Sculptor and painter. Although an accomplished painter, after 1922 he specialized in carved wood or stone renderings of simplified, often chunky human figures and animals. Born Zorach Samovich in Eurberich, Russia (now Jurbarkas, Lithuania), in 1893 he moved with his family to Port Clinton, Ohio, before settling in Cleveland three years later. Without finishing grade school, he left to work for a commercial lithographer. In 1905 he began his professional training in evening classes at the Cleveland School (now Institute) of Art and in 1908 enrolled at the National Academy of Design. More briefly, he also studied at the Art Students League before leaving at the end of 1910 for a year in Europe. In Paris he encountered modern art, as well as his future wife, painter and printmaker Marguerite Thompson, his guide to the new tendencies. Almost immediately, his painting responded to fauvism's bright colors, exaggerated forms, and spontaneous brushwork. After returning for a year to Cleveland, late in 1912 he married Marguerite in New York. Known since grade school as William Finkelstein, at this time he changed his surname to Zorach. The couple lived in Greenwich Village, summered at various country locations, exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show and the 1916 Forum Exhibition, and around 1915 together came under the spell of cubism, which they integrated with studies from nature. His Mirage—Ships at Night (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1919) combines aspects of both into a visionary image of boats on a moonlit sea.
In 1917 he first tried his hand at sculpture and by 1922, had decided to devote himself to this medium, although he continued throughout his career to work actively in watercolor. Zorach numbers among the first American sculptors to respond to African tribal work. He also was drawn to other premodern traditions, including archaic Greek, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian sculpture, as well as the refined, reductive formalism of Brancusi, whom he had met in Paris. From these sources he forged a personal style of blocky solemnity, simplified shapes, and distortion for emotional power. While also emphasizing inherent qualities of his materials, he enhanced these “primitive” qualities with direct carving, which was uncommon in American sculpture of the early 1920s. The half-length marble Child with Cat (Museum of Modern Art, 1926) exemplifies his compact approach to form, effective use of unpolished surfaces, and dignified expression. Later he also modeled with clay. Through his studio creations and public commissions, his articulate commentaries, and his many years of teaching, Zorach exerted a major influence on the development of American sculpture. Beginning in 1929, he taught at the Art Students League for three decades. He died in a hospital in Bath, Maine, near the waterside village of Robinhood on Georgetown Island, where the Zorachs had owned a summer home since 1923. In 1945 two articles about his own work appeared as a volume titled William Zorach. He also published Zorach Explains Sculpture: What It Means and How It Is Made (1947) and Art Is My Life: The Autobiography of William Zorach (1967).