Recent Acquisition: Portrait of a Lady

photo of plaster bust of Helen Clay Frick

Malvina Cornell Hoffman’s Helen Clay Frick

When a plaster bust of Helen Clay Frick arrived for study purposes at the museum in 2016, it was accompanied by a cryptic handwritten tag reading, “Carved in marble for Mr. Frick — destroyed by H. F. after her father’s d[eath].” The handwriting is likely that of the bust’s maker, Malvina Cornell Hoffman, a renowned American sculptor and close acquaintance of the Frick family, whom Henry Clay Frick had commissioned to create a marble portrait of his daughter Helen, who was thirty-one years old at the time. The perplexing tag provides the only known account of the marble’s destruction. The plaster, created in 1919 and painted to look like terracotta, was given to the museum by Derek Ostergard, and his wife, Lillian, who is Hoffman’s niece. A particularly personal addition to the permanent collection, it represents an intriguing episode in Frick family history and provides a welcome opportunity to recall the career of a fascinating artist.

Malvina Cornell Hoffman was a New York City native who began her artistic training at the Art Students League and went on to be mentored by the painter John White Alexander and sculptors Gutzon Borglum — best remembered as the creator of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota — Herbert Adams, and George Gray Barnard. Following the death of her father, in 1910, Malvina and her mother moved to Italy, then later to Paris. There she met Auguste Rodin and eventually persuaded him to accept her as a student. At Rodin’s behest, she returned to Manhattan and spent a year dissecting cadavers at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. The grisly experience would have a profound influence on her future anatomical depictions.

As a result of her training with such illustrious artists, together with an abundance of innate talent, Hoffman became a celebrated sculptor. Her oeuvre would eventually include bronze figures both small and large, such as her popular depictions of the dancer Anna Pavlova (the Frick owns a small version) and public monuments including the Races of Mankind, made for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. The series, executed 1930–33, comprised 105 figures, busts, and heads, representing numerous world cultures. In preparation for this ambitious commission, Hoffman traveled the globe, often living in difficult conditions. While the series sparked criticism from anthropologists who found her renderings devoid of context, others praised her sensitive portrayal of individuals.

Hoffman and Helen Clay Frick were close contemporaries whose social circles intersected, and the two women developed a friendship, likely fostered by their common interest in art. Both women were also fervent supporters of the Red Cross and actively engaged in relief efforts during World War I. Although it is not certain when they met, correspondence confirms that they were acquainted by 1919, if not sooner.

Hoffman’s work is perhaps already familiar to Frick patrons, as her marble bust of Henry Clay Frick greets visitors in the museum’s Entrance Hall. Although the bust was made posthumously, plans for its creation were germinating even as Mr. Frick and Hoffman discussed Helen’s portrait, according to Hoffman’s 1965 memoir Yesterday Is Tomorrow: “All the time I was scrutinizing his face — he was so sympathetic and unhurried, I felt it inevitable that I would one day do his portrait.” Hoffman’s premonitions proved correct. Shortly after Mr. Frick’s death, on December 2, 1919, the family asked Hoffman to create a death mask; she used the somber cast as an aid in preparing a series of marble busts representing the great collector “in slightly varying moods,” as she describes the portraits in her memoir. The version in the Entrance Hall was completed in 1922. Another marble dating from the same year is on view at Clayton, the Frick family home in Pittsburgh. (It was likely first installed at Eagle Rock, the family’s summer residence in Prides Crossing, Massachusetts, where it remained until the demolition of the house, in 1969.) A third marble, made in 1922 or early 1923, is displayed in the lobby of the Frick Building in downtown Pittsburgh, where it has likely been since its creation. A bronze version, signed by Hoffman and dated 1920, is installed in the McKinley Memorial Library in Niles, Ohio, to which Mr. Frick made a substantial financial contribution. As with the bust of Helen Clay Frick, Hoffman had made a plaster model in preparation for this bronze. (In 1951 she donated it to the New-York Historical Society as part of an ensemble of twenty-four plasters she had created of distinguished New Yorkers.)

In addition to these busts, Helen commissioned Hoffman in 1962 to create a bas-relief stone portrait of Mr. Frick to adorn the Henry Clay Frick Fine Arts Building, which she erected as a gift to the city and a memorial to her father. The building, located on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, was completed in 1965. A plaster roundel, made in preparation for the final stone medallion, is part of the Frick’s holdings.

Helen’s continued patronage of and correspondence with Hoffman makes the allegation that she destroyed her own portrait all the more puzzling. Helen was, in fact, so admiring of Hoffman’s artistic sensibility that she proposed the sculptor as a Trustee for The Frick Collection in 1920. (Her suggestion was never acted upon, as a subsequent decision by the Board limited the number of trustees.) Hoffman’s own recollections, too, suggest a pleasant relationship with the Frick family. In her memoir, Hoffman shares details of the genesis of the marble bust of Helen:

“Henry Frick . . . commissioned me to do a portrait of his daughter Helen. ‘Come and look at the Houdons in my collection; it might be suitable to do my daughter in the eighteenth century French manner!’ Rather abashed, although I had copied Houdons in Paris, I looked at his Houdons. Like that sculptor’s other work, they had a very definite style, a particular approach to the subject’s eyes (very alive), and a delicate grace of drapery and detailed treatment of the hair. I did my best to carry it out as he intended, and he appeared pleased with the final result in marble.”

Although Hoffman’s marble rendering of Helen Clay Frick no longer exists, the plaster version attests to the sculptor’s remarkable talent. The figure’s head, gently turned to the left, replicates classically modeled features, creating a calm mien. Hoffman’s skill in describing textures is apparent in her treatment of Helen’s hair and diaphanous gown, while the artist’s delicate treatment of her pale eyes — with irises deftly hollowed out — animates the face.

Houdon had employed this same carving technique when depicting his sitters’ eyes, as, for example, in his superlative Comtesse du Cayla, dated 1777. That bust, acquired by Mr. Frick in 1916, must have served as inspiration. As with Houdon’s Comtesse, Helen’s hair is swept up to expose her graceful neck and daringly exposed shoulder. While the countess’s hairdo is much more elaborate in accordance with eighteenth-century fashions, Helen’s hair is loosely twisted into a chignon, a sophisticated and timeless style also seen in Houdon’s Diana. Houdon depicted the countess in the guise of a bacchante, as suggested by her sleeveless garment, secured at the shoulder with a clasp in the Greek manner, and the grape-leaf garland. Helen wears a similar costume — also gathered at the shoulder and adorned with a rose and other foliage — which slips alluringly off her right shoulder. Perhaps these sensual details, added by Hoffman likely in homage to Houdon, seemed to the modest Helen too provocative for her own portrait and caused her to eventually destroy the final marble. As no further evidence has surfaced to suggest any motivation for the bust’s destruction, this seems a reasonable assumption.

Distinct elements of the plaster are evident in a series of photographic portraits of Helen made by Hoffman in preparation for the sculpture, revealing her early interest in emphasizing Helen’s neck and exposed shoulder. Hoffman’s decision to create a preliminary plaster version of her sitter also emulates Houdon. The eighteenth-century sculptor first modeled his subjects in pliable clay. Using the fired clay as a model, Houdon then produced a more durable plaster cast. No terracotta version of the Hoffman bust is known, and one wonders if Hoffman tinted the plaster as an homage to Houdon’s artistic practices.

The founder of the Frick Art Reference Library, Helen Clay Frick was a serious art historian who maintained a lifelong interest in Houdon. Her writings on the artist include two published articles (“Houdon and Rembrandt Peale,” in The Magazine Antiques, July 1934, and “Madame Jean Antoine Houdon,” in Art Bulletin, September 1947), an unpublished manuscript, The Life of Jean Antoine Houdon, and an unfinished catalogue raisonné of his works. Her sizeable holdings of material on the sculptor, comprising copies of the Houdon family archives, correspondence with experts, and a plethora of research on his oeuvre, are all contained in the archives of the Frick Art Reference Library. A seminal member of the museum’s acquisitions committee, Helen also spearheaded the institution’s purchase of two important sculptures by Houdon, the marble bust Armand-Thomas Hue, Marquis de Miromesnil (1777) and Diana the Huntress (1776−95), added in 1937 and 1939, respectively. 

Although the marble bust no longer exists, Hoffman’s plaster model of Helen Clay Frick was recently treated in the museum’s conservation studio and has been installed in the Reading Room of the Frick Art Reference Library. There it serves as a fitting memorial to the library’s founder, invoking the spirit of her pioneering research on Houdon.

Malvina Cornell Hoffman, Helen Clay Frick, 1919, painted plaster, The Frick Collection, gift of Lillian and Derek Ostergard, in honor of Margo Donahue dePeyster

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