Harry Leslie Hoffman (1871-1964) was one of the most significant American Impressionist painters of the first half of the twentieth century, and an influential force in securing the historical legacy of the famous Lyme Art Colony in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Unwaveringly committed to the exploration of new and varied subject matter, Hoffman’s career took him beyond New England to the American South, Europe, the Bahamas and Bermuda, and some of the planets’s least explored locales at that time, such as the Galapagos Islands and British Guiana (Guyana). His pioneering studies in “undersea art” represent some of the earliest artistic efforts to depict the diversity of life in tropical waters.
Hoffman was born in the Schuykill County town of Cressona, Pennsylvania, located in the heart of the state’s coal country. One of five children, Hoffman was the son of George Elijah Hoffman (1835-1905) and Anna Morris Hoffman (1838-1925), both of whom had ancestors who fought in the American Revolutionary War. Harry’s father was a successful local merchant and store owner, and his mother an amateur artist who supported Harry’s early interest in art. Following his graduation from the local public high school, Harry entered Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1891, staying for two academic years before transferring to Yale College in Connecticut in 1893. However, despite granting him admission, Yale refused to accept any of Harry’s credits attained at Gettysburg College, effectively making him a freshman again. Reputedly concerned about being regarded as an “older” freshman at Yale, Harry decided to publicly alter the date of his birth from 1871 to 1874, a change that remained undivulged until much later in his life (and which still effects the veracity of many biographical sketches). Beginning in his junior year at Yale in 1893, he began taking classes at the Yale School of Art, his most notable instructor during this period being John Ferguson Weir (1841-1926), the director of Yale’s art program and the son of Robert Walter Weir (1803-1889), the long-time drawing instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York; the curriculum in which Hoffman was immersed at Yale Art School was modeled initially on that of the historically authoritative Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where John Ferguson Weir’s brother, J. Alden Weir (1852-1919) — later to become a distinguished American Impressionist painter and member of the group “Ten American Painters” — had received instruction, passing along to his brother the guiding principles of the classically-based European system for their integration into Yale’s art program.
Following his graduation from Yale in 1897, Hoffman turned down a request from his father to join the family business, choosing instead to devote himself fully to art, whereby he moved to New York City and enrolled in classes at the Art Students League, then one of the foremost art schools in the country. While there he studied under Frank Vincent DuMond (1865-1951) — one of the most influential American teacher-painters of the twentieth century — as well as other notable members of the school’s faculty, including H. Siddons Mowbray, George de Forest Brush, Walter Appleton Clark, and Howard Chandler Christy. During this time Hoffman supported himself by taking a job as a part-time physical education instructor at Montclair High School in Montclair, New Jersey. (An exceptional athlete, Hoffman was the top performer on the Yale Gymnastic Team during his senior year.) He also developed close ties with several fellow students with whom he would become lifelong friends, such as Arthur P. Spear (1879-1959), William Chadwick (1879-1962), and Arthur Heming (1870-1940). (Another close friend and roommate, Arthur Crisp (1881-1974), would later write about how the Hoffman family sent along “care packages” from Pennsylvania to help put food on the table of the struggling art students.) In 1902, Hoffman and Arthur Heming took part in the Art Students League’s Lyme Summer School of Art, an outdoor program directed by Frank Dumond and held in Old Lyme, Connecticut, site of the Lyme Art Colony, one of the largest and most significant art colonies of early twentieth-century America. Centered in the mansion-turned-boardinghouse belonging to Miss Florence Griswold (1850-1937) — a desendant of one of Old Lyme’s leading families from its days as a hub of maritime activity — and modeled on the famed artist communities of Barbizon and Giverny in France, the Lyme Art Colony originally grew out of American painter Henry Ward Ranger’s (1858-1916) desire to rekindle his experiences in European artistic collectives. Ranger — an exponent of the French Barbizon School of Painting and at the vanguard of the American “Tonalist” movement — first arrived in Old Lyme in 1899, finding in the locale’s pristine woods and fields the kind of Barbizon Forest-like characterisics ideal for the type of meditative works of personal expression he was seeking to create. However, despite the influx of like-minded artists over the next several years and the colony coming to be known as the “American Barbizon,” the atmosphere of the colony began to shift in 1903 with the arrival of acclaimed American Impressionist painter Childe Hassam (1859-1935), who, together with other notable American painters sharing his aesthetic sensibility (including the Corcoran Gallery Gold Medal-winning Willard Metcalf [1858-1925], as well as Edmund Greacen [1876-1945] and Will Howe Foote [1874-1965]), soon turned Old Lyme into the “American Giverny,” arguably the most important enclave of Impressionist painting outside of France.
Besides attending outdoor classes led by Frank DuMond, as well as acting as DuMond’s “monitor” and taking shorthand notes of his instructor’s Saturday afternoon lectures and critiques, Hoffman spent part of the summer of 1902 serving as a model for Canadian sculptor R. Tait McKenzie (1867-1938), who had received a commission to cast the figure of an athlete into bronze. (Reportedly, the statue for which Hoffman modeled can still be viewed today inside a public garden in Edinburgh, Scotland.) Returning to Old Lyme the following summer, Hoffman and Heming were treated as full-fledged artists with promising futures, with Hoffman being mentioned in the personal diary of colony member and noted American artist Clark Greenwood Voorhees (1871-1933) as having been a participant in group activities. Both Hoffman and Heming were granted the much-sought-after right to spend that summer in the “Griswold House” (the name by which the artists’ boardinghouse had become known, later famously so) instead of alternative housing in town where the summer-school students typically lodged. Later that year (1903) Hoffman crossed the ocean to engage in a program of study at the Academie Julian in Paris, a private art school for painting and sculpture founded in 1868 that had become, by the time of Hoffman’s matriculation, one of the most popular overseas destinations for young American artists seeking to enhance and broaden their skills. A major alternative training center to the official, government-sanctioned Ecole des Beaux Arts, the Academie Julian was one of the first art schools in France to accept women as students and had come to embrace a progressive approach to artistic instruction that never imposed a particular style or philosophy upon its pupils, who included — among the Americans — John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Robert Henri (1865-1929), Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924), and Edward Steichen (1878-1973). Hoffman spent two years there, his primary mentor being Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921), who is considered to be one of the last major exponents of the French Academic style, having created many significant works featuring classically inspired historical and religious scenes. Perhaps as a result from his time spent with Laurens, Hoffman was drawn while in Paris to the works of the Old Masters, which led him to spend the summers of 1904 and 1905 in Italy, where he traveled to the historical art centers of Rome, Venice, and Florence, as well as the ancient city of Siena. While in Italy he became intrigued by ceremonial occasions marked by the congregation of large groups of people, which would later become an important element in his work in the form of his depictions of marketplaces and renderings of actively-engaged groups of people, particularly in the American South and the Caribbean. Though no paintings are extant from Hoffman’s time spent in Italy, a selection of his work executed in France was assembled for his first formal solo exhibition, which took place late in 1905 at the gallery of the prestigious American Art Association in Paris, which was considered to be a major center of American art in Europe. The show received positive notices, and following its conclusion Hoffman returned to America, spending time in New York before departing for the summer season at Old Lyme.
Flushed with the success of his first exhibition, Hoffman invited fellow Lyme Art Colony member Willard Metcalf — an artist whom he respected very much — to critique his recent work. To Hoffman’s surprise, Metcalf’s assessment was cautionary: “The trouble with you, Hoffman,” Metcalf told him, “is you’re going around with a ball and chain tied to your feet. Go out and paint what you see and forget your theories.” Following Metcalf’s admonishment, Hoffman underwent a period of critical self-reflection. Years later, he was to implicitly remark upon the significance of this personal evaluation, and the critique that engendered it, saying that “if you get hipped on something, you can carry it too far. Then you become a stylist and paint everything that way. I don’t want to be a stylist. I want to paint things as they seem to me.” Still, the influence of Metcalf and Hassam played a role in the direction he would take, resulting in conceptual changes that would alter the trajectory of his artistic development and, ultimately, his career. To that point in time, Hoffman had been painting in a Tonalist style, featuring a gray palette and a general absence of high-keyed colors. From then on, however, he began to lighten his palette and move toward his own distinctive brand of Impressionism; having already been exposed to many different styles and philosophies by virtue of his comprehensive academic education — including modernistic trends such as Fauvism and Synchronism while in Paris — Hoffman evolved expeditiously. Toward the end of the summer of 1906, he produced a work that evidenced his rapidly progressing vision: Titled Bridging the Lieutenant, the subject-matter was the wooden bridge that spanned the local Lieutenant River, a popular subject for many of the Lyme artists, including Metcalf and Hassam. But Hoffman’s prototypically unique vantage point — in this case a moonlit view of the bridge from below, presumably from a boat or canoe — differed from the usual approach. Exhibiting two paintings at the Lyme Art Colony’s fifth annual exhibition in August 1906, Hoffman’s entries (including Bridging the Lieutenant) drew this review in the New London Day (Conn.) newspaper: “H.L. Hoffman has for a number of years been a member of the Lyme Art Colony, but has never exhibited until this year. He shows two splendid canvasses . . . one entitled Bridging the Lieutenant. It is a rich bit of color showing the old wooden bridge as seen from below.” The summer of 1906 also served as a critical turning point in Hoffman’s personal life, as it was during this time that he met and became engaged to Beatrice Pope, a young artist from East Orange, New Jersey, who was spending the summer as a student at the colony. Beatrice, recognized in her own right as a talented photographer and later expert weaver of Old World-style tapestries, would forge with Hoffman a mutually supportive and collaborative relationship for the length of what would become a lifelong union. In the aftermath of Hoffman’s success at the 1906 Old Lyme exhibition, he produced the oil Cranberry Breaker-Hazelton, Pa., which debuted to much favorable attention in 1907 at the annual exhibition of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Of the painting — which was shown again the following year at the annual exhibiton of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts — the Mount Carmel Item (Pa.) newspaper wrote, “it is the work of a master,” and called Hoffman “one of the most eminent young artists of New York City.” Additionally, the painting was selected for representation at the twelfth annual international exhibition of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, displayed alongside the work of luminaries such as Winslow Homer (1836-1910), Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), Childe Hassam, and Robert Henri.
Following the Hoffmans’ wedding in April 1910, the couple set out on a long honeymoon and painting trip to Europe, principally in Spain, with ports of call in Madeira, Tangiers, and Gibralter. The paintings composed on this trip bore evidence of Hoffman’s heightened commitment to an Impressionistic palette, with the hot sun and dry atmosphere of the region yielding a high-key color scheme. Moreover, while in the remote, picturesque Spanish village of Cuenca, Hoffman produced five paintings whose ambitious integration of architectural features, landscape elements, and aspects of everyday village life (such as washerwomen along the riverbanks), arranged with other pictorial components to create the illusion of three-dimensional space, evinced a degree of complexity not previously witnessed in Hoffman’s work. Referring to the Cuenca paintings, Beatrice wrote home to her parents that it was her belief “these are the best ones he has done so far.” In February 1911, seventeen of the paintings executed by Hoffman in Spain were culled from the total and assembled into a solo exhibition at the Copley Gallery in Boston; entitled Paintings of Spain by Harry L. Hoffman, the show earned positive notices in the Boston newspapers, with one critic writing that Hoffman had made “rapid progress” during his time spent abroad, following which the Hoffmans moved into a hilltop home in Old Lyme that had been purchased for them by Beatrice’s family. The home — which the Hoffmans named Chuluota, an Indian term for “beautiful view” — was a two-story, shingle-style dwelling with a cross-gabled roof and low verandas on three sides. Hoffman’s studio, built on the north side of the house, featured expansive views of the countryside, about which a visiting journalist from the Hartford Daily Times commented, “an artist could get material enough to last many months.” Chuluota became the Hoffman’s principal residence for the remainder of their lives (though they spent many winters in New York City until the mid-1930s), and it was here that they raised their son John, their only child, who was born in 1920. Traveling to Jackson, New Hampshire, shortly after the couple’s move to Chuluota, Hoffman produced several en plein air landscapes depicting winter in the White Mountains, that appeared — along with a selection of other New England-based landscapes and seascapes — in a series of consecutive exhibitions in 1912, first at the Art Galleries of the Tilden Thurber Company in Providence (R.I.), then at the Twentieth Century Club in Boston, and finally at the Annex Gallery of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in Hartford. The Wadsworth showing also included works by fellow artists Charles Bittinger and Arthur Spear, and received the following review in the Hartford Daily Courant: “Mr. Hoffman’s pictures are landscapes, which hold one with their touch of nature in different seasons . . . Among the Pines-Jackson, with its depth of woods and its sunlight glancing on the snow beneath, is one of the strongest pictures in the gallery . . . one finds its beauty so strongly that he does not mind the coldness. By the Birches-Jackson, is a picture admirable in spirit and admirably done. February-Jackson, presents the wonderful soft green birchs in winter contrasted with the blue and lavender hues of the sky . . . with the perfect full-length shadows of trees. . . . In The Wood Road, a green ribbon of a road, splashed with vari-colors and winding through the woods, catches all the beauty of nature. . . . The First Flurry depicts the first December fall of snow at Old Lyme. . . . The beautiful effect underlying this picture was caught just before sunset, and the resulting coloring flares as nothing else in the show does flare. . . . Other notable exhibits of his are “Retreating Waters,” a splendid type of water and rock painting which has been highly praised by a noted Boston critic. The scene is at Ogunquit, Me., which is also the scene of another remarkable Hoffman: L’Allegro, a May scene, wherein the spontaneity and the opulent coloring of this month are exquisitely brushed by the artist.” Later that year one of Hoffman’s paintings was selected for representation at the National Academy of Design’s winter exhibition, the first appearance of Hoffman’s work at this highly influential venue (he would be elected to membership there in 1930), and the beginning of a period lasting nearly a decade that witnessed his recurring participation in the annual exhibitions of several of America’s most venerable art institutions, including — in addition to the National Academy of Design — the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Detroit Museum of Art (as well as the 1912 Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto). Other major exhibitions of Hoffman’s work during this period of intense activity included one at the MacDowell Club in New York City in December 1912, of which the Philadelphia Inquirer commented, “Harry L. Hoffman’s strong work is winning him a place among America’s noted painters,” adding that Hoffman was “among the most prominent contributors” at that year’s annual watercolor show at New York City’s famed Salmagundi Club. An exhibition of Hoffman’s paintings in the summer of 1916 at the historical Folsom Gallery in New York City drew this response from the Brooklyn Eagle: “Harry Hoffman’s Early November is gem-like in its feeling and expression. . . . A Winter Reverie is a charm of brilliant sunlight, blue water, and trees which, though bare, show gracefully along a winding stream. This is one of the few winter scenes which one can look at without a shiver of cold.” A Winter Reverie drew further notice in the Hartford Courant following its display in March 1920 at an exhibiton sponsored by the Society of Connecticut Artists: “One of the best pictures at the exhibition did not arrive until yesterday and it was one of several sent by Harry Leslie Hoffman of New York. While Mr. Hoffman entered but one picture for the exhibition, the others are of such great excellence that all were selected for display. A Winter Reverie was painted direct from the creek at Old Lyme and not from a sketch. The arrangement of colors to show the aged trees by the bank, the stumps and broken branches, is done with the greatest skill and with entire naturalness. While there is a difference of opinion regarding the value of various pictures in the exhibition, there can be no doubt about this being one of its gems.” In August of that year the Boston Globe, commenting upon the annual exhibiton of the Duxbury (Mass.) Art Association, wrote that “some of the best artists in New England have pictures entered this year . . . including Harry L. Hoffman, whose Dancing Reflections is an exquisite nocturne of Lyme, Connecticut.” On the eve of the annual exhibition of the Lyme Art Association in August 1921, the Hartford Courant wrote that “Harry L. Hoffman is one of the men calculated to uphold and further the glory of Old Lyme. He is an excellent workman with a sympathetic feeling for landscape.” Three years later, at the 24th annual Lyme Art Association’s late summer exhibition, Hoffman was awarded the Association’s coveted Eaton Purchase Prize for his floral still life Potpourri. The following year, the New Haven Paint and Clay Club’s annual exhibition bestowed upon Hoffman its Landscape Prize. Though Hoffman’s New England renderings were earning him a place as one of the most notable landscape artists in the Northeast, numerous solo exhibitions during this period included an entirely new body of work gleaned from his artistic explorations of the American South and the Bahamas.
Like many of the artists of the Lyme Art Colony, Hoffman spent part of each year in warm-weather environments that could provide him with the ability to paint en plein air most days, as well as allowing him to experience the effects of tropical light on his subject-matter. With this in mind, he spent the winters of 1914 and 1915 in the historic American cities of St. Augustine, Florida, and Savannah, Georgia, in the process becoming one of the first Northeastern artists to paint the Southern scene. Founded by the Spanish in 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously inhabited, European-established city in the United States, and Hoffman’s stay there was perhaps influenced by his love of Spain and its culture. While in St. Augustine, he completed a number of paintings of the city’s streets, with their pastel-shaded buildings and Spanish architecture, as well as several highly regarded compositions featuring palmetto trees — low-growing, fan-shaped palm trees that grow in the sand dunes by the sea. As Jeffrey Anderson, author of the monograph, Harry L. Hoffman: A World of Color, wrote: “In many ways these paintings, direct in their focus on an exotic landscape form enveloped in tropical light, prefigure his undersea paintings of the coral gardens of Nassau.” But it was Hoffman’s work produced in the city of Savannah, Georgia, that resulted in his most indelible images of the region. Evoking the fierce summer sunlight as reflected off the colorful architecture, Hoffman’s Savannah paintings feature loose, Impressionistic brushwork and a vibrant, richly saturated palette dominated by pinks, greens, oranges, and yellows. In large, panoramic compositions such as Street Scene, Savannah and A Savannah Market, he provided a glimpse of daily life in the city, depicting local African-Americans working and shopping under the intense heat and against the backdrop of Savannah’s famous marketplace. The result, according to art historian Carol Lowrey, author of A Legacy of Art: Painting and Sculptures by Artist Life Members of the National Arts Club, were paintings that “stand out in the club’s collection,” and “celebrate the cross-fertilization of the Southern locale with an innate artistic imagination finely honed at the most sophisticated French and American fountainheads.” Additionally, another painting from the Savannah period, The Cotton Gin (one of Hoffman’s personal favorites), is a much-heralded representation of a desolate warehouse space peopled by hard-working African-American women going about their labors in quiet dignity (one has a cane for support), the only illumination provided by a shaft of sunlight pentrating the solo window. The painting, unusual for Hoffman by virtue of its indoor subject-matter, is very similar in subject and composition to the major works by Hoffman’s professor at Yale, John Ferguson Weir, and was exhibited at several significant venues, including the National Academy of Design, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, and the Art Institute of Chicago, the latter venue purchasing the work for its permanent collection.
In 1915, Hoffman received the most significant honor of his career upon being awarded a highly prestigious Gold Medal at the Pan-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. His winning composition was A Mood of Spring, an Impressionist work featuring a white New England shingle-style home framed through the sparsely-leafed autumnal branches of a cluster of trees located on a vantage point above the dwelling, with a winding river and distant hills in the background. Also that year the direction of his career took a new and unexpected turn after he witnessed a series of movies at a New York City theatre which offered a glimpse of undersea life amid the coral reefs of Nassau, Bahamas. Excited by the possibility of capturing on canvas what he had seen in the films, Hoffman took the first of several wintertime trips to Nassau in 1916. In order to best observe the coral reefs, he initally used a “water-glass” — essentially a wooden bucket with a glass bottom — later switching to a glass-bottom boat like the type used on tourist excursions. Years later he recalled his first reaction: “Magical! A new world is before you. Never have you dreamed anything like it. Alice through the looking-glass saw nothing so enchanting. The glass has brushed away all the ripples, waves, reflections, and everything that acts as a veil between you and the sea underneath. . . . You peer into a clear world entirely different from anything in your past experience, and are entranced with a creation of new forms and shapes and combinations of colors that make a June flower garden pale in imitation.” Rapidly executing watercolor sketches while simultaneously taking careful shorthand notes of the various kinds of fish, coral, and sponges (a technique learned during his student days with Frank DuMond), Hoffman spent long periods literally “hanging” over the network of coral growth in an attempt to attain what he perceived as a truthful vision of the life hidden underneath the tinted water, later transforming his on-the-spot observations into studio-polished oil paintings. He regarded this undertaking as a lifetime project, often collaborating with his wife to explore the transfer of this theme to other forms of media, including murals, wallpaper, tapestries, and tiles. (Several of these endeavors decorated the interior of the Hoffmans’ home.) In June 1917, the American Museum of Natural History placed a selection of Hoffman’s early explorations of life in Bahama’s coral reefs on view in its West Assembly Room, attempting to provide the public with an example of the correlation between art and science; on July 29, 1917, The New York Times reported that the display had “attracted so much attention that arrangements have been made to continue the exhibition indefinitely.” Of Hoffman’s undersea images chosen for the 19th Annual Exhibition of the Old Lyme Art Association in 1920, the Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin expressed the view that “the studies and sketches are many and beautiful, color being carried to the Nth degree and decorative quality keenly observed.” Over the course of the next decade many gallery exhibitions featured selections of this work, with the Hartford Courant (June 1927) noting that Hoffman’s images on display at an early-summer exhibion at the Lyme Art Gallery “reveal the strangely beautiful life of the ocean’s depths,” and the Emporia (Kansas) Daily Gazette (March 1928), reviewing an exhibition at the Emporia State University Teacher’s College Art Gallery, wrote that “gorgeously-hued fishes, sponges, and coral are represented, with the predominance of Mr. Hoffman’s delightful shades of lavender and green.” A showcase at the Dayton (Ohio) Art Institute in November 1928 drew this comment from theDayton Daily News: “These paintings are of unusual interest and of peculiar and individual beauty.” One month later, in a review of Hoffman’s exhibition at the Tampa Art Club, the Tampa Bay Times noted the artist’s vision of “the coral flowers in all their rare beauty of exquisite line and matchless flames of the ruby, the sapphire, and the emerald, all burning in the waters of the sea.” In addition to these pioneering underwater efforts, Hoffman also executed numerous oil paintings, watercolors, and drawings of daily life in Nassau, thematically centered around markets, harbors, and seaborne interactions, a continuation of his keen interest in actively-engaged groups of people (which had begun during his student travels through Italy). However, many compositions of note completed by Hoffman during this period — such as Out, Islanders and February, Nassau, Bahamas — evidence a stylistic evolution toward greater freedom of paint-handling and the use of more expressive, post-Impressionist techniques, with the surface of the compositions (including figures) partially comprised of interlocking swaths and dabs of color, much in the manner of a mature Maurice Prendergast, and the evocation of the bright Caribbean sunlight reflecting off the surface of the water reminding some observers of Winslow Homer’s watercolors of the Bahamas and Bermuda at the turn of the twentieth century. Hoffman’s own Caribbean and Bermudian works stand today as some of the most highly-valued compositions of his oeuvre.
Hoffman’s reputation as one of the world’s preeminent painters of underwater marine life earned him the invitation from renowned American naturalist and explorer William Beebe to be the official artist in Beebe’s twelve-man expedition in 1923 to the Galapagos Islands — an archipelago of volcanic islands situated along the Equator some 500 miles west of Ecuador — thus becoming the first artist in recorded history to visit and paint the locale. Sponsored by the New York Zoological Society, the purpose of the two and one-half month long trip was to investigate the flora, fauna, and life of the islands made famous by evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin in his seminal treatise On the Origin of Species. Unable to execute a planned group of underseas paintings because of the lack of coral life, Hoffman nevertheless produced over 40 landscapes and marinescapes of the various islands, bays, and coves, in the process capturing the dramatic sunrises and sunsets and ever-changing cloud banks which, Hoffman would later relate, “moved so fast that you had to make up your mind which change you wished to make, study it and turn your back on the beautiful changing effect . . . and paint from memory or you would never get anywhere.” Impressed by Hoffman’s work on the islands, Beebe invited him to join an expedition he was planning on making to Haiti the following year, though an outbreak of disease forced a change in destination to British Guiana (now Guyana). Hoffman — who constantly sought out new experiences to expand his artistic vision — readily signed on, though the location presented an entirely new set of challenges for him: In contrast to the sparse vegetation found on the volcanic Galapagos Islands, Beebe’s previously established experimental station in British Guiana was located 100 miles inland on a river in the thick of a dense jungle, and an initially overwhelmed Hoffman was moved to write: “At first it is bewildering; it is so much, so crowded with creeping vegetation and fairly bursting with luxurious growth, masses of every shade of green, relieved only by other colors of the trunks, bark, and dying or dead wood . . . to paint it seems rather hopeless.” Eventually, however, Hoffman acclimated himself to the surroundings and produced a number of distinctive riverscapes punctuated by cathedral-like trees and vertical beams of light slicing through the darkness. Once again, Hoffman became the first artist to visit a previously unpainted locale. An exhibition in February 1928 at the Oshkosh (Wisconsin) Museum, featuring an assemblage of Hoffman’s images from these two expeditions, drew this review from the Oshkosh Press: “Mr. Hoffman has lent his genius to depicting the tropical climes. The mystic beauty of the Galapagos and the tropical glory of British Guiana supply the scenes for his canvases. Beautiful harmony of color and sincere appreciation of nature’s beauty is evinced in his works.” The Daily Northwestern, another Wisconson newspaper, wrote that “the ever-changing banks of fleecy clouds that inevitably hover over the high islands of the Galapagos creating throughout the day an ever-varying series of golden sunrises and sunsets are beautifully depicted by Harry L. Hoffman. . . . The light green and lavender waters, the dazzling white beaches and fluffy sea foam, all appear on his canvases so convincingly that the museum visitor will fairly feel the heat of the tropics, and scent the cool dampness of the jungle depths.” A selection of Hoffman’s paintings executed in British Guiana were singled out for consideration by the Dayton Daily News in their review of the aforementioned 1928 exhibition at the Dayton Art Institute: “Entrance to a Jungle Stream is a particularly impressive study. The streaming jungle foliage is depicted drooping over the purple water of a jungle stream so that the sinister yet inviting gloom of the interior seems to beckon and invite one to part the wall of leaves and penetrate into the forest depths. . . . Other portrayals such as In a Jungle Stream and In a Palm Swamp reflect the same charm and stimulate the same adventurous curiosity.” Hoffman’s final trip with Beebe came in 1929, to the island of Bermuda, where Hoffman was able to use a diving helmet for the first time, giving him what he would later describe as “an entirely new perspective” on the undersea world. While in Bermuda Hoffman would produce some of his best-known work: It is believed that he produced at least 19 oil paintings during his time there, with many executed in the vicinity of Castle Harbour, near the center of Beebe’s research activities. Several were titled Bermuda Coast, with identifying numerals following the title providing the sequence in which they were created. Most of his Bermuda works were loosely-brushed seascapes with a palette featuring mauve and turquoise, with Hoffman’s history of combining several elements to intricately represent a locale at work here, in this case combining water, coral reef, and stone to forge a more fully-realized, picturesque image. In his treatise, Bermuda in Painted Representation, art historian Jonathan Land Evans says of Hoffman’s Bermuda Coast No. 4: “Perhaps more than any other painting in this book, it perfectly captures Bermuda’s insular essence: a place of dazzling but fragile beauty, in the immensity of the open Atlantic.”
Hoffman spent a good part of his later years devoting his energies to two organizations close to his heart: The Lyme Art Association and the Florence Griswold Association. The Lyme Art Association was incorporated in 1914 by the colony’s artists with the goal of building its own gallery, in light of the fact that the local Lyme Library — which the artists had been using since 1902 to conduct their annual exhibition — was far from an ideal exhibition space. Each artist member of the Association agreed to donate a painting or sketch, the goal being the accumulation of enough funds to construct an exhibiton space, which they were able to do by 1921, when a state-of-the-art facility was erected on property adjacent to the Griswold House. (Florence Griswold had in effect donated the land.) Hoffman — one of the most admired artists in the colony — served as Treasurer of the Association from 1933 until the 1950s, and was a member of several committees. During this time he also was often responsible for preparing the printed catalogs and hanging the pictures of the annual summer exhibitions. Though Florence Griswold served as the Gallery’s manager — earning 5% on all exhibition sales — her lifelong financial difficulties had by the mid-1930s put her in the position of perhaps having to sell the Griswold House in order to pay off her creditors. Hoffman took the lead in bringing a small group of artists, relatives, and residents together to form the Florence Griswold Association, which in 1936 rescued Florence and the Griswold House, allowing her to live out her years in her home, which was the focal point of the community. In the ensuing years the Association managed to secure the financing to purchase the home outright, thereby paving the way for the eventual creation of the Florence Griswold Museum on the property, which today stands as arguably the most important depository of American Impressionist art. Hoffman served as Treasurer of this organizaton as well as the Art Association, doing everything in his power to help raise money on its behalf. Today most people recognize Hoffman as being the key player in this endeavor, without whom Florence Griswold most certainly would have lost her home, and the Museum in all likelihood never coming into existence.
In addition to his membership in the Lyme Art Association and the Florence Griswold Association, Hoffman was a member of many of the country’s most significant art associations, including the Allied Artists of America; the American Water Color Society; the Architectural League of New York; the Artists Aid Society; the Lotus Club (New York); the MacDowell Club (New York); the National Academy of Design; the National Arts Club (New York); the New Haven Paint and Clay Club; the New York Water Color Club; the Players Club (New York); and the Salmagundi Club (New York). Examples of his work reside in the permanent collections of such distinguished institutional venues as the Art Institute of Chicago; the Boston City Club; the Florence Griswold Museum; the Lyman Allyn Art Museum (New London, Conn.), the National Arts Club; the National Museum of American History (Washington, D.C.); and the Oshkosh Public Museum (Oshkosh, Wis.).
Harry Hoffman died in Old Lyme in 1964 at the age of 92. Despite his longevity, he had ceased painting in 1957 upon the deaths of his beloved wife Beatrice and, shortly thereafter, his grandson, John (aged 2). He did, however, continue to illustrate letters to his friends and family, often with drawings of birds and animals. Though known primarily as a painter, Hoffman’s creative talents had always extended to other art forms, including music (he was highly proficient on the banjo and flute, and once considered a career as a flautist), and writing (during his student travels in Italy, his letters home were published by the local newspaper). Following the death of Florence Griswold in 1937, he composed a wistfully contemplative letter to his lifelong friend and fellow artist Arthur Heming, in the process offering a glimpse into the colony’s past:“While the funeral services were being held . . . and in spite of the sadness of such an occasion, for the life of me I couldn’t think of anything but the times you and I used to dash up and down those steps on one wild errand or another . . . the years between us were as nothing. I could see Ranger, Talcott, DuMond, Howe, Dessar, Turcas, Cohen, Rook, Doc MacKenzie, Beal, Bicknell, Poore, Ramsdell, Robinson, Adams, Hassam, Metcalf, Griffen, Warner, Bittinger, Singer, Ebert, Vorhees, Nisbet, Carleton Wiggins, and Duncan the philosopher . . . they all seemed to loom up from the past crowding into the dining room at meal time or straggling out with faces glistening of food or the latest argument, filtering back to studios or lingering on the front piazza ‘chewing the rag’ on paint, politics, or whatnots. And in the middle of it all I could see Miss Florence floating around in that airy manner so characteristic of her . . . it was almost impossible to be solemn, though it was the end of a phase that was unique in American art . . .”Owing in no small part to Hoffman’s efforts, the legacy of the Impressionist era in American art was forever preserved in the Florence Griswold Museum; although Hoffman’s personal legacy — as is the case with all artists — rests fundamentally on the quality and impact of his work, it is also, as suggested by Jeffrey Anderson, based upon Hoffman’s ability to “embrace new experiences and make them part of him,” his lifetime devoted to “exploring and recording ‘his own impressions’ of these experiences with an open sense of wonder.”
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