The giant caryatids that support the porches of the Field Museum of Natural History preside over the lakefront cognizant and watchful–heroic, uniform sentinels with the features of a single ancient and noble race. These dignified figures peer out from the stately structure with a distinctive Greek visage, never flinching, never growing tired, assuring those who pass that humankind and the spirit that builds civilizations will survive.

Inside the museum is another set of human figures that attests to the spirit that builds civilizations in an even more profound way, statues of understated power and beauty. Unlike their giant stone sisters outside, these life-size statues are not uniform in expression or features; each one has its own language, its own locution, its own poetry. Yet despite their variety, each says the same thing: not only will we survive, but we will do it in all of our glorious diversity. The disparate unity captured in these statues, their varied wholeness, is Babel reformed into coherence by artistic vision.

That vision belonged to an extraordinary woman, Malvina Hoffman (1885-1966), sculptor, philosopher, and writer. In 1929, only eight years after the Field Museum opened, Stanley Field and the museum’s board of directors voted to commission a set of statues depicting “racial types in a dignified manner” to be displayed at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. They had conceived “The Races of Man” as a project by a group of artists, realized in painted plaster, glass eyes, and human hair. Instead, it was single-handedly transformed by Hoffman into 105 sculptures in bronze.

No other set of sculptures in the world is comparable in either scope or vision. Yet Hoffman, once internationally renowned, has been almost forgotten. In 1966 the hall that had been designed by the artist to display the statues was dismantled. Once the main attraction of the world’s fair, the 35 full figures, 1 half figure, 30 busts, and 39 heads were placed in storage. Since then no information on Hoffman or her statues has been available in the museum bookstore, though a catalog is being developed. The statues that remain on display are arbitrarily scattered through the museum, most without adequate lighting or safeguards to keep them from being damaged. Some of the statues have had the patina Hoffman herself applied rubbed off in spots, and others have had small parts broken off.

Hoffman was born in New York in 1885 into an artistic family. Her father, Richard Hoffman, was an acclaimed concert pianist and teacher from England. Her mother, Fidelia Lampson, who was from a wealthy old New York family, had studied piano with him. They eventually eloped, though she knew she’d be shunned by her family for marrying a poor artist.

When Hoffman was 24 she showed her father a sculpture she’d done of him, and he realized she had something special to offer the world. “My child, I’m afraid you’re going to be an artist,” he told her, according to her book Heads and Tales. “It’s a long, hard road and you have to travel most of the time entirely alone. I am seventy-eight years old and can leave you very little of this world’s earthly goods, but if I can leave you my ideals, perhaps they will be worth more to you than anything else. Above all, you must be an artist; after that you may create art.”

Only two weeks after her father gave her this advice he died. She bought a block of marble and carved another portrait of him. Later she submitted it to the National Academy in New York and was accepted as a student.

A year later, in 1910, Hoffman traveled with her mother to Europe to continue her studies. Determined to become a pupil of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, Hoffman demanded an audience with him. Five times she was turned away at the door to his studio by his servant. She finally told the servant, “Tell Monsieur Rodin that if he does not see me today I must return to America, but that I came to Paris to study with him. . . . I shall not leave, he must admit me today.” Rodin agreed to see her, and her relationship with him as mentor and friend continued until his death in 1917.

Hoffman vigorously pursued her art, becoming particularly interested in sculpting dancers. She was intrigued by the art form and its stars, particularly the dancer Anna Pavlova, who became a close friend. Hoffman’s fascination with dance continued throughout her career, and its influence can be seen in the “Races of Man” statues.

Her most monumental work of this time was a pair of male figures sculpted in 1924 for the Bush Building in London. Holding a torch over a Celtic altar, the figures symbolize the bond between English-speaking peoples. They were carved out of more than 50 tons of limestone and lifted in sections by hand pulleys to the top of 80-foot columns. The figures were in place before Hoffman realized they didn’t pick up enough sunlight to show the relief adequately. Not willing to compromise, she worked every day for five weeks on a makeshift scaffolding hung 80 feet in the air. Hammer and chisel in hand, she would pound away, sitting astride the shoulders of the statues with no safety harness.

In the same year she completed the statues Hoffman married Samuel Grimson, a violinist who had been a friend of her father’s. Grimson had to give up the violin after he was injured in World War I, and later took up filmmaking. He documented his wife’s travels for the “Races of Man” commission.

In 1929, when she was 44, Hoffman organized a large exhibition of her statues in 16 different mediums that toured many important U.S. galleries. That same year she walked into the Field Museum boardroom and persuaded the directors that she alone could execute their commission.

From the start she knew the project would not be easy. “Many times I wanted to call my husband on the long-distance telephone and ask his advice,” she wrote in her 1936 book on the commission, Heads and Tales. “But I felt that to do this would be a lack of courage on my part. After all, it was my own risk and my own responsibility.”

She set out on a journey that took her around the world twice, often visiting people who’d had no prior contact with Western civilization. Her travels were remarkably devoid of conflict with the people she met; the real danger turned out to be the infections that forced her to stop work several times. In Japan she was bedridden for five weeks and almost lost her right arm.

Other dangers were encountered in the foundries of Paris and New York, where the final statues were cast. Most sculptors at the time understood the risks of casting their work and left it to foundry experts. They knew very little about the process. But early in Hoffman’s career the Yugoslavian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, whose twin statues of Native American equestrian warriors flank Congress at Michigan Avenue, warned her that because she was a woman in an almost totally male-dominated field she would have to know her craft better than most sculptors. Following his advice, she chose to do much of the foundry work on the statues herself and included a chapter on casting in her definitive 1939 text Sculpture Inside and Out. “The risks and dangers of such work are many,” she wrote in Heads and Tales. “The number of burns and injuries received during years of foundry activity should be added to the unrecorded acts of courage and perfection of technique which go into the making of every piece of bronze.”

Hoffman’s Heads and Tales is a hefty volume: 400 pages, 277 illustrations, and an appendix of translated sayings and poetry from around the world–all of which might lead one to think it’s merely a travelogue. But in it she poses questions that are at once personal and universal, questions that lead to startling and profound revelations about art, about dignity, about courage, about the essence of being that connects all peoples.

Hoffman’s story and her statues are a distinctive part of Chicago’s history. Why then has this gifted artist and her work been almost forgotten? One reason may be the nature of the commission itself: perceptions of race have undergone profound social and anthropological change, and some people came to think the statues didn’t reflect those changes.

Concepts of race in the 1920s were based on 19th-century ideas that typed whole populations by physical characteristics such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features. Anthropologists later came to see cultural characteristics such as clothing, hair styles, and ornaments as at least as important as physical characteristics in identifying populations. Often carefully guarded by tradition, these cultural characteristics were seen as indispensable to understanding the values and spirit of a culture. But using cultural criteria in the 1930s was controversial because they clouded the less inclusive physical categories.

That Hoffman didn’t consider physical racial differences as important as other differences is evident in her decision to cast her sculptures in bronze instead of using the painted plaster, glass eyes, and human hair proposed by the museum. It was almost as if she’d anticipated the trend toward emphasizing cultural criteria.

But some anthropologists were critical of her choice. In a letter to museum volunteer Louva Calhoun, former Field Museum curator of prehistory Glen Cole wrote, “Whatever the aesthetic benefit of this decision, her work was deprived of several of the diagnostic characteristics which were regarded as being of primary significance by students of human race of the period. The handsome bronze casts could in no way convey information on such features as skin and eye color or hair form and color, which would have been easily expressed in the originally intended painted plaster rendition.”

Hoffman’s statues were given racial labels: “Nordic Type,” “Mediterranean Type.” In 1933 these labels caused little if any controversy, and Hoffman doesn’t seem to have objected. But by the mid-1960s, when the civil-rights movement was at its zenith, the labels had become controversial. In 1966 the statues were packed away.

In 1971, responding to public demand, the museum put half of the statues back on display. But they called the collection “Portraits of Man” rather than “The Races of Man,” and they changed the labels; “Nordic Type” became “American Man,” “Mediterranean Type” became “Sicilian Man.”

Yet Hoffman, knowing she couldn’t capture a whole race in one statue or a set of statues, had deliberately defied any generic approach to race and had chosen to sculpt individuals–perhaps another reason her work has been neglected.

Over the years some anthropologists have claimed the statues were too “romantic” and therefore unscientific. What they meant by “romantic” is unclear, since the style of the statues can only be identified as of the Realist school. Some art critics thought the statues weren’t imaginative enough; the trend in sculpture at the time they were completed was toward abstraction, and they were viewed as behind the times. Though some of her earlier works had leaned toward abstraction, she chose a more realistic style for the “Races of Man” statues precisely because of the scientific nature of the commission.

Hoffman was not a scientist, yet her work displays a commitment to scientific accuracy, especially with regard to anatomy. Heeding the advice of her mentor Rodin, Hoffman took it upon herself to learn anatomy firsthand. Working under Dr. George Huntington at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, Hoffman dissected cadavers along with medical students. Her impressive devotion to detail is evident in all of her statues, but their eloquence comes out of their expressiveness as works of art.

In the 1930s art and science were viewed as almost antithetical, though today they’re often seen as deeply intertwined, even by scientists. Writers such as biologist Lewis Thomas (The Lives of a Cell) and astronomer Chet Raymo (The Soul of the Night) have speculated on the philosophical meaning of scientific observation using poetic language, maintaining that the subjectivity of art has the potential to enhance scientific inquiry rather than impede it.

Hoffman merged art and science to create works that pushed boundaries. Her statues depict not only racial types but also the inner character of the subjects, capturing the human spirit as it’s expressed in each individual, taking on an animate quality that would have been impossible in plaster. Each statue tells its own story: the Tibetan man sits in meditation, the Chinese man pulls a rickshaw, the Sicilian fisherman stands ready to cast his net, the Hawaiian surfer catches a wave. Could such story telling be what the scientists, who might prefer to isolate phenomena for the sake of clarity, referred to as “romantic”?

The essential element in Hoffman’s ability to create works that seem to have lives of their own was probably her sharply honed skill at character study. Rodin recognized it when Hoffman first presented him with photographs of her work. Two in particular captured his attention, the bust she’d done of her father and a bust of her husband to be. After studying the photographs Rodin told her, “Character seems to interest you. You have studied these men well. One is the mature artist with his life battles behind him, the other is the young dreamer with his battles ahead of him.”

Photographs of the models Hoffman used for her statues, which are in the museum archives, confirm that she adhered to the individual character of her models rather than to scientists’ notions of what people from different races should look like. She adamantly defended her position, and on one occasion ridiculed a group of visiting anthropologists who were arguing over whether her statue of a Kalahari Bushman adequately represented its racial type. They thought the buttocks were too small. Hoffman explained to one of the anthropologists that she had arranged to satisfy all of the experts: “I told him . . . I had decided to have the buttocks of my bronze figure made in thick flexible rubber, which could be easily inflated or deflated according to which anthropologist was expected to visit the museum! He really believed me.”

Her insistence on expressing the personalities, habits, and values formed by the requirements of day-to-day living can be seen in her rendition of a Pygmy family. At the time Pygmies living in the Ituri Forest suffered from malnutrition, and the family depicted in this sculpture displays the improper bone development caused by rickets. Her fidelity to realism can also be seen in her statue of an East Indian merchant. The merchant who posed for the statue agreed to take off his clothes for the sitting but refused to part with his money for fear he would be robbed. A close examination of the right hand of the statue reveals the edges of two coins protruding from the closed fingers.

Possibly the most lyrical of the statues, The Sara Girl, is a full-size figure of an African girl dancing. She’s caught in a rapturous moment, head slightly bent, swaying to some melody and rhythm. Hoffman’s fascination with dance subtly influenced all of the statues. Some poses are strong, some lithe, some delicate, but all are balanced in a magically arrested moment that’s both immediate and timeless. It is this artistic quality that goes beyond flesh and bones to capture the complexities and mysteries that are the essence of being human.

Hoffman was motivated by a vision of humanity that embraced racial and cultural differences while affirming the commonality of spirit that binds human beings together. In Heads and Tales she wrote: “It is the eternal cosmic consciousness which binds all the races of man together. Savages, scholars, saints, and heroes of all creeds and colors could understand one another, were they to be sounded in the depths of their being.” Long before the horrors of Auschwitz, she had realized the inherent dangers of racial typing. In the same book she sarcastically wrote, “I will leave the much-disputed subject of what is meant by the word ‘Aryan’ to be fought out between expert anthropologists and Mr. Hitler.”

Hoffman’s work shows the detached objectivity of the scientist and the conscious subjectivity of her own artistic vision. She was aware of both perspectives: “I had to efface my own personality completely and let the image flow through me directly from the model to the clay without impediment of any subjective mood or conscious art mannerism on my part.”

Rodin once attempted to explain the spirit in the work of a good sculptor. “When a good sculptor models a human torso, he represents not only the muscles but also the life that moves them. He represents even more than the life; he represents the power that formed them and granted them grace, vigor, amorous charm, or the untamed fire.” Hoffman’s statues are mysteriously alive. They speak to us of the spirit that embraces our differences and our commonality. They deserve to be heard.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy of the Field Museum of Natural History.