Esphyr Slobodkina was the author of the classic children’s book, Caps for Sale. She devoted her life’s work to abstract painting and sculpture while encouraging future generations to seek their own artistic fulfillment.
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Esphyr Slobodkina was born in Chelyabinsk, Russia in 1908. The youngest of five children, Slobidkina’s family left there home in 1919 and moved to Vladisvastok to avoid the Russian Revolution. The onset of the war created an “unwelcome metamorphosis – from riches to rags” for her family and Slobodkina, her mother, and her sisters began working as dressmakers to earn enough money for school fees (Slobodkina). Slobodkina enrolled in a preparatory school for architectural and engineering careers and graduated at the age of nineteen with the intent to travel to the United States.
Slobodkina immigrated to New York in 1928 using a student visa and began attending the National Academy of Design. She disliked her classes, stating that “[the academy] accepted me with high praise for my work, and from then on proceeded to ruin my talent for the next five years” (Slobodkina). Over time, she grew to enjoy a composition class taught by muralist Arthur Sinclair Covey (1877-1960). Through his teachings, she met painter and fellow student Ilya Bolotowsky (1907-1981), whom she married in 1933.
Bolotowsky encouraged Slobodkina to evolve her Impressionist style toward abstraction, which would become her primary genre. The couple was invited to the Yaddo artist’s colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, which also encouraged her to move toward an abstract style. In the mid-1930s, Slobodkina began creating the expressionist still-life and interior scenes, collages and geometric sculptures that would become the staple of her work.
Slobodkina held her first solo exhibition in November 1938 at the New School for Social Research, New York and soon found patronage from Albert E. Gallatin who sponsored another one-person show at his Museum of Living Art at New York University.
In 1937, Slobodkina became an active member of the American Abstract Artists, a group that became “torchbearers…establishing abstraction as a viable form of expression in America” (Porcher). She maintained a close connection with the group throughout her career and served the organization as hospitality chairman, secretary, and finally president from 1963-1966.
Slobodkina and her husband amicably divorced in 1938, and tragedy struck the same year when her father passed away. Slobodkina and her mother moved into a brownstone apartment and began working with textiles, mainly designing dresses, painting trays, and making lampshades to earn extra money. Her familiarity with these materials would lead her to open her own experimental textile factory in 1942.
She had a significant career change after meeting children’s author Margaret Wise Brown. The two women became fast friends, and Slobodkina began illustrating Brown’s books, beginning with her Big and Little series and continuing until Brown’s death in 1952. In 1940, Slobodkina published her most famous children’s book, Caps for Sale, which “pioneered the use of contemporary abstract forms in children’s books” (Rubinstein 307). She was awarded the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award for her achievement in children’s literature in 1958. Slobodkina stated that her favorite part about becoming a well-known author was “to see a child’s face light up as he suddenly realizes that the person before him actually made the book so dear to his little heart” (Slobodkina).
Slobodkina soon wished to leave the city and reconnect with nature, fresh-air, and simply recreation. Together with her mother, Slobodkina saved enough money to build a house in Great Neck, New York and moved in 1948. The pair remained in this home until 1977. During this period she was invited back to the Yaddo artist’s colony and also accepted a residency at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.
In 1960, Slobodkina married William Urquhart, a business owner whom she had met in 1942 at an American Abstract Artists show. They were married for three years, but in 1963, Urquhart died after suffering from a prolonged illness. Slobodkina stated that “it took me some six years to just recover from the grief and life in general was never the same” (Slobodkina).
In 1967, Slobodkina’s brother-in-law died and she and her mother traveled to Florida to be with her sister. Annual trips to the southern state soon became impractical because of her mother’s failing health and in 1979, they permanently relocated to Hallandale, Florida.
Throughout the 1980s, multiple retrospective exhibitions in honor of Slobodkina’s work were held at venues such as the Sid Deutsch Gallery in New York and the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, Florida.
In 1990, Slobodkina was invited to create a mural for the children’s room of the Shaker Heights Public Library in Ohio. The mural was created around the theme of a peddler who sold caps, very similar to the storyline of her most famous book.
The Slobodkina Foundation, an organization designed to promote free programs, scholarships, readings and performances of Slobodkina’s children’s books was created in 2000. During the same year, Harper Collins Publishing released a musical version of Caps for Sale, sixty years after the book’s original publication.
Slobodkina died in 2002 in Glen Head, New York at the age of 93.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
“There’s no such thing as inspiration for me. There’s work, attention, and taste. Inspiration is nothing but concentration, interest in your work, and dedication. I do believe in dedication, but I don’t wait for inspiration. I wait for time and opportunity to work. That’s all that’s necessary and, of course, a little talent doesn’t hurt.” - Esphyr Slobodkina
Slobodkina received early instruction from Impressionist artist Pavel Goost while attempting to pass entrance exams for a co-ed preparatory school in Russia. At a young age, she was convinced that architecture and engineering would be her primary interests since her school catered to these professions. However, during this time, she had the opportunity to view an exhibition of Futurist paintings by David Burliuk (1882-1967), which would later influence her designs.
After immigrating to the United States at twenty, Slobodkina enrolled at the National Academy of Design for five years, yet she soon found herself disenchanted with the “antiquated methods of teaching art…so contrary to all my natural inclinations” (Slobodkina). Nevertheless, she found an appreciation for a composition class because of the freedom provided by the instructor and the specialized instruction he gave based around each student, but she otherwise remained unconvinced of her tutelage. Slobodkina attempted to sketch from life, visiting Central Park, but was equally unmotivated after being taken to court for ignoring a “Keep Off the Grass” sign.
Her primary and most useful form of instruction was not from a teacher, but instead a fellow student, Ilya Bolotowsky. The two were equally dissatisfied with the teachings of the school and shared an interest in less conservative art. Slobodkina stated that “in the brief period between our meeting and his trip abroad, he managed to completely revive my interest in painting, restore my confidence in myself, and plant my feet firmly on the way to becoming a competent painter” (Slobodkina).
This “training” slowly began to change the way Slobodkina painted, her older works were often subdued in color and clearly displayed her Impressionist background, while later paintings began to take on expressionist tendencies, a contemporary idea at the time. She created her first Cubist painting in 1934 and began to focus on abstraction the following year (Smithsonian). Most of her paintings can be described as containing flat, interlocking shapes and forms depicted in pure colors.
By the 1930s, Slobodkina turned to collage and sculpture to help further develop her abstract style. She would frequently use wooden shapes, wire, and glass to create witty constructions such as The Sadly Sagging Educational Sprial (1984). She stated that her art was based on “no preconceived ideas or esthetic moral principles” (Rembert). Instead, Slobodkina often used found objects or household materials to create her multimedia collages and jokingly stated that “I’m trying to use up all the materials I have, so when I die there will be nothing to throw out. Everything gets used in this house.”
While Slobodkina maintained an active painting and sculptural career, she also took her talent as a writer and illustrator seriously, stating that “the verbal patterns and the patterns of behavior we present to children in these lighthearted confections are likely to influence them for the rest of their lives. These aesthetic impressions, just like the moral teachings of early childhood, remain indelible” (Goldman).
Slobodkina maintained an incredibly high productivity level throughout her career and at ninety stated “I can fill three galleries in no time. I can’t sit still.” Holding true to her word, Slobodkina produced paintings, sculptures, murals, illustrations, architectural designs, multimedia constructions, textile designs, and jewelry throughout her lifetime.
1908 Born on September 22 in Tcheliabinsk, Russia
1928-33 Immigrates to New York using a student visa for the National Academy of Design
1933 Marries painter Ilya Bolotowsky
1936 Begins working for the Works Progress Administration
1937 Met children’s author Margaret Wise Brown
1937 Becomes founding member of the American Abstract Artists
1938 Divorces Bolotowsky
1938 First solo exhibition in November at the New School for Social Research, New York
1940 Caps for Sale published
1940 Joins the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors
1942 Started Art Development Company which printed with polychrome technique on silk
1945 Secretary of the American Abstract Artists
1948 Moves to Great Neck, NY
1957 Invited back to Yaddo artists colony
1958 Residency at the MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire
1960 Marries William Urquhart
1960-1963 Becomes Treasurer and Vice President of the American Abstract Artists
1963 Husband dies
1963-1966 President of American Abstract Artists
1979 Moves to Hallandale, Florida
1990 Creates the collage mural Sleepy ABC for the Children’s Room of the Shaker Heights Public Library, Ohio
2000 Forms the Slobodkina Foundation
2002 Crossroads selected for the landmark “Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art” exhibition
2002 Dies in Glen Head, New York at age of 93
Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY (permanent wing)
Hillwood Art Museum
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Long Island University
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The National Gallery, Washington D.C.
New Jersey State Museum
Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut
The Wadsworth Museum, CT
Whitney Museum of Art, NY
1937 Squibb Gallery, NY
1938 New School for Social Research, NY
1940 New York World’s Fair, NY
1941 Wildenstein & Co., NY
1942 Museum of Living Artist, New York University, NY
1943 Art of This Century, NY
1945 Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
1945 The Institute of Modern Art, Boston, MA
1947 Norlyst Gallery, NY
1948 Norlyst Gallery, NY
1950 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
1950 The New School, NY
1951 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
1952 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
1953 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
1954 John Heller Gallery, NY
1955 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
1955 Associated American Artists Gallery, NY
1958 Almus Art Gallery, NY
1958 The New School, NY
1958 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
1975 Washburn Gallery, NY
1979 Hollywood Art Museum, FL
1979 Betty Parsons Gallery, NY
1980 Sid Deutsch Gallery, NY
1983-84 Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA
1984 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA
1984 Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN
1984 Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, FL
1985 Sid Deutch Gallery, NY
1986 The Bronx Museum of the Arts, NY
1988 Sid Deutch Gallery, NY
1990 National Museum of American Art, Washington D.C.
1992 Snyder Fine Art, NY
1993 Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, NY
1994 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
1996 Sidney Mishkin Gallery, NY
1996 Currier Gallery of Art, NH
1996 Wichita Art Museum, KS
2000 Great Neck Arts Center, NY
2003 Hillwood Art Museum, Brookville, NY
American Abstract Artists
Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors
WPA/Federal Arts Project
Yaddo Artists Colony
1940 Guggenheim Foundation Scholarship
1958 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award for Caps for Sale
1989 Moretti Award, outstanding artistic achievement
- 1. Goldman, Ari L. “Esphyr Slobodkina, Artist and Author, is Dead at 93.” New York Times. July 27, 2002. p. A12.
- 2. Porcher, Harold. “The Mockingbird and the Melting Pot.” The Slobodkina Foundation. 2004.
- 3. Rembert, Virginia. “The Life and Art of Esphyr Slobodkina.” Women’s Art Journal. Vol. 15, No. 2. pp. 52-53.
- 4. Rubinstein, Charlotte. American Women Sculptors: A History of Women Working in Three Dimensions. 1990.
- 5. Slobodkina, Esphyr. “An Autobiography.” The Slobodkina Foundation. 1999. http://www.slobodkina.com/about%20sephyr_autobiography.htm