Head held high, the charisma, strength and dignity of Paul Robeson are beautifully captured in this expressive sculpture. This bronze bust of the civil rights campaigner and polymath was produced by the British-American sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein after a visit to New York in 1927, and is one of the most loved sculptures in York Art Gallery's collection.
Epstein was a pioneering sculptor, and Robeson was an internationally successful actor who would soon star in the 1936 film of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's musical Show Boat, featuring his famous emotive rendition of the song Ol' Man River.
This bust is one of numerous portraits of notable public figures produced by Epstein in the 1920s and 1930s. The two men struck up a friendship, presumably based on shared values, their lived experience of racism and discrimination (Epstein was the son of Polish-Jewish refugees and Robeson's father was born into slavery), and music. They would visit the dance halls of Harlem together, and, during the sitting, Robeson sang lullabies to Epstein's daughter, Peggy Jean.
To pick just one achievement to focus on would do Robeson a disservice. He was a man of many talents and with an acute social conscience. Having graduated from Columbia Law School – which he funded by playing and coaching professionally in the National Football League and performing in concerts – Robeson found the racism he encountered in the world of law untenable, so renounced that career in favour of one on the stage.
In the late 1930s, he became politically active in the fight against fascism and for civil rights. He refused to play to segregated audiences and turned down roles that perpetuated racial stereotypes. His sympathies for the Soviet Union led to him being blacklisted in the McCarthy era and denied a passport to prevent him from communicating his 'un-American' views internationally.
The bust can usually be found in York Art Gallery's first-floor collections gallery. To aid accessibility, especially for visitors with visual impairments, we coat our bronze sculptures with a special conservation wax and in normal times we encourage visitors to feel the cool bronze and to trace the marks made by the artist.
Jenny Alexander, Associate Collections Curator, York Art Gallery