Gift of the artist
1984.15
Malvina Hoffman (1885-1966)

John Keats

1926 (Date created)
Medium
Marble
Dimensions
15.5 in W x 16 in H x 10 in D
Culture
American
Description
This life-size marble bust depicts the well-known English Romantic poet, John Keats (1795-1821). Keats’s head emerges from a roughly handled block of marble, carved to emphasize its stony texture, and so further emphasizing the closely modeled details of his face. His expression is one of calmness: his brow is relaxed, his mouth closed but not tensed, and his modest gaze falls straight ahead. His head tilts slightly upwards as if to suggest that he is in thought. The focus on Keats’s portrait is further highlighted by the way in which the head of the bust extends outward from the block. Though the face pushes into the viewer’s space, the sculpture’s overall presence remains relatively passive and unobtrusive.

The bust was begun in 1912 and finished in 1926 by New York-born artist Malvina Hoffman (1885-1966). While living in Italy, Hoffman toured the house in which Keats spent his final days before dying of tuberculosis at age 25.[1] In Hoffman’s memoir, Yesterday is Tomorrow, she claims that she saw an apparition of the deceased poet sitting in the room in which he died. While describing the event she says, “something inexplicable happened – I had a startling vision of Keats. I saw him steadily and clearly, reclining on a couch and propped up on pillows.”[2]  This led her to ask the tour guide to bring her drawing materials, which she used to render her vision of the poet’s profile. According to the artist, this drawn study served as the basis for the marble bust in the University Art Gallery’s collection. Hoffman later compared her drawing to other depictions of Keats (death and life masks from the Keats Memorial House in London), and remarked that some shared a resemblance but many did not.[3]  “I referred to the existing portraits to make them fit my profile, but my main confidence was in myself, in what I had myself seen and recorded,” she explained of the uncertain likeness. “Even if it might have been some illusion or dream, this was what Keats was to me; this was my sense of his presence and poetry.”[4]

Upon returning to New York, Hoffman made her own life-size plaster model of Keats, later finishing the marble version. [5] The sculpture stayed in Hoffman’s possession until 1928 when it appeared in a traveling exhibition of her work, which was shown at the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh. [6] While the work was being exhibited, Hoffman claims to have witnessed a man speaking to the bust of Keats. [7] She approached the man, and learned that he was John G. Bowman, the Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh. Assuming that Chancellor Bowman had experienced a vision of Keats’s ghost like her own, Hoffman donated the sculpture to the University.

In 1910, while living in Paris, Hoffman studied under the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. [8] Referred to as “America’s Rodin,” his influence on her work is evident in the effect of a well-modeled head coming out of a rougher block of marble in John Keats, so typical of Rodin’s sculpture.[9] But this work is somewhat atypical of her practice, best known as she was for her bronze portrait busts of contemporary ballet dancers, significant society individuals, and the large group of anthropological figures commissioned by Chicago’s Field Museum in 1930.[10]  While Hoffman never discussed the deviation from her typical subject matter in John Keats, its dissimilarity from her larger body of work could be ascribed to the mysterious spectral circumstances surrounding the bust’s creation. 

The notion of inanimate stone coming to life connects multiple works in the UAG collection, allowing them to be considered in relation to the story of Pygmalion and the Statue. The myth comes from the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Cypriot sculptor Pygmalion creates an ivory sculpture of a nude female figure.[11] The sculpture is so beautiful that he falls in love with it, eventually kissing the statue, which brings it to life.[12] Though not used in the original myth, the sculpture is often given the name of Galatea in later versions of the story. Christine Rosamund’s Galatea (1977) is an example of this, referencing the story through its title and depiction of a woman emerging from stone. Ralph Gibson’s photograph Woman with Statue (1974) portrays a different yet related scene of a woman being overshadowed by a classical male sculpture.    

Hoffman’s John Keats can also be understood within this narrative of a muse coming alive, though in its own mythic narrative the conventional roles are reversed. Hoffman’s vision of Keats manifests as a bust, rather than a sexualized nude body. The conditions of her compulsion to create the work came not from a sexual fantasy, but rather an instance of sudden inspiration resulting from a fleeting, perhaps imagined encounter with a ghost.

[1] The Keats-Shelley House is located at the base of the Spanish Steps in Rome, and was opened to the public in 1909. See "Home - Keats Shelley House," Keats-Shelley House, accessed April 13, 2018, http://www.keats-shelley-house.org.
[2] Malvina Hoffman, Yesterday is Tomorrow: A Personal History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1965), 97.
[3] Ibid., 98.
[4] Hoffman, Yesterday is Tomorrow, 98.
[5] Malvina Hoffman, Heads and Tales (Garden City, N.Y: Garden City publishing co., inc, 1943), 76-77.
[6] Hoffman, Yesterday is Tomorrow, 98. In her memoir, Hoffman describes the Pittsburgh exhibition as having occurred in 1928; however, multiple newspaper articles from the time suggest that John Keats was shown at the Carnegie Institute in 1929 (likely traveling to Pittsburgh after being shown at the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York City from Dec. 15, 1928-Jan. 5 1929). See, for instance, Harvey Gaul, “Photographic Salon at Carnegie Institute; Malvina Hoffman’s “Keats” to Stay in Pittsburgh; Keystone Orchestra,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), March 28, 1929.
[7] Ibid.  
[8] May Brawley Hill, The Woman Sculptor: Malvina Hoffman and Her Contemporaries (NY (743 5th Ave., NY, 10022): Berry-Hill Galleries, 1984), 20.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Carol Kort and Liz Sonneborn, A to Z of American Women in the Visual Arts (New York: Facts on File, 2002), 95-96.
[11]   Samuel Garth and John Dryden, The Internet Classics Archive | Metamorphoses by Ovid, accessed April 01, 2018, http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.10.tenth.html.
[12]  Ibid.

Author: Caroline Fazzini - Spring 2018
Exhibition Label
Malvina Hoffman (1885–1966)
John Keats 1926
Marble
1984.15
Gift of the artist


Malvina Hoffman made this portrait bust after claiming to have seen the ghost of the Romantic poet John Keats (1795–1821), capturing her fleeting vision of his spirit in marble. (This is Not Ideal, Fall 2018)
Status
In Collection
Provenance
Gift of Malvina Hoffman
Bibliography
This is not Ideal: Gender Myths and their Transformation. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh University Art Gallery. 2018. Exhibition catalogue. Published on the occasion of the student-curated exhibition This is not Ideal: Gender Myths and Their Transformation at the University Art Gallery, University of Pittsburgh, October 26-December 7, 2018. University Art Gallery. Frick Fine Arts Building, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh PA 15260 ISBN: 978-1-7329013-0-8

Please note that cataloging is ongoing and that some information may not be complete.