Mark Matveevich Antokolskii (1843-1902) is one of the most important Russian sculptors of the 19th century. His works are exhibited both in Russian museums and in collections worldwide and are admired for their psychological complexity.
Antokolskii was a student at the Imperial Academy of Arts from 1862-68. His works focus on Russia and its history, as well as the Jewish nation and its past; his early works include the statues Jewish Tailor (1864) and The Talmudic Debate (1867). The present bust of Nathan the Wise belongs to this period and is based on the relief The Inquisition's attack on the Jews. The artist made a number of studies for this relief in clay, wax and plaster in 1868-69. It depicts a secret gathering of Jews celebrating Passover in medieval Spain at a time when Jews were persecuted for their faith. The relief shows the moment when the Inquisitors enter the room, causing great upheaval. Nathan is one of the figures in the scene who doesn't flee but remains to face the Inquisitors.
In 1868 the artist created busts based on the figure in the relief (executed in bronze and marble, both in the collection of the State Russian Museum) which portray a confident image of Nathan the Wise, a man ready to fight for the future of his people. It is one of the most complex and serious images created by Antokolski during his academic years, and is a perfect example of the psychological portraits for which he became so well known. He said that he wanted to create in sculpture what an artist painted on canvas to show the human soul and emotions. This striking image depicts the strength of the character and the power of the individual.