Born on June 15, 1885 in Brooklyn, Hoffman grew up in an artistic setting. Her father was a piano prodigy who came to America when he was only 15. After Hoffman created her first sculpture, a bust of her father’s head, he looked at her and said, “My child, I'm afraid you are going to be an artist” (Hoffman, 1936).
Though Hoffman was also a talented singer and sketch artist, she decided to become a sculptor after receiving praise from Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mt. Rushmore, for a clay portrait she had created of her father. As a teenager, she studied sculpture with Borglum and at the Women’s School of Applied Design and the Art Students League.
Shortly after her father died, Hoffman and her mother moved to Paris so that she could pursue her artistic studies abroad. Her intention was to become a student of the famed Auguste Rodin. After five attempts to meet him, she was finally granted permission on account of her persistency. He was impressed with the bust of her father and another bust she had made of a young violin soloist named Samuel Grimson, who would later become her husband. Eventually Rodin accepted her as a student and she studied with him for four years from 1910 to 1914.
The Hall of Man
In 1929, Hoffman received a telegram, “Have proposition to make, do you care to consider it? Racial types to be modeled while traveling round the world” (Hoffman, 1936).
It was from Stanley Field, president of The Field Museum. He, and many others at The Field, were concerned that the “anthropology halls in all countries were generally empty and the snake and monkey houses always crowded” (Hoffman 1936). The unconventional solution they came up with was the “The Races of Man.” The idea was to use sculpture as a way to reveal man to his brother.
Hoffman was intrigued with the prospect of exploring foreign lands and a few months later in February of 1930, she met with Field and the rest of the Board to work out a contract. At the first meeting Hoffman was presented with the idea. Four to five artists would travel to different parts of the globe to capture the different races of man in the typical painted plaster molds of the day, with real hair and glass eyes. Hoffman knew immediately that she couldn’t work under those conditions; instead, she said she would present her own scheme the following day.
Hoffman explained that to get a consistent, homogenous body of work they could not combine the works of multiple sculptors. She proposed that she herself would take on the entire project. The proposal was accepted and Hoffman returned immediately to New York to begin preparation for her expedition.
The next step of her plan was to amend the contract to change the plaster molds into bronze sculptures. Instead of arguing her case and potentially losing the job, she created her first two sculptures in bronze in her New York studio and presented them to Mr. Field who then contacted the Board. The decision was unanimous; the Hall of Man would be captured in bronze.
After five years of travel and work, Hoffman had created 104 sculptures—27 life-size, 27 busts, and 50 heads—for the Hall of Man. At the beginning of the project, she was able to work from her studio in Paris, using models from the 1930 Colonial Exposition. The Exposition had assembled peoples from all over France’s colonial empire at the time. She then traveled everywhere from the Balkans to Indonesia, from Hawaii to Japan and everywhere in between. At the end of the project she felt “this collection of bronze figures and heads is a sculptor’s interpretation of Humanity, studied from three angles—Art, Science, and Psychology. It represents not only the actual study and work of the past five years, but the result of my observations and study over a period of many years previous to 1930” (Hoffman, 1936).
Shortly after her death in 1966, the Hall of Man was dismantled. Her work is featured in the exhibition Looking at Ourselves: Rethinking the Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman, which opened in January 2016.