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Malvina Hoffman ~ America's Rodin



One of America's foremost sculptors, Malvina Hoffman [1885-1966] studied with the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin from 1910 until his death in 1917 and is recognized by some as "America's Rodin". Hoffman is perhaps best known for her monumental bronze series, "The Races of Mankind", commissioned in 1930 by Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. Hoffman first won acclaim for her bronze sculpture of Russian dancers Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Mordkin and also studied under two other sculptors, Gutzon Borgium of Mount Rushmore fame and Herbert Adams.
Malvina Hoffman 1885-1966 - American sculptor
New York Times, Monday July 11, 1966

Malvina Hoffman, the sculptor, died of a heart attack yesterday morning in her studio at 157 East 35th Street. She was 81 years old.
Miss Hoffman had been living at the studio with her secretary, Gullborg Groneng. According to Miss Groneng, she died in her sleep at 10 A.M.
Miss Hoffman, one of the foremost sculptors of the United States, had been a pupil of Auguste Rodin. She was widely known for her portrait sculptures of Americans. Her bust of Wendell L. Willkie is enshrined at Willkie House here. Her portrait in marble of Mrs. Edward Henry Harriman, wife of the financier and railroad director, is a feature of Arden House at Columbia University. The sculptor was equally well known abroad. Her famous "Bacchanale Russe" stands in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.
Miss Hoffman was born here. her father, Richard Hoffman, had been one of the best-known pianists of his day. He was brought here from Britain by P. T. Barnum as an accompanist for Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale". Miss Hoffman grew up in a brownstone house on West 43rd Street, near where Town Hall now stands. It was a house in which many of the musicians, singers and artist of New York in the eighteen nineties were frequent visitors.
- Studied Painting First
At first, Hoffman studied painting with John Alexander. Then she went to Paris and sculpture won her dedication. She became the trusted pupil of Rodin. According to her own account, she had to fight her way into his studio.
She studied under two other sculptors, Gutzon Borgium sculptor of the Mount Rushmore portraits who had settled here in 1901 and adopted Rodin's free technique and Herbert Adams. But Miss Hoffman soon developed a style of her own.
She won her first fame with Bronzes of Pavlowa and Mordkin. Her bas-relief frieze of the Russian dancers became a legend of the art world. It demonstrated how thorough was Miss Hoffman's preparation for her work and how intensely she studied her subjects.
While she was working or the frieze she took dancing lessons from Pavlowa's partner.
After Miss Hoffman had taken 30 lessons, Pavlowa impressed the sculptor in her own bacchanale costume, tied the bunches of grapes about the sculptor's brow and launched the young artist on her debut.
Miss Hoffman, game but frightened to death, danced to center stage at the Century Theater while a full orchestra blared out its triumph. Then she fell in a dead faint. She danced rarely after that.


Russian dancers Anna Pavlova
Russian dancers Anna Pavlova
Russian dancers Anna Pavlova





- 'Races of Mankind'
The same sort of preparation and dynamic execution went into what was perhaps her monumental work, 104 life-size or heroic figures in bronze called "Races of Mankind". The work was done under a commission from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, whose Hall of Man they occupy. Miss Hoffman roamed the world to do her research. In Singapore, a Dyak headhunter was a model for her. In the Malay jungle, she worked for two hours alone with a Saka warrior. He would let her model his muscular body, but he wouldn't allow her interpreter or white escorts to observe them.


She modeled members of ancient race, the hairy Ainu In Hokkaido, the chill, northern most of the Japanese Islands There, as elsewhere, she lived with her subjects, taking the primitive conditions in stride. When she had finished, she wrote back, "All that now remains to be done is to go to the delousing station".
Among her other large work was a symbolic group called "The Sacrifice" for Harvard's War Memorial Chapel. It was commissioned in memory of Robert Bacon, class of '07, who had been Ambassador to France, by Mrs. Bacon to commemorated Harvard's war dead. The group carved in Caen stone was ex-hibited at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine from 1923-1932 while the Harvard chapel was being completed.

- Startled the English
Miss Hoffman executed a group of two heroic stone figures and an altar for the entrance to Bush House in London. She startled the English by climbing about the statuary like a rigger to put finishing touches to the Work while it was in place. It was characteristic of her even though all her life she had been a slender woman of slight build. She had learned under Rodin that her calling was arduous, that she had to become used to lifting weights she learned to use carpenters and plumbers' tools, to bend iron, saw wood and build armatures. She become expert on the characteristics of materials, to calculate the strains and build the necessary supports for her clay and stone figures. She became accustomed to standing on her feet from early morning until late at night. she visited foundries to learn about metal. But in the midst of all the physical demands, she had to be an artist, too.
Rodin had considered her sketches of his work to be primitive and would not take her on as a pupil until she made drawings that met his standards. She then took the sketches of Michelangelo for models.
Later, Rodin often took her to the Louvre just before closing lime. He would take a bit of candle from his pocket, light the wick, and by its soft light show her the smooth strong planes of the great statues.



Test of Greatness
"This is the test", he would say. "Watch the sharp edge of light as I move it over the flowing contours of these great chef-d'oeuvres of Egypt. You will see how continuous and unbroken are the surfaces, how the forms flow into one another without a break".
In World War I, Miss Hoffman founded American Yugoslav Relief and was aided in the. work by Mrs. Harriman. After the war she made an Inspection tour of Yugoslavia for Herbert Hoover and the American Red Cross.
Miss Hoffman wrote several autobiographical volumes, including "Heads and Tales" in 1936 and "Yesterday Is Tomorrow" last year. She also wrote works on sculpture, including a history.
In 1924, she was married to Samuel B. Grimson, an English musician and inventor, who had been a close family friend. He accompanied her on her five years of international research for the "Races of Mankind". they were divorced In 1936. Funeral plans were incomplete last night. Font: New York Times, Monday July 11, 1966