The Woman Behind the Hall of Man
Malvina Hoffman’s Sculptures from the Hall of Man in Rago’s May Fine Art Auctions
6 May 2016
We are gearing up for our upcoming Fine Art Auctions this weekend. This sale proves to be another exciting one with works from Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, William Merritt Chase, Francis Bacon, Alphonse Mucha and many others set to cross the auction block.
While two-dimensional art comprises the bulk of the 400+ lots in the May 7th sale, there are also many works of sculptural art on offer, including several bronzes from the collection of the late Paul Nassau. Contained within this exceptionally curated collection are 12 pieces (5 figures, 3 busts and 4 heads) created by Malvina Hoffman for the Field Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Man.
Learn more about these important pieces below.
Malvina Hoffman, daughter of concert pianist Richard Hoffman, was an artist of great talent who began attending the illustrious Art Students League of New York when she was only 14. Hoffman decided to pursue a career in sculptural arts at the urging of Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mt. Rushmore and a close family friend. Shortly after the death of her father, Hoffman moved with her mother to Paris where she continued her artistic training under Auguste Rodin.
In 1929, Hoffman received a unique offer from Stanley Field, President of the Field Museum of Natural History. Field was concerned with the lack of content and context within the world’s anthropology halls, particularly in contrast to the halls dedicated to the study of beasts and birds. Field’s unconventional solution was to create an exhibition hall wholly committed to the exploration of man as a subject of inquiry and classification. It was toward this end that Field sought to employ Hoffman’s talents.
In 1930, Hoffman met with Field and the museum board to discuss the project and her role in it. Field’s idea was to send four to five artists around the world to document the physical diversity of humanity through the production of painted plaster molds. Hoffman rejected the plan outright, returning the next day with an amended plan of her own. It would better serve the aesthetic continuity of the project, Hoffman argued, if a single artist created all of the sculptures. Hoffman volunteered to complete the project herself and the board accepted her proposal.
Hoffman went to work immediately. Working from photographs in her New York studio, Hoffman created the first two sculptures, changing the medium from plaster to bronze without permission from either Field or the museum board. Field and the board, impressed by Hoffman’s work, acquiesced to her decision to switch mediums.
Hoffman spent the next five years working on the project, first from her studio in Paris where she used models from the 1930 Colonial Exposition as her subjects, then in a world tour that took her from the deserts of Africa to the jungles of South America, where she observed and documented the indigenous populations.
In 1935, the Hall of Man was completed. The exhibition was dismantled in 1969, shortly after Hoffman’s death, and many of the pieces wound up in the hands of private collectors. Paul Nassau acquired three of these pieces (Lots 51, 53 and 57) from the legendary 1975 Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge auction at Sotheby’s and the rest from various other sources.
Rago is proud to offer these masterworks by Malvina Hoffman for sale in our 19th/20th Century American and European Art Auction on May 7th.
You can view all of the sculptures by Hoffman from the collection of Paul Nassau in our online catalog here.