Travis Nygard, Art Historian > Malvina Hoffman Exhibition > Ideal Death

Malvina Hoffman,Henry Clay Frick, 1965, Sandstone.
Malvina Hoffman, John Keats, completed 1923, marble.
Collection of the University of Pittsburgh Art Gallery.
Photograph by Travis Nygard.

Malvina and Mortality

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Ideal Death: John Keats


The bust of John Keats's ghost on display here was carved almost 100 years after he passed away and represents an idealized death associated with creativity and genius.  Hoffman used Keat’s ghost and two masks as a references to create the sculpture, and recounted the process in her second autobiography, Yesterday is Tomorrow, quoted below.  Keats’ death at the age of 25 was caused by tuberculosis, a disease then thought to stimulate artistic and intellectual ability.  In his definitive book Tuberculosis and Genius from 1940, the physician Lewis Moorman explained that: “It is well-known that tuberculosis may give rise to two distinct manifestations: the depletion of physical energy and, directly or indirectly, the stimulation of mental activity.” Although such a romantic vision of the effects of tuberculosis—a bacterial disease affecting the lungs that causes weight loss—is dismissed by most people in the twenty first century the effects of the disease can indeed be seen in her sculpture. She has rendered Keats with the delicate features of an emaciated man.

Malvina Hoffman, book, The Races of Mankind.
Photograph of John Keat’s death mask.
Cast by Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1821
Original in the Laurence Hutton Collection
of Life and Death Masks,
Princeton University Library


The effeminacy of the bust of Keats is also a hallmark of tuberculosis in Western culture.  An early example is the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, which shows the goddess of love on a sea shell. Botticelli used a tuberculitic model for her, and hints of her condition can be detected in the sinuous hands and thin neck.  A copy of this painting by Nicholas Lochoff is on display in the cloister of this building.  Today the tuberculitic aesthetic lives on in the Goth subculture, which celebrates deathly pale makeup and slenderness. 

Keats's Ghost and the University of Pittsburgh

The best was created from sketches that Hoffman made of Keats's ghost in the room where he died in Rome, and because of a second apparition in Pittsburgh he was donated to the University. Specifically, Hoffman encountered Chancellor Bowman speaking to the bust in a low voice at the opening to a retrospective of her work at the Carnegie Museum of Art in 1923.  Assuming that he had the same spiritual connection with Keats that she herself did, she gave it to the school. Bowman is the administrator responsible for building the Cathedral of Learning, and the garden in the center of this building is also dedicated to him. Hoffman reconted her encounter with the ghost in some detail: 

“When I found myself in the room where the poet had died, something inexplicable happened—I had a startling vision of Keats.  I saw him steadily and clearly, reclining on a couch and propped up with pillows.  I did what seemed natural—I told the guide I was an artist, and asked him if he could give me a piece of paper as I had not brought my sketchbook, and I persuaded him to leave me alone in the room for a while and not admit anyone else.  I began to draw the profile of the poet.  I did the entire head on the gray square of paper and then thought it would be well to check the absolute accuracy of this profile by getting a fresh view.  When I walked in front of what I imagined was there, the vision disappeared.

“I showed the drawing to the guide, and he seemed surprised and impressed.  There was actually no couch in the room, and neither he nor anyone else later was able to tell me where the couch had been in Keats’s time.  When I was in London later, I went to Keats Memorial House, and there the curator showed me the portraits that were available.  I examined them and the death mask and the life mask.  The death mask had nothing of my drawing, but I knew a death mask can be taken so that the person becomes unrecognizable.  The weight of plaster pressing down on the features distorts the expression totally.  But a life mask is different.  There were perhaps twenty different versions of Keats's appearance, and though I examined them carefully, in some I could see a decided resemblance to my drawing but in some I could not.  But I have a growing conviction that some power had directed me and that my drawing was an exact likeness.  I never changed it.  Those who had made a careful study of Keats portraiture and best knew what he may really have looked like were impressed by the resemblance.

“No head of Keats had been made in sculpture during his lifetime, and I had the impulse to do one.  After returning to New York, I made a life-size model.  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.  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.”

-Malvina Hoffman, Yesterday Is Tomorrow: A Personal History, New York: Crown Publishers, 1965, pages 97-98..

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