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 Malvina Cornell Hoffman  (1885/87 - 1966)

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Lived/Active: New York / Europe      Known for: portrait and figure sculpture, ballet dancers

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Malvina Hoffman Grimson is primarily known as Malvina Cornell Hoffman

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Malvina Cornell Hoffman
An example of work by Malvina Hoffman Grimson
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in New York City, Malvina Hoffman was a portrait sculptor of pieces that expressed the fluid movement of dancers and lofty human values.  She became especially noted for her hall-of-fame portraits including Paderewski, Pavlova, Wendell Wilkie and Katharine Cornell.

Many of her pieces she carved in stone, and some of them were enormous in scale including war monuments.  Her masterpiece is considered to be The Races of Man, done in 1933, commissioned by the Marshall Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.  It had one-hundred five separate pieces, cast in bronze, depicting people from diverse cultures.

She grew up in an art-oriented environment in Manhattan where her father was a pianist and music filled the house.  She attended the Brearley School and took private art classes, first studying painting with John White Alexander.

Changing to sculpture, she did her first work in 1909, a portrait bust of her father who died that year leaving the family in financial straits.  However, his portrait was accepted for the National Academy of Design's annual exhibition and launched her career.

She studied with Herbert Adams and Gutzon Borglum in New York and in Paris in 1910 with Auguste Rodin from whom she learned naturalism and whose doorstep she sat on until he agreed to see her.  In Paris, she associated with numerous leading intellectuals including Gertrude Stein, Henri Matisse, and Anna Pavlova, and her bronze sculptures of Pavlova, Russian ballet star, won her much attention and many commissions.

Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, III:
Malvina Hoffman (June 15, 1887 – July 10, 1966)

Malvina Hoffman was born in New York City, the daughter of the concert pianist, Richard Hoffman. She gravitated toward sculpture at an early age, demonstrating her talents. By the age of fourteen she was taking classes at the Art Students League of New York. She later received help from the sculptors Herbert Adams, George Grey Barnard, and Gutzon Borglum, who was a friend of her family. Another family friend, Alexander Phimister Proctor, allowed her the use of his MacDougal Alley studio for a summer.

In 1910 Hoffman moved to Europe at the age of twenty-three when her father died. Accompanying her mother, she first lived in Italy before moving to Paris. After several unsuccessful attempts, she eventually was accepted as a student by Auguste Rodin. He later convinced her to return to Manhattan to spend a year dissecting bodies at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. The education she received there was invaluable, honing her remarkable skill of rendering anatomical features that was evidenced highly when she embarked on her ambitious project to sculpt the anthropological series.

While working for the Red Cross during and after World War I, Hoffman traveled to Yugoslavia where she first met sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, with whom she would study a decade later. She was commissioned to execute several war memorials following WWI, both domestically and internationally.

In 1930 Malvina Hoffman began working for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, sculpting life-sized statues of members of the diverse human cultural groups and she eventually completed one hundred and five sculptures, including busts, full-length figures of individuals, and small family groups for the project. Her skill at representation of the human form allowed her to render the graceful beauty of her subjects during their daily activities. This project resulted in the largest single corpus of her work.

Initially, these sculptures were set up in the Hall of Man that was established at the museum. The stories of her trips to track down the various models for each cultural group form the basis of her first book, "Heads and Tales".

However, after 30 years of display, questions began to circulate regarding the relevance of the context in which the original display was exhibited. According to American Historical Review, "the sculptures in the "Races of Mankind" had perpetuated an older typological approach by presenting "race" in the form of literally static bronze figures depicting idealized racial "types.""(Brattain, 2007). The collection was dispersed around the museum, much of it being removed from public view and relegated to storage. The retention of the sculptures by the museum provides the potential for the redisplay of the figures, if an appropriate context were developed and agreed upon.

Many of a limited series cast of smaller versions of the Hoffman life-sized anthropological sculptures, Mankind, were purchased by well-known art collectors such as, Geraldine R. Dodge, however, so appreciation for her skill in this endeavor was not lost. Several were featured in an auction held at Dodge's New Jersey estate in the late 1970s and others remain held in other private collections.

Following World War II, Hoffman was chosen to execute sculpture for the Epinal American Cemetery and Memorial near Vosges, France. This marks the site of bloody fighting that took place in December 1944, in what became known as, the Battle of the Bulge.

In addition to her professional talents, it is likely that Hoffman was chosen as the sculptor for this project because of the very active role she had played in the Red Cross during both WWI and WWII. Her selection also is symbolically meaningful because, during their occupation of France, the Nazis deliberately destroyed several of her commemorative works that were located in Paris.

Some of her later commemorative monuments stand at Harvard University and Syracuse University as well as at locations in London and Paris. Many of her portraits of individuals are among the collection of the New York Historical Society. She maintained a salon, a social gathering of artistic and personal acquaintances, at her Sniffen Court studio for many years.

Throughout her career, dancers fascinated Hoffman and they form the subject matter for many of her most well-known pieces although the anthropological works are the greatest in number for a single project. Many of her works were portrait busts: both of significant persons of the time and of working-class people she encountered in daily life. She often was commissioned to execute commemorative monuments and was awarded many prizes and honors. She was a member of the National Sculpture Society.

She was married to Samuel B. Grimson, often known simply as S. B. Grimson, who traveled with her during her search for authentic indigenous models for the anthropological series. Over 2,000 photographic negatives from that search are among the extensive documents of her career. Some are featured in her autobiographies.

In 1965 she published, Yesterday is Tomorrow, her final book. The next year, at the age of seventy-nine, Malvina Cornell Hoffman died while working in her studio in Manhattan.


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Malvina Grimson is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
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