Malvina Hoffman

(1885-1966)

Hoffman was born in a brownstone house on West 43rd Street in New York, the youngest daughter of an English pianist who at eighteen was accompanist to Jenny Lind on her first American concert tour. In 1910 she went to Europe, first to Italy and then to Paris. Armed with a letter of introduction, she tried five times to meet Rodin before finally gaining admission to his studio. She studied with Rodin for sixteen months. On her return to New York she followed Rodin’s advice and studied dissection and anatomy at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons before returning to work with Rodin for two more summers. She learned bronze casting, chasing, and finishing at foundries, while at the same time developing a wide circle of artistic friends: Pavlova, Nijinsky, Diaghilev’s ballet corps, Matisse, Brancusi, and Mabel Dodge. Hoffman won first honorable mention for "Russian Dancers" at the Paris Salon in 1911 and the Shaw Prize at the National Academy in 1917 for "Bacchanale Russe", which represents Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Mordkin. A six-foot cast of the latter was brought by a group of French critics and museum representatives to be placed in the Luxembourg Gardens.

Hoffman worked for forty-five years in the studio that she found over a florist’s shop at 15 East 35th Street in New York City. Among her large commissions in the 1920s were: "The Sacrifice", a war memorial of an armored knight being held by a grieving woman, which was given by Mrs. Martha Bacon to the chapel at Harvard University, and her monumental, heroic figures of England and America entitled "To the Friendship of the English-Speaking Peoples". An exhibition of Hoffman’s work was held at the Grand Central Art Gallery in New York in 1929. It included 105 pieces of sculpture and traveled to museums around the country for five years. Also in 1929 she was given her largest commission - over one hundred sculptures for the Races of Mankind exhibition at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. For this project she traveled around the world for two years to study people in their native environments.

"Skull with Flowers" probably dates from about 1940. Little is known about Hoffman’s activity as a painter. In 1899 she enrolled in a life class at the Art Students League, and shortly thereafter she painted a portrait of James G. Croswell, headmaster of the Brearley School. In 1906 she studied painting privately with Harper Pennington, and then continued with John White Alexander at the Veltin School. It was Alexander who encouraged her interest in becoming a sculptor. At various points in her career Hoffman executed an oil painting or watercolor. She seems to have become particularly interested in painting in the summer of 1955 during the course of her travels in Maine with her close friend the poet Marianne Moore. In this work, Hoffman was evidently inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe’s surrealistic series of New Mexico paintings from the 1930s dealing with horse and cow skulls. In some of these works, O’Keeffe draped as well as stuck flowers in eye sockets, or placed them on or around the animal skull.