipchitz and Philadelphia, 2004

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