Hoffman, Malvina (1885–1966)

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Hoffman, Malvina (1885–1966)

American sculptor of a prolific body of work who is much admired for her classic-style portrait busts and heroic sculpture. Name variations: Mrs. Samuel Bonaries Grimson. Born Malvina Cornell Hoffman on June 15, 1885, in New York City (Hoffman wrote that the records of her birth were lost and her mother gave her birth date as 1887, but family documents proved the date was 1885); died on July 10, 1966, in New York City; daughter of Richard Hoffman (a noted concertpianist) and Fidelia Lamson Hoffman; sister of Helen Draper (1871–1951); attended the Chapin School and Brearley School, both New York (1904); during teenage years, attended Women's School of Applied Design and the Art Students League, New York; studied painting with John W. Alexander, modeling with Herbert Adams and George Grey Barnard at the Veltin School, New York, and sculpture with Gutzon Borglum in New York; intermittently between 1910 and 1914, studied in Paris with Auguste Rodin and others; married Samuel Bonaries Grimson, in 1924 (divorced 1936); no children.


honorable mention for Russian Dancers, Paris Salon (1910); first prize for Bacchanal Russe, Paris Exhibition (1911); honorable mention at Panama-Pacific Exposition, San Francisco (1915); Julia S. Shaw memorial prize for Bacchanal Russe, National Academy of Design (1917); George D. Widener gold medal from Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1920); Helen Foster Barnett prize from the National Academy of Design (1921); Elizabeth N. Watrous gold medal from the National Academy of Design (1924); prize from the Concord Art Association (1925); Joan of Arc gold medal from the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors (1935); Outstanding Woman of Achievement award from the N.Y. League of Business and Professional Women (1935); award for Eminent Achievement from the American Woman's Association (1937); selected as one of 12 women whose work has contributed most toward human betterment in the last half-century, Career Tours Committee, in cooperation with the N.Y. World's Fair (1939); named Woman of the Year by the American Association of University Women (1957); gold medal for Mongolian Archer from the Allied Artists of America (1962); gold medal of honor from the National Sculpture Society (1964). Decorations: Palmes Academiques (France, 1920); Royal Order of St. Sava III (Yugoslavia, 1921); Legion of Honor (France, 1951). Honorary Degrees: Doctor of Literature, Mount Holyoke College (1937); Doctor of Fine Arts, University of Rochester (1937); Doctor of Fine Arts, Northwestern University (1945); Honorary Doctorate, Bates College (1955).

Selected work in the collections of Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History, and the Frick Collection, New York; Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, Brooklyn, New York; Chicago Natural History Museum, Chicago, Illinois; Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, among many other museums and private collections across the world. Some notable works on permanent exhibition: Russian Bacchanale (bronze group, 1915, Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, stolen by Nazis, 1941); La Gavotte (wax, Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., 1915); The Sacrifice (stone group, Harvard University War Memorial Chapel, Cambridge, 1920); 104 Racial Types of the World (bronze, life-size figures and busts, Chicago Natural History Museum, 1929–33).

Exhibited extensively in New York, across the country and abroad, beginning in 1910. First exhibit: Grand Central Art Gallery (New York City, 1929), 105 sculptures in 16 different materials along with many life-sized crayon portraits. Major retrospective exhibit: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia, 1937.

Selected writings:

(memoir) Heads and Tales (NY: Garden City, 1936); (combination autobiography and technical information text) Sculpture Inside and Out (NY: W.W. Norton, 1939); Yesterday is Tomorrow: A Personal History (NY: Crown, 1965).

Malvina Hoffman, an internationally recognized sculptor, was born in New York City on June 15, 1885. Her father Richard Hoffman, was a concert pianist, soloist with the New York Philharmonic, and music teacher. A child prodigy in England, he had come to America at age 16, hired by P.T. Barnum as an accompanist for the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind on Lind's first tour of the United States. Malvina's mother Fidelia Lamson Hoffman , a member of a socially prominent New York family, was descended from early English colonists. Fidelia's marriage was for many years regarded as a disgrace by the Lamson family.

Malvina's childhood was spent in New York City. Having the actress Lillian Russell as a neighbor provided a "panorama of excitement," recalled Hoffman. "Born and brought up as I was in the lurid atmosphere of Broadway and Forty-third Street, I was nevertheless one of a household which conserved the traditional habits of the Puritanical forefathers and conventional groups of numberless relatives."

Nurtured in a loving family atmosphere where art and music were appreciated and supported, Hoffman was the fourth girl and youngest of six children (the eldest girl died in infancy). She was fascinated by electric batteries, mechanical toys, and horses as a child, and her father encouraged these interests. By devising games that sharpened her powers of observation and developed her memory, he guided her intellectual development. He also defined musical principals of construction, rhythm, balance, and harmony as paradigms for the practice of any art form, instilling in Hoffman a lifelong sense of the artist's vocation.

The Hoffmans summered at Little Boar's Head, Maine, an ongoing experience that Malvina treasured. The town remained an escape for her when social, business, and artistic pressures became too great. In her autobiography, Yesterday is Tomorrow, Hoffman depicts the array of experiences for a small child in a "sheltered" family vacation spot, a small child who had the freedom to explore.

She attended two private schools in New York, Chapin then Brearley. While at Brearley, she also took classes at the Women's School of Applied Design and the Art Students League, studying composition, watercolor, and life drawing. A reprimand from a Brearley teacher for her "insubordination" resulted in a visit to the headmaster, James G. Croswell, who soon discovered the cause of Hoffman's short temper: a heavy academic and artistic workload. Recognizing her artistic talent, he asked to see her drawings so that he might keep track of what she was doing, rather than forbid the extra work. Croswell encouraged her to conserve her energy for each task. One summer, when she was ill with fever, the Croswells invited her to their summer home at Deer Island, Maine, to recuperate, binding a lasting friendship. Hoffman did an oil portrait of Croswell the following year which he preferred to the formal portrait the school had commissioned. Later at the Veltin School, she studied painting with John Alexander and sculpture with George Grey Barnard and Herbert Adams.

When Hoffman was 16, the suicide of a family friend resulted in a nervous collapse. This act of desperation shook her to her roots, she wrote, and she became restless and withdrawn. Instinctively, she bought some modeling clay, hoping to work her way out of the mental impasse. "There would seem no other reason why I should have turned to sculpture at that time. There was a consolation in this new struggle in three-dimensional silence that claimed my whole mind and attention." Her first work, a female figure called "Despair," expressed all she knew of grief, and her father encouraged her to have it cast in plaster. He advised her that purging her system of what troubled her would be a release, and if sculpture accomplished this, then the creative effort was a consolation in itself.

Hoffman's next effort was a clay portrait of her father, earning an important critique from Gutzon Borglum, a family friend and mentor, who would execute the Mount Rushmore presidential monument. Borglum encouraged her to submit the plaster cast to the National Academy of Design Exhibition in 1910. That same year, her father died. When Hoffman expressed a desire to carve her father's portrait in marble, another family friend, sculptor Phimister Proctor, taught her the rudiments of carving and offered her the use of his studio in MacDougall Alley while he was away for the summer. Working on the sculpture helped blunt the pain. "Carving became a harbor of safety into which I could steer my thoughts and sense a sort of salvation by self obliteration," Hoffman told Charlotte Rubinstein . "It became the deciding factor in my decision to become a sculptor."

After her father's death, Hoffman worked hard to provide an income for her impoverished family. A year later, a windfall in the form of a $1,000 legacy allowed Hoffman to sail with her mother to France. Intent on studying with the great sculptor Auguste Rodin, Hoffman called at his studio five times and was five times refused. In desperation, she informed the concierge that she would stand on the doorstep until she saw the master, as she was bringing regards from one of his patrons. She was finally admitted and caught Rodin's interest by quoting a sonnet by Alfred de Musset that Rodin was trying to recall for a roomful of friends. Examples of her work, along with her persistent efforts and a letter of introduction from Borglum, convinced Rodin of her talent. She studied with him for 16 months, until her money ran out. Once back in New York, Hoffman opened her own studio and also followed Rodin's advice, studying dissection and anatomy under the direction of Dr. George Huntington at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Hoffman resumed her studies with Rodin during the two summers before the outbreak of World War I in 1914. While studying with Rodin and Emanuele Rosales, she also learned bronze casting, chasing and finishing at foundries. It was Rodin who formed Hoffman as an artist.

During her years in Paris, Hoffman was acquainted with author Gertrude Stein , artists Monet, Matisse, and Brancusi, dancer Nijinsky, and was a close friend of dancer Anna Pavlova . Like many other artists of the period, Hoffman was influenced by the Ballet Russe of Sergei Diaghilev. Robert McHenry suggests that Hoffman attempted to capture in her sculpture "that new kind of freedom in the dance" and to convey "its sense of motion and immediacy." Pavlova arranged for Hoffman to make studies backstage and at night, after her performances, would arrive at Hoffman's studio to pose, sometimes with male partners, shouting "Malvinoushka!" as she ran up the stairs. Hoffman's Russian

Dancers won first honorable mention at the Paris Salon in 1911, and Bacchanale Russe was awarded the Shaw memorial prize by the National Academy of Design in 1917, both bronze groups portrayed the figures of Pavlova and Mikhail Mordkin. Bacchanale Russe, purchased by the French government and placed in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, was taken by the Nazis in 1941.

In 1915, Hoffman captured the incredibly slender lightness of Pavlova's movements in LaGavotte, a composition of balanced diagonal lines, playing against the swinging curves of the skirt. Other works based on the dancer were created, including a 26-panel frieze Bacchanale, showing the principal movements in Pavlova's wildly erotic pas de deux. This project was never exhibited. For Pavlova's birthday, Hoffman threw a masked costume ball for 200 in her Sniffen Court stable-studio. Dancers and mimes in fantastic costumes performed all night in the roped-off alley. At midnight, the gilded doors of a giant icon were opened, revealing Pavlova posed as a Byzantine Madonna, hands folded together in prayer. Hoffman preserved this image in a sculpture she called Byzantine Madonna. These sculptures from the Pavlova group launched her career.

With the onset of war, Hoffman returned to New York to work for the Red Cross with her sister, Helen Draper (1871–1951). Hoffman also became the American representative of Appui aux Artistes, a French war charity benefiting needy artists which she helped found before leaving France. For the U.S. government, she reported on relief work in Greece and the Balkans to Herbert Hoover, who was then chair of the American Relief Committee. After the war, Hoffman continued to aid Yugoslav causes and was for many years chair of the New York Chapter of the United Yugoslav Relief Fund. She directed the work in Yugoslavia at Hoover's child-feeding centers which were founded after the war.

In 1910, Hoffman had received an honorable mention at the Paris Salon for a bust of Samuel Bonaries Grimson. She had formed a deep and close friendship with Grimson, an English violinist and friend of her father. Though the two became engaged, they were separated for some years while each pursued a career. When Grimson was injured by a grenade in WWI and could no longer play violin professionally, both determined to postpone marriage no longer. They were wed in 1924 in New York.

In 1920, Hoffman had been commissioned by Martha W. Bacon to create a war memorial to commemorate the deaths of Harvard students killed in World War I. The stone carving, The Sacrifice (Harvard University Memorial Chapel, 1922), shows a Madonna-like figure mourning over a fallen crusader, in the manner of a medieval tomb sculpture. Hoffman had entered her heroic phase. In 1924, commissioned by American businessman Irving Bush, she executed a two-figure composition representing Anglo-American friendship, To the Friendship of English Speaking Peoples (stone, two heroic figures and altar, London, 1924). Erected on the facade of Bush House in London, the colossal, carved-limestone figures, representing England and America, hold a torch above a Celtic altar in what Rubinstein calls "an archaic neo-Greek relief style." After these 15-foot figures were hoisted into place above the entry of the nine-story office building, Hoffman felt the sun did not hit the work directly. She spent the next five weeks on four boards, 80 feet in the air, deepening the carving to better show the forms. Dramatic photographs show Hoffman at work, far above the street, seated on the shoulder of her gargantuan figures. "She behaved as if she had wings and carried a torch," wrote her close friend, poet Marianne Moore .

Draper, Helen (1871–1951)

Red Cross worker. Name variations: Mrs. William K. Draper. Born Helen Hoffman in 1871; died in 1951; daughter of Richard Hoffman (a noted concert pianist) and Fidelia Lamson Hoffman; sister of Malvina Hoffman ; married William K. Draper (died 1926).

During the Spanish-American war, Helen Draper headed the New York chapter of the American Red Cross. By marriage, she was related to solo performer Ruth Draper .

In 1926, Hoffman yielded to her restlessness and left New York to find the "islands of the Lotus Eaters" off the coast of Africa. There, she was inspired to create two powerful African heads, Martinique Woman and Senegalese Soldier (black Belgian marble, Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, N.Y., 1928). In 1927, approached by a dean of the Harvard Medical School, Hoffman designed the stone monument The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to be placed in front of the school. With the execution of this piece in mind, she traveled to Yugoslavia to study architectural and equestrian sculpture with Ivan Mestrovic, whose over-life-size portrait she had completed in 1925 (bronze, Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, N.Y.). Though she returned to finish the Harvard Medical School monument, funding was never secured, and the monument remains only a vision in drawings and studies. Hoffman's first extensive exhibition came in 1929 at the Grand Central Art Gallery in New York City, and included 105 pieces of sculpture in 16 different materials, plus crayon portraits. The exhibit traveled to museums across the country for five years.

The pivotal work that brought Malvina Hoffman international recognition came from a 1929 commission by Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History to be completed for the Chicago World's Fair in 1933. The commission came in the form of a telegram: "HAVE PROPOSITION TO MAKE STOP DO YOU CARE TO CONSIDER IT? STOP RACIAL TYPES TO BE MODELED WHILE TRAVELING AROUND THE WORLD STOP." Hoffman had been singled out from 3,000 artists to receive what was to be the largest sculptural commission ever given to a woman, and possibly the largest ever created by one sculptor anywhere. She convinced the museum officials to give her the entire job, originally planned for three to five artists.

The original commission called for plaster figures, but Hoffman persuaded the committee to cast most of the pieces in bronze. She began the project in Paris, where she had built a house and second studio. At the outset, Hoffman was fortunate to secure models in Paris, because a colonial exposition had brought people from Africa and Asia to the city. She then traveled to Japan, India, Africa, China, Bali and elsewhere on a "head-hunting" expedition. Pneumonia, sunstroke, an infection that nearly took her arm and other ailments felled her periodically, as she and her husband Sam Grimson journeyed by train, steamer, or Chinese junk to remote places. Grimson was her photographer as they moved 27 trunks and sculptural materials around the globe. Returning with models of a series of racial types, Hoffman spent three more years completing the work. The collection, consisting of over 100 heads and figures of men and women from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Pacific Islands and North America, was dedicated on June 6, 1933. Noted the 1940 Current Biography: "In the Hall of Man at the Field Museum stood 101 life-size bronze statues, standing as an enduring monument to her perseverance, energy, creative genius." (Sources place the number of pieces in the collection alternately as 104, 105, or 110.) Now most of Hoffman's sculptures for the Hall of Man Exhibit at the Field Museum are in storage, while some copies are in the permanent collections of other museums. Only in old photographs can one glimpse the overall impact made by the original installation of over 100 studies surrounding a central column depicting the so-called white, black and yellow races topped by a central globe. Writes Myrna Eden : "Although impressive, the heads and figures in the museum's Hall of Man are more anthropological studies than works of art. Hoffman's attention to detail distinguishes all her work." Notes Rubinstein:

The commission brought income and publicity, but one may seriously question the impact of the assignment on her life's work. Years of grueling effort, at the peak of the artist's creative period, were devoted to a project that as art historian Linda Nochlin points out "lies somewhere between science and art."

The importance of this work as compared to Hoffman's other efforts is disputed, but the collection remains a focus of her career. It became one of the most popular exhibitions in the world.

To define Hoffman's style, one must look at the complete body of her work. Excited by the Armory Show in New York in 1913, Hoffman wrote:

The violence of the rejections and cheers disturbed me, and I could not make up my mind how I felt…. I was very much awareof the Brancusi head … his courage in slashing away all the details … but some of the other work in the exhibition seemed false, and I resented any touch of falseness…. I thought Classic work had endured, and there must be a reason … and even what is "modern" isn't altogether new.

Though she lived through one of the most revolutionary eras in the history of art, she remained true to the classical and realistic while her contemporaries were the innovators. Hoffman's fundamental interest was the personality of the sitter, not in some new formal approach. "I wondered if it might not be some defect in me not to have experimented more," she said. "But I wasn't sufficiently impelled." She rarely took liberties with nature, as is evident in the Hall of Man project. Hoffman's finest works, writes Rubinstein, include the small bronzes and portraits, while the studies of Pavlova convey passion and freedom. Bill Working (bronze, Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA, 1923) is a study of her devoted studio caretaker, cleaning the floor, a natural portrait of a close friend. Myrna Eden concurs: "Hoffman's artistry is most fully displayed in her naturalistic portrait busts of friends and acquaintances. An unending interest in people led her beyond the mere recording of physical features to seek the depths of personalities."

At the height of Hoffman's success, she was plagued by an emotionally draining family crisis. Her husband suffered from severe depression, resulting from his war experiences, his injury, and his inability to play the violin. When Grimson's doctors advised a separation, Hoffman was saddened but followed their advice. There was no improvement in his condition, and the doctors recommended in 1934 that their married life come to an end. "I was so stricken by this decision that my life seemed a total shipwreck," Hoffman relates. "In my desolate heart I felt as if there could never be a new dawn…. My inner light was blocked out." After an enforced residency in Reno, Nevada, Hoffman was accompanied home by friends. Another close friend, musician Ignace Paderewski, convinced her to write Heads and Tales, an account of her travels and work on the Hall of Man project, to divert her from the overwhelming emotional stress that was enveloping her. It was published in 1936, the year of her divorce.

With emotional support from friends, Hoffman was able to continue working on her many commissions. For the 1939 New York's World's Fair, she created a cylindrical fountain carved with seven dancers of different nationalities modeled in high relief. Called the International Dance Fountain and considered one of the outstanding sculptures at the Fair, it was selected to be one of the permanent pieces to be installed in Flushing Meadows Park after the Fair's close. In reality, to the artist's dismay, it was destroyed when no final plans were established.

Hoffman was continually searching for new avenues to help emerging artists and to hone her own craft. When the studio next door to hers on East 35th Street became available, she purchased it and began a demonstration workshop dedicated to teaching young artists the skills of sculpture, casting, carving, and forge work. During World War II, when Hoffman was again associated with the Red Cross and relief work, the demonstration exhibits were used by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for educational purposes. Hoffman replaced the teaching models in her workshop in 1948.

In the late 1940s and '50s, Hoffman received two important assignments for works in bas-relief. The U.S. Fine Arts Commission engaged her as sculptor in 1948 for a monument to the fallen American soldiers of World War II at Epinal, France, in the Vosges Mountains. Her principal contributions to the American War Memorial Building (marble, Epinal, France, 1948) were two façade panels showing the fighting men. In 1956, she completed a frieze depicting the history of medicine, using an incised, Egyptian-Art Deco style suited to the architecture for the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, Massachusetts.

Through her long career until her retirement in 1963, Hoffman modeled such diverse personalities as Wendell L. Willkie (stone bust, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1944), Teilhard de Chardin (1948), and Katharine Cornell (1961). She completed three busts of Ignace Paderewski in 1922–23: The Statesman (bronze heroic bust, Steinway Hall, New York), The Man, The Artist (bronze head, Metropolitan Museum of Art) and The Friend. Relying on her knowledge of anatomy from her early studies at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, Hoffman created a series of anatomical models showing human embryological development from conception through birth. The work was commissioned by the Field Museum in Chicago in 1937; the resulting series, reproduced often, was used as a teaching resource in schools worldwide. They are still on display, anonymously, in medical schools throughout the country.

In appearance, Malvina Hoffman was tall and slim; in manner, alert and direct. For posed photographs, she always seemed to have at hand a floppy, velvet beret and a smock, along with the standard mallet and chisel expected of sculptors. If she wasn't daring in her art, she was dauntless in the way she lived. She gave many parties in her East 35th Street studio where she made her home for more than 45 years, parties which were reported in the society columns. Ranging from the birthday ball for Anna Pavlova to a party for merchant marines from the 32 nations at war with Hitler's Germany, Malvina Hoffman made good copy for the tabloid journals of the 1930s, and she seemed to know what would make a story. Her travels around the world, with tales of the peoples she met, kept the journalists busy and the Hall of Man project in the minds of Americans. Her work is in the permanent collections of galleries and museums throughout the world.

In 1937, Hoffman had a retrospective exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts at Richmond. In 1964, she received the gold medal of honor from the National Sculpture Society. She was made a member of the French Legion of Honor and was awarded honorary degrees by American colleges. As an author, her works include a textbook, Sculpture, Inside and Out, and two autobiographies, Heads and Tales (1943) and Yesterday is Tomorrow: A Personal History (1965). On July 10, 1966, Malvina Hoffman died of a heart attack in her sleep at her studio. She was 81.


Collins, Jim, and Glenn B. Opitz, ed. Women Artists in America: 18th Century to the Present. Poughkeepsie, NY: Apollo, 1980.

Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. Who Was Who in American Art. Madison, CT: Soundview Press, 1985.

Hoffman, Malvina. Heads and Tales. Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing, 1943.

——. Malvina Hoffman (American Sculpture Series 5). NY: W.W. Norton (under the auspices of the National Sculpture Society, 1948).

——. Sculpture Inside and Out. NY: W.W. Norton, 1939.

——. Yesterday is Tomorrow: A Personal History. NY: Crown, 1965.

"Malvina Hoffman," in Current Biography, 1940. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1941.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Liberty's Women. Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam, 1980.

The New York Times (obituary). July 11, 1966.

Opitz, Glenn B., ed. Dictionary of American Sculptors: 18th Century to the Present. Poughkeepsie, NY: Apollo, 1984.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982.

——. American Women Sculptors. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1990.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

suggested reading:

Bouve, Pauline Carrington. "The Two Foremost Women Sculptors in America: Anna Vaughan Hyatt and Malvina Hoffman," in Art and Archaeology. June 1928, pp. 74–82.


Correspondence relating to the National Institute of Arts and Letters are at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City; works are included in the permanent collections of museums, galleries, universities and in cities and parks throughout the world.

Laurie Twist Binder , Library Media Specialist, City of Buffalo Schools, and freelance graphic artist and illustrator, Lake View, New York

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