Esphyr Slobodkina (1908-2002) is a celebrated abstract artist and author of the children’s classic Caps for Sale.
A founding member of the influential American Abstract Artists group in 1936, Slobodkina and her colleagues helped pave the way for the acceptance of abstract art in the United States and translate European modernism into an American idiom. Slobodkina was also a successful children’s book author and illustrator, first collaborating with Margaret Wise Brown on several stories before publishing Caps for Sale in 1940. In print for over 70 years, Caps for Sale remains a best-selling storybook that is beloved by generations of readers.
Slobodkina’s fascinating life story, which intersects with the tumult of the Russian Revolution and the development of American modernism, has gained attention in recent years as scholars revisit the birth of American abstraction.
Esphyr Slobodkina (pronounced ess-FEER sloh-BOD-kee-nah) was born in the Siberian town of Chelyabinsk on September 22, 1908. She grew up in Harbin, Manchuria (China), where she studied art and architecture. She immigrated to the United States on a student visa at the age of 19 and enrolled at the National Academy of Design in New York City.
“I have this crazy twist in the brain that everything is slightly surrealistic.” – Slobodkina on her artistic talents
In 1937, Slobodkina became one of the founding members of American Abstract Artists (AAA), along with her then-husband, Ilya Bolotowsky. She was the organization’s first secretary and later served as president and treasurer, as well as bibliographer. She was a regular exhibitor in AAA annual shows and a close associate of the “Park
Avenue Cubists:” George L.K. Morris, Suzy Frelinghuysen, Charles Green Shaw, and A.E. Gallatin. In 1940, Gallatin, who owned two of her works, organized her first major one-person exhibition at his influential Gallery of Living Art.
During this period, Slobodkina met children’s book author Margaret Wise Brown. In preparation for an interview with Brown, Slobodkina presented a series of innovative collage illustrations for a children’s book she wrote called Mary and the Poodies.
Brown and her publisher found Slobodkina’s abstract collage style refreshing and new, and subsequently hired her to illustrate The Little Fireman (1938). Possibly the first American children’s book to be illustrated completely with cut-paper collage, the Little Fireman was later deemed “the apogee of modernism in a picture book” by Barbara Bader.
“Cutouts enforce a simplicity of line that cannot be achieved by pen.” – Esphyr Slobodkina
With the encouragement of Margaret Wise Brown, Slobodkina continued to write on her own. Her first independent effort – The Wonderful Feast – was written in 1938 or 1939 but was not published
until 1955. Her second book – Caps for Sale – published in 1940, has sold more than two million copies and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. Today it is considered a classic.
Leonard Marcus, a renown children’s book scholar, has noted that “as the first picture book artist to experiment with collage, Slobodkina pointed the way for many later artists. Directly or indirectly, the example of her work set the stage for the distinctive contributions to the picture book by Leo Lionni, Ezra Jack Keats, Eric Carle, Ed Young, Lois Ehlert, and Ellen Stoll Walsh.”
“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
Even though she was successful as a children’s book author, Slobodkina continued to produce and exhibit abstract art, receiving high acclaim throughout her long and distinguished career. Today, her paintings and assemblages can be found in numerous public collections, including the:
- Corcoran Gallery of Art
- Grey Art Gallery, New York University
- Heckscher Museum of Art
- Hillwood Art Museum, Long Island University
- Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
- Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
- Naples Museum of Art
- New Britain Museum of American Art
- New Jersey State Museum
- Philadelphia Museum of Art
- Samuel P. Harn Art Museum, University of Florida
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
- Sheldon Museum of Art
- Smithsonian American Art Museum
- Whitney Museum of American Art
In the last years of her life, Slobodkina displayed little sign of slowing down.
While continuing to produce art, Slobodkina wrote an 1100-page autobiography and designed and oversaw the construction of the Slobodkina/Urquhart Children’s Reading Room in West Hartford CT. She was 75.
At age 88, Slobodkina purchased and redesigned a home in Glen Head New York, founded the charitable Slobodkina Foundation, and gifted the house and the remainder of her art to provide enrichment and educational programs under the Foundation’s umbrella.
At age 90, she designed a mini-museum at the Slobodkina house, as a place where guests could view more than 500 works of her art, handmade dolls and jewelry, and the complete collection of Slobodkina’s children’s books, including some original illustrations. Home to Slobodkina, her assistant, Ann Marie Sayer, and Slobodkina’s sister, Tamara Schildkraut, the large house functioned as a residence, mini-museum, and a reading room for children and scholars until 2012.
At age 91 Slobodkina formed the charitable Slobodkina Foundation, which today engages in educational programming while preserving the legacy of Esphyr Slobodkina’s prolific, multifaceted career. Slobodkina’s successes as an artist continued until her death in late 2002. Slobodkina lived her senior years freely and fully, hosting numerous parties and overnight get-togethers with close friends, entertaining family and the hundreds of guests who came to the Slobodkina House to meet the legend and enjoy her art.
Esphyr Slobodkina continued to produce art until shortly before her death on July 22, 2002, just before her 94th birthday. She is remembered for her unconventional artistry and independent disposition, which places her ineluctably among the female pioneers of the 20th century.