Column of Life

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Column of Life

United States, 1917
26 x 7 1/2 x 9 in. (66.20 x 19.05 x 22.86 cm)
Gift of The B. Gerald Cantor Art Foundation (M.86.261)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

In her autobiography, Heads and Tales, Hoffman recounted the genesis of Column of Life (pp.43-44): ...
In her autobiography, Heads and Tales, Hoffman recounted the genesis of Column of Life (pp.43-44): I was kept waiting a long time for Rodin to arrive. I took two small bits of clay and rolled them absentmindedly into two pieces about five inches long. These I pressed together in my closed hand, and studying the result was amazed to find that the pressure of my fingers had clearly suggested the forms of two standing figures. I added the two heads and was tapping the base on the stone step to make it stand up, when Rodin appeared. He asked me what I was doing and I showed him the little group. "Just an accident," I said, "made while I was waiting for you." After carefully examining it from all sides, he said very seriously, "There is more in this than you understand at present .... You will keep this, and model this group one-half life-size and cut it in marble-but before you do it, you must study for five years." In 1912 the clay model was made into a seal five inches high and cast in bronze, with approximately 128 lifetime casts and five posthumous ones. Following Rodin’s advice, Hoffman did not translate the idea of the lovers into a larger scale until about 1917, when she carved two marble examples (private collections). Bronzes of Column of Life were not produced until even later, and their casting history is somewhat complex. The dating of a single bronze cast by Cellini Bronze Works Company, Brooklyn (Art Institute of Chicago), is problematic; it may have been cast as early as 1928 although records in the Hoffman papers list it under 1937. This Cellini bronze is unique in its inclusion of a separately cast, forty-two-inch pedestal with oriental motifs: elaborate low reliefs of six centers of kundalini (chakras) connected by a serpentine form. Not until more than two decades later was another edition cast by Bedi-Rassy Art Foundry, Brooklyn. According to the artist’s account ledgers and foundry receipts, a plaster cast was made in 1959, probably from the marble sold that year to Huntington Hartford. The following year Bedi-Rassy cast a bronze, probably from the 1959 plaster, and it was sold (Glenbow Foundation, Calgary, Alberta, Canada). The foundry also produced a second cast three months before Hoffman’s death, the museum’s cast. Column of Life exemplifies the strong influence of Rodin on Hoffman during her early years as a sculptor. Rodin created many marbles of lovers embracing, usually presenting the couples as if their bodies were melted together and they had just emerged from the roughly hewn block of stone. Hoffman treated her lovers in a similar manner, also modeling the surface in soft, flowing passages in a manner similar to the sketchy surfaces of Rodin’s sculptures. Such a handling intensified the sensual quality of the theme.

About The Era

The late nineteenth century witnessed a growing cosmopolitanism and sophistication in American culture....
The late nineteenth century witnessed a growing cosmopolitanism and sophistication in American culture. Great riches were amassed by railroad tycoons and land barons, and along with this came the desire for a luxurious standard of living. Collectors filled their homes with European as well as American works of art. American artists, generally trained abroad, often painted in styles that were indistinguishable from their European counterparts.
Most Americans who studied abroad did so in the European academies, which promoted uplifting subject matter and a representational style that emphasized well-modeled, clearly defined forms and realistic color. Academic painting served American artists well, for their clients demanded elaborate large-scale paintings to demonstrate their wealth and social positions. With an emphasis on material objects and textures, academic artists immortalized their patrons’ importance in full-length portraits.
Academic painting dominated taste in Europe throughout the century. But in the 1860s impressionism emerged in France as a reaction to this hegemony. By the 1880s this “new painting” was still considered progressive. Mary Cassatt was the only American invited to participate in the revolutionary Paris impressionist exhibitions. Despite her participation and the early interest of several other American painters, few Americans explored impressionism until the 1890s. Impressionist painters no longer had to choose subject matter of an elevated character but instead could depict everyday scenes and incidents. Nor did impressionists have to record the physical world with the objective detail of a photograph. Artists were now encouraged to leave their studios and paint outside under different weather conditions. American impressionists used the new aesthetic to capture the charm and beauty of the countryside and the city as well as the quiet delicacy of domestic interiors.


Hoffman was one of many artists who fell under the spell of Auguste Rodin around the turn of the century....
Hoffman was one of many artists who fell under the spell of Auguste Rodin around the turn of the century. As a young artists she went to Paris to study and there became the French master’s student and studio assistant. Column of Life was modeled in Rodin’s studio. When he discovered Hoffman playing with a small lump of clay, Rodin saw that she had delicately manipulated the material to suggest two lovers. He told her, “There is more here than you understand at present,” and suggested that she not attempt to enlarge the piece until she was a more accomplished artist. Years later Hoffman transformed the tiny sculpture into a larger work, creating both marble and bronze versions. It is only in the bronze, with its warm, golden-brown patina, that Hoffman fully expressed the sensuality of the theme. As a man and woman embrace, their two bodies merge into one flowing form. Such evocative symbolism was new to American sculpture, and Rodin was largely responsible for American artists abandoning the literalism of earlier figurative sculpture. In Column of Life Hoffman focused on the grand emotion of erotic love, suggesting its transformative power through subtly evocative forms.


  • About the Era.
  • Fort, Ilene Susan and Michael Quick.  American Art:  a Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection.  Los Angeles:  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991.
  • Fort, Ilene Susan; M. Lenihan; M. Park; S. Rather and Roberta K. Tarbell.  The Figure in American Scuplture:  A Question of Modernity.  Los Angeles:  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1995.