Biographical / Historical
Painter, sculptor, author, and illustrator Esphyr Slobodkina (1908-2002) lived and worked in New York City, Great Neck, and Long Island, New York and was known for her abstract art and her children's books, including the seminal Caps For Sale.
Slobodkina was born in Chelyabinsk, Siberia to Solomon Slobodkin and his wife, Itta Agranovich. After the Russian Revolution and Civil War of 1917-1918, her family immigrated to Harbin, Manchuria where her father found work with Standard Oil and her mother contributed to the family's finances by working as a dressmaker. After graduating from high school in 1927, Slobodkina immigrated to the United States to join her brother in New York City where she enrolled at the National Academy of Design.
At the Academy, Slobodkina met her future husband, the artist and fellow Russian émigré Ilya Bolotowsky. In 1936, they became founding members of the American Abstract Artists, an artist run organization that worked to advance abstract art at a time when few opportunities to exhibit their works existed. She served as the organization's first secretary and later served as treasurer, president, and institutional bibliographer.
In 1937, Slobodkina met the children's author Margaret Wise Brown. After seeing her work, Brown invited Slobodkina to illustrate The Little Fireman, the first of their many collaborations together. In 1940, Slobodkina's first published book, Caps For Sale, was released and has remained in print for over 70 years. It won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1958 and is considered a classic of children's literature.
Slobodkina and Bolotowsky divorced in 1938, after which she continued to produce abstract mixed media paintings and sculptures. Her first major one-person show was organized by the gallery owner A.E. Gallatin in 1940. Through the 1940s and into 1970s, Slobodkina regularly contributed to group exhibitions and her works are owned by numerous institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and Hillwood Art Museum.
In addition to publishing children's books, Slobodkina authored three volumes of her autobiography, Notes for a Biographer (1976-1983) and edited American Abstract Artists: Its Publications, Catalogs, and Membership (1979) and the folio Ilya Bolotwosky (1985). Active until the end of her life, she oversaw the production of musical audio recordings for her 20 children's books well into her 80s, and at the age of 90, designed a museum financed through the Slobodkina Foundation. She died at her home in Glen Head, Long Island in 2002.