Not until 1917, well into a career as a lithographer and painter, did Zorach take up sculpture. His earliest works appear to have followed his painting style, a kind of angular cubism that in the third dimension reinforced the "primitive" style of his carving. Most works of this period resemble African or medieval sculpture. But soon after he took his lead from an aesthetic of direct carving, allowing the material in which he was working to guide him toward an artistic solution. By the 1930s, sculpture in stone, mostly of human figures, constituted Zorach's major output.
Zorach was the son of a Lithuanian immigrant who settled in Cleveland. He was trained at the Cleveland School of Art as a lithographer, then studied painting in Paris in 1910 and 1911. Four of his works were accepted at the Salon d'Automne in the latter year. He continued to paint, especially in watercolor, during summers spent at Robinhood Cove near Stonington, Maine. The subjects he chose, coastal views of Penobscot Bay, suggest a link to the animals he carved from the granite that lined the shores of the bay. Both watercolors and sculpture were meant to evoke a spirit of place, the former by representing the liquid atmosphere that merged sky and water, the latter as an expression of the enduring character of the Maine coast. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Zorach worked on commission for the Fine Arts section of the Treasury Department, which presided over the decoration of federal buildings in Washington and post offices in regional cities and towns. The post office program fostered an awareness of national government in local communities; individual projects, however, focused not on "official art" but on local history, commerce, and industry.
William H. Truettner and Roger B. Stein, editors, with contributions by Dona Brown, Thomas Andrew Denenberg, Judith K. Maxwell, Stephen Nissenbaum, Bruce Robertson, Roger B. Stein, and William H. Truettner Picturing Old New England: Image and Memory (Washington, D.C.; New Haven, Conn; and London: National Museum of American Art with Yale University Press, 1999)
William Zorach was the son of Lithuanian immigrants who settled in Ohio when he was four years old. He dropped out of school at age thirteen and worked as a lithographer's apprentice to help support his family. In 1910, Zorach traveled to Paris to study; there he met his wife, artist Marguerite Thompson, and first encountered different kinds of modern art. He was originally a painter before finding his niche in sculpture, and became one of the earliest proponents of the direct carving method in America. Zorach divided his time between Maine and New York City, where he taught sculpture at the Art Students League for thirty-three years. He is known for his figural sculptures, which include nudes, children, animals, and portrait heads. Although Zorach used simplified geometric forms in his figural groups, he was able to capture the love and affection in human relationships. He frequently used his family, friends, and pets as models, drawing on his own life to portray universal human experiences.