Skip to main content

Distributed for Brandeis University Press

Sculpting a Life

Chana Orloff between Paris and Tel Aviv

The first biography of sculptor Chana Orloff.
In Sculpting a Life, the first book-length biography of sculptor Chana Orloff (1888-1968), author Paula Birnbaum tells the story of a fiercely determined and ambitious woman who fled antisemitism in Ukraine, emigrated to Palestine with her family, then travelled to Paris to work in haute couture before becoming an internationally recognized artist. Against the backdrop of revolution, world wars, a global pandemic and forced migrations, her sculptures embody themes of gender, displacement, exile, and belonging. A major figure in the School of Paris, Orloff contributed to the canon of modern art alongside Picasso, Modigliani and Chagall.
Stories from her unpublished memoir enrich this life story of courage, perseverance, and extraordinary artistic accomplishments that take us through the aftermath of the Holocaust when Orloff lived between Paris and Tel Aviv. This biography brings new perspectives and understandings to Orloff’s multiple identities as a cosmopolitan émigré, woman, and Jew, and is a much-needed intervention into the narrative of modern art.

440 pages | 16 color plates, 96 halftones | 6 x 9

HBI Series on Jewish Women

Art: Art--Biography

Women's Studies

Brandeis University Press image

View all books from Brandeis University Press


“Birnbaum has created a truly remarkable and compelling portrait of the internationally-exhibited multi-national sculptor who worked across—and fully participated in—the tumultuous decades of twentieth century Jewish, modernist, and world histories from her elective home in Paris. Wide ranging-research sustains subtle insights into the formal, historical, and cultural significance of Orloff’s compelling portraits of her Jewish intellectual, political and artistic contemporaries that she created alongside a modernizing, feminist exploration of women’s subjectivities and life experiences through sculptural embodiment. A truly vital monument to Chana Orloff’s extraordinarily fascinating place in our extended, and fuller understanding of the art of the twentieth century and its creative communities.”

Griselda Pollock, Professor Emerita of Social and Critical Histories of Art, University of Leeds

"Paula Birnbaum’s well-researched study of Chana Orloff is a tremendous achievement. In this pathbreaking, first book-length biography of the unfairly neglected sculptor, Birnbaum places Orloff securely in the company of her School of Paris contemporaries. Even more, she illuminates and contextualizes Orloff’s multiple identities as a cosmopolitan émigré, woman, and Jew. This wide-ranging book is a major contribution to our understanding of Jewish art, feminist art, and Israeli art."

Samantha Baskind, Distinguished Professor of Art History, Cleveland State University

"Sculpting A Life offers a fascinating case study of an artist whose life and work embodies themes of gender, migration, displacement, and belonging. This first of its kind biography explains the extraordinary conditions in which Chana Orloff lived and carried out a long and prolific career in Ukraine, France, Palestine, and later Israel. By analyzing her hyphenated identities from an intersectional point of view, Birnbaum captures the complexities and tensions between cosmopolitanism and national identity for women artists who live and work in diaspora. This book is an important contribution to the history of modern art, as well as Jewish history, while highlighting the many layers of gendered issues that impact women’s careers in an age of transnationalism. Although Orloff does not fit neatly into the discipline of art history, which is normatively written according to fixed notions of national style grounded in a stable idea of the nation-state, its enormous contribution is correcting the canon of modernity and offering a more inclusive history of art."

Tal Dekel, author of Transnational Identities: Women, Art and Migration in Contemporary Israel

“Paula Birnbaum’s biography of Chana Orloff offers a timely and much-needed intervention into the narrative of modern art. Orloff’s life is a perfect model for the study of artistic practice within the contexts of forced displacement, voluntary immigration, transnationalism, and the multilinguality so pervasive in the 20th century.”

Alla Efimova, Author and Curator

“Paula Birnbaum’s lucid and engrossing biography of Chana Orloff (the first of its kind) restores the artist to her rightful place among the 20th century’s foremost sculptors. More than this, through meticulous research embedded in a lively, engaging narrative, a complete portrait emerges of a sublime artist negotiating the difficult balance of her diverse identities. There is also a distinctively Jewish story told here, one of a life’s journey touched, shaped and bruised by late 19th and 20th century social and political upheavals from Ukraine to Palestine, France and Israel: a life that incorporated extraordinary highs and lows including a six-year close friendship with Modigliani and a courageous last-minute border-crossing escape from Nazi pursuers. Both art and artist are brightly illuminated in this vivid record of Chana Orloff’s intense, crowded, and extraordinarily creative life.”

Jonathan Wilson, author of Marc Chagall

“In Sculpting a Life: Chana Orloff between Paris and Tel-Aviv, Paula J. Birnbaum offers readers a deeply researched, beautifully illustrated, and engagingly written biography of a cosmopolitan and once-renowned sculptor who deliberately resisted categorization. In the world of art, Orloff (1888-1968) became an outsize figure with a multifaceted hybrid identity; she was tenacious, resilient, and enterprising, overcoming multiple historical obstacles (ranging from pogroms to two world wars and persecution of Jews) that not only disrupted her professional development as an artist but also threatened her very survival. Orloff’s strong emphasis on motherhood as central to her artistic expression is particularly noteworthy, as is her fascination with the female body. This book also reminds readers of the relative marginality in Paris of the subsequently famous circles of émigré artists in which Orloff traveled (including Picasso, Modigliani, and Chagall, who hailed from Spain, Italy, Russia, and Palestine) and the difficulties of 'defining' French art during the first half of the twentieth century. Particularly noteworthy are Birnbaum’s efforts to ground Orloff’s extraordinary life and ultimately successful career in historical context and to probe the meanings implied in her sculptures and drawings.”

Karen Offen, The Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Stanford University; Author of European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History, The Woman Question in France, 1400-1870, and Debating the Woman Question in the French Third Republic, 1870-1920.

“Birnbaum’s deeply researched study rescues an extraordinary artist from obscurity. Triumphing over infinite odds, Chana Orloff, a Russian Jewish émigré, became an original and compelling artist in modern Paris during and between the world wars. This book brilliantly restores her resilient voice and amazing story.”

Wanda M. Corn, Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor Emerita in Art History, Stanford University

“Birnbaum weaves together pioneering research and analysis into a compelling narrative of Orloff’s life and work, a story about the courage, perseverance, and accomplishments of an artist who overcame the dislocation of multiple migrations and trauma of forced exiles, facing anti-Semitism and gender bias. This exemplary biography is a model for analyzing the complexities of an artist whose multiple migrations, identities, and the tensions between cosmopolitanism and national identity deeply informed her work.”

Ruth E. Iskin, Ben Gurion University

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Ukrainian Beginnings, 1888-1905
Chapter 2: Moving to the Promised Land, 1905-1907
Chapter 3: Becoming a New Hebrew Woman, 1907-1910
Chapter 4: Paris: from Haute Couture to Avant-Garde, 1910-1913
Chapter 5: Forging a Career at the Onset of War, 1913-16
Chapter 6: Orloff during Wartime 1916-1919: Amazon, Mother, and Widow
Chapter 7: Portraitist of Montparnasse: 1919-25
Chapter 8: Villa Seurat: Building a Studio and a Community, 1926-1929
Chapter 9: Transatlantic Travel and Networks, 1929-1930
Chapter 10: From Paris to Tel Aviv: The Jewish Art World in the Pre-State period of 1930s
Chapter 11: Occupation and Escape, 1938-1942
Chapter 12: Exile and Return, 1942-1948
Chapter 13: “Israeli Artist of the École de Paris,” 1948-1968
Chapter 14: Conclusion: Legacy in Israel & France


Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press