Expressionist sculptor Berta O'Hare Margoulies was born in 1907 in Lovitz, Poland to a Polish-Jewish family that migrated to Belgium during World War I. Her wartime experiences shaped much of her humanistic themes of her artwork. Her father was imprisoned, and she and the others, including three siblings, escaped to Holland and then England where for seven years, she attended the Howard School in Simsbury Park. The family moved to New York City. She graduated from Hunter College with Phi Beta Kappa honors in anthropology and languages, and then worked as a French and German translator.
Stumbling into sculpture inadvertently because of casually enrolling in evening classes at the Educational Alliance for diversion, she told of her first handling of clay: "There was a classroom with all this clay, you know, and some people working. There wasn't an instructor . . . or a model . . . and the minute I got my hands in the stuff I sad, 'Oh my God! This is it! I went there every evening." (Rubinstein 263).
She began study at the Art Students League with Edward McCartan, and in 1928 won a Gardner Foundation Award to study in Paris. She enrolled at the Academie Collarossi and Academie Julian in Paris and briefly attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts, although they were not her top choices. Her original intent was to study with Antoine Bourdelle, but he died while she was crossing the Atlantic. She was especially frustrated with the traditional approach at the Ecole because her interests and talents lay with modernism and the focus on the capturing of movement rather than anatomical correctness.
Berta Margoulies returned to New York during the Depression and earned money as a social worker. She also opened a studio and became good friends with William and Marguerite Zorach, spending several summers with them in Maine. With William she shared a piece of Tennessee marble, doing the direct carving method that was especially popular in the 1930s. However, she determined that her working method was much more satisfying working with clay and then bronze because of the fluidity. As her career progressed into the 1950s and 1960s, her style became increasingly fluid such as in works titled Panic with fleeing figures and Wailing Wall with abstracted praying figures. However, her work was never totally abstracted, as she maintained respect for some aspects of traditional realism.
The Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration program played a major part in sustaining her sculpting career during the 1930s and early 1940s. She did a head of Andrew Jackson, which earned her a three-thousand dollar commission in the Treasury Section of the Fine Arts for a Washington DC post office piece in aluminum that she titled Colonial Postman. She also did a commission, Woman and Deer, for the 1939 New York World's Fair in the garden court of The Federal Building. In 1942, she completed Mine Disaster, which is now in the collection of the Whitney Museum. Described as a "powerful bronze group" and "sympathetic to the oppressed", it "shows the miners' families waiting apprehensively behind a spiky fence for news of their loved ones." (Rubinstein 264-265).
In 1937, she won the Avery Award from the Architectural League and in 1946, a Guggenheim Fellowship. Since 1944, she was a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, New York City. She had a long-time marriage with Eugene O'Hare, an author with the Special Skill section of the New Deal, whom she met when working for the WPA. They lived in Flanders, New Jersey for many years where she taught at Finch Community College, and then in her later years, she settled in Brookline, Massachusetts to be near their son, a professor at the Kennedy School at Harvard University.
Margoulies has exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois; Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey; as well as the New York City galleries, Forum and ACA.
Her work is in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Wyandotte County Museum, Bonner Springs, Kansas; Des Moines Art Center, Iowa; and Willamette University, Salem, Oregon.