1. He was born Mordukh Matysovich Antokolski in Vilna in 1840, the last of seven children, to a Jewish family of modest means. As a boy, he drew everywhere, on any surface – table, walls – and did small woodcuts. Though his father thought this an odd occupation, eventually he apprenticed the boy to a wood-cutter.
2. With some help from people of wealth and influence, he was able to study in St. Petersburg as an external student at the Imperial Academy of Arts, 1862-8. His earliest work exhibited Jewish themes, including “Nathan the Wise” and “The Talmudic Debate.”
3. Predictably, his subjects raised controversy, but nonetheless he met with early success. “A Jewish Tailor” (1864, in wood) won a small silver medal from the Academy. “Stingy Man” (AKA “Jewish Miser” AKA “Miser Counting his Money,” 1865, in ivory) was awarded the Grand Silver Medal.
4. He spent the years 1868-70 in Berlin, in near-poverty, working under difficult conditions. Then his statue of Ivan the Terrible, completed in 1870, was purchased for the Hermitage by Tsar Alexander II. Crowds of people went to view it, and he was awarded the title of Academician by the Academy. “I fell asleep poor, and awoke rich,” he said. “Yesterday I was unknown, but today I’m all the rage.”
5. In poor health, he went to Italy in 1871, and in 1877 settled in Paris. In summers, he frequently returned to Vilna.
6. He was known for the psychological qualities in his work. His later subjects focused on martyrdom and suffering mankind. He did sculptures of Jesus, Spinoza, Socrates. Noted architect and art critic Vasily Stasov described his work as having “the features of the simple truth, the things that, previously, nobody dared think about in sculpture.”
7. In Italy, in 1872, he completed a statue of Peter the Great for the Peterhof Palace. Initially, it was poorly received….
8. Then came the Universelle Exposition in Paris, 1878. Antokolsky received the grand prize for an exhibition of his works, including “Peter the Great,” and he was awarded the French Legion of Honor.
9. He died in 1902 and is buried in St. Petersburg in the Jewish section of the Preobazhenskoye Cemetery.
10. A large portion of his work is in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, but several smaller sculptures may be found in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
In Tel Aviv, you’ll find Antokolsky Street off Ibn Gevirol, just south of, and parallel to, Arlosoroff.