Queen Nefertiti is fabled as one of the most beautiful women of antiquity. She was the Great Royal Wife of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten. Artwork produced during this time is one way of illuminating the queen’s social status; the abundance of busts, masks and statues depicting her appear to indicate that she was almost as influential as her husband. One particular statue of Nefertiti is internationally recognised as an icon of ancient Egypt.
Akhenaten reigned during the Amarna period of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. This historic period is surrounded by religious controversy because the royal family converted from a polytheistic to a monotheistic religion, ceasing to worship the traditional Egyptian gods in favour of one god: the sun disk, Aten.
This piece held great sentimental value for Epstein, who was deeply attached to it. It is claimed that he would turn it repetitively in the light, capturing the multi-faceted gestures of the alleged Egyptian Queen. This permits us a glimpse at the exclusive relationship between the art collector and his prized hoard. He believed that this mask was the original model for the stone portrait of Nefertiti now in Berlin, although there is no evidence to support this theory. Upon comparing photographs of The Berlin model with his own, he concluded that his own was superior.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence to confirm that this is Queen Nefertiti herself, although if it is not her it surely is the face of a beautiful lady who at least would have been at court with her.
Epstein found Sunita’s Indian looks irresistible, and was transfixed by her ‘eternal Oriental quality’ which inspired him to make a Madonna of her. This is characteristic of Epstein’s work during the 1920s, whereby he often used portraiture as a vehicle for studies of feeling and experience which transcended individual identity. Even in isolation from the full-figures, the Heads have a compelling and deeply moving spiritual quality. Both mother and son appear pensive, lost in their own thoughts; as the boy gazes upwards, his mother looks down, perhaps contemplating her son’s future. Contemporaries condemned the sculpture as deliberately ugly. Epstein was astonished and refuted such undue criticism, he said; ‘I try to express the character of what I am depicting…the spiritual elements that you see in my Madonna and Child results no doubt from the fact that throughout the work I knew that my subject was not just an ordinary mother and child.’ Epstein wished for his work to be considered as interesting human beings, and, as interesting sculptures.
Esther Garman was Epstein’s youngest daughter with Kathleen. As a child, she lived with her mother’s former nanny in Walsall and developed a strong West Midlands accent. As a teenager, Esther and her sister Kitty spent more time in London with their mother, enjoying jaunts to the theatre and art galleries. She had a long but emotionally strained relationship with Mark Joffe, whose son she raised as her own. Tragically, Esther took her own life in 1954, the same year that her elder brother Theo died.
Epstein said of his First Portrait of Esther: ‘If I had to be judged by one work, I should choose this. It has all the qualities I most admire in sculpture. I could not have done it better.’ Aged fifteen, Esther is presented as mysterious and brooding. Her head is thrust forward, which, in combination with the exaggerated pout of her lips and deep set eyes, lends her the air of a defiant teenager who does not want to sit for a portrait by her father. The exaggerated length of her neck and strong diagonal which is emphasised by her stylized, swept-back hair, is reminiscent of portraits of Egyptian princesses, reflecting Epstein’s passion for Egyptian art.