Eliasz Nadelman was born on February 20, 1882, in Warsaw, Poland. The youngest of seven children of Philip and Hannah Nadelman, Eliasz grew up in Poland's Russian zone, where the tensions of anti-Semitism existed. His parents decided to raise their children relatively secular and they owned a jewelry shop.
Sculptor of abstract human figures, Nadelman applied aesthetic theories he learned in Europe to American subjects and popular culture. His work seems a combination of classical methods and folk art, which merge to create a unique fusion of traditional and modern.
In 1899, he graduated from the Warsaw gymnasium and enrolled in the Warsaw School of Fine Arts. Nadelman enlisted in the Russian Imperial army to avoid a draft, which would have required four years of service. Returning to Warsaw the following year, he worked on his own for two years and then headed to Munich, drawn by German Romanticism. There he was exposed to an array of historical styles and artworks and at the time his work remained in the Symbolist style. In 1904 he entered a drawing competition and earned second prize, receiving five hundred francs, which enabled him to move to Paris in autumn 1904.
There he settled into the Polish art colony of Montparnasse, that included Guillaume Apollinaire, Adolphe Basler, and Andre Salmon, as well as Mecislas Golberg. Nadelman began to exhibit in group shows and attracted the attention of the co-publisher of the famed La Revue Blanche, Thadee Natanson, who then introduced Nadelman to a group of patrons and critics that included Leo Stein, Andre Gide, and Eugene Druet. Druet eventually gave Nadelman his first solo exhibition, featuring thirteen plaster sculptures and 100 of his "radically simplified drawings." His drawings "so bordered on abstraction that he would later use them to support his claim that he, not Picasso, had invented cubism (Hankins)." Another supporter of his work was, Alfred Stieglitz who featured Nadelman in his October 1910 issue of Camera Work.
The following year, Nadelman had a one-person show at the William B. Paterson Gallery in London. This show included ten female heads chiseled in marble and was purchased in entirety by Helena Rubenstein.
Nadelman constantly experimented with materials, working with wood, bronze, and marble or gilded gold. He also experimented with the scale and sizes of the figures. His subject matter was inspired by dancers, jugglers, and acrobats of the circus and other forms of popular entertainment at the time. He also began to use figures dressed in modern everyday clothing, which was unheard of at the time.
He continued to exhibit in Paris at the 1914 Salon des Independants and the 1913 Armory Show in New York. Nadelman enlisted in the Russian Imperial Army at the onset of World War I, but was advised that it would be too dangerous for him to cross Germany and instead went to England. Helena Rubinstein commissioned him to create large plaster reliefs for her New York salon and on October 24, 1914, Nadelman left England on the Lusitania, expecting to return.
He initially disliked America, but this culture would eventually inspire his work. Alfred Stieglitz offered him his first one-person exhibition in New York, featuring two new plasters, a series of drawings, and earlier sculptures and reliefs in December 1915 at his gallery, "291." Nadelman continued to exhibit and had great success with sold out shows of his genre subjects composed of simplified geometric forms and stylized animal bronzes. This led to high profit, additional portrait commissions, and a place among the most successful modern sculptors in America.
Experimenting with hand-painted, tubular plaster works of performers he exhibited these in a December 1917 group show to support the war-relief effort. These became "the subject of public ridicule and scorn … these spirited visions of American pop culture seem to have been interpreted not as celebrations of everyday life but rather as humorous spoofs or, even worse, satirical caricatures (Hankins)."
Nadelman may have lost money in sales during this time, but his financial situation improved when he married Viola Speiss Flannery, a wealthy widow. His marriage, "situated Nadelman in a world of wealth and privilege, the trappings of which included a retinue of servants, memberships at exclusive social clubs, a spectacular townhouse, and a carefully restored nineteenth-century mansion overlooking the Hudson River." He exhibited less often but still remained active. In 1925 he exhibited his bronze and wood versions of stylized plaster genre figures, and classical heads, that used stains, gesso, and paint. These wooden figures were very unpopular during his lifetime, selling only one, but now are among the most valued works of Nadelman's.
Nadelman and his wife, Viola, started to collect folk art and material culture. The couple traveled Europe, America, and Russia to find pieces of vernacular art. In 1924, they began to build a home for their collection of approximately 15,000 objects, next to their Riverdale estate. Two years later the three-story building was completed and they opened the Museum of Folk and Peasant Arts to the public.
During the Depression the Nadelman's experienced financial difficulties, losing their stock portfolio and lost rent on their real estate holdings. The couple was forced to change their elegant life style, as the bank foreclosed on their townhouse in 1933 and they had to sell the Riverdale estate, which they rented and bought back in 1936. When most artists were working for the federal arts programs, Nadelman refused, although he did a commission in the frieze for the Fuller Building. The couple sold their folk art collection to the New York Historical Society for a mere $50,000, when they expected $350,000 to $400,000 for it. He worked as the curator of the collection, but was dismissed in April 1939. Nadelman felt the loss of his collection, expressing, "The dismantling of the Museum did also dismantle something in me."
"Relatively impoverished," Nadelman had not exhibited since 1927 and became isolated. At the time, the Abstract Expressionists were making their mark on the art world. Fate of Nadelman's relatives in Poland at the time of World War II spurred him to work on the war relief service as art instructor at Bronx Veteran's Hospital from 1942-1945. He was later weakened by a heart condition that limited his mobility.
Elie Nadelman committed suicide on December 28, 1946.