Excerpts from Self-Realization magazine
Heinrich Hofmann painter of Christ
Rediscovering the life and work of an inspired artist
By Rosemarie Müller
1824 – 1911
In his Introduction to The Second Coming of Christ, Paramahansa Yogananda gives a wonderful description, from his own divine experiences, of what Jesus looked like. He then writes:
“Of all the pictures I have seen of him in the West, the rendering by Hofmann comes closest to showing the accurate features of the incarnate Jesus.”
What a compliment! When you first read these words of our Guru, and when you looked at the beautiful paintings and drawings by Hofmann printed in The Second Coming of Christ — did you not ask yourself who this artist was? Perhaps you even looked for some information about him and were disappointed because no one has written a book about Heinrich Hofmann, and modern art encyclopedias do not even mention his name.
That was certainly my experience.
I had always loved the picture of Christ chosen by Paramahansaji for Self-Realization Fellowship altars. I knew it was derived from one of Hofmann’s works called “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler.” I also knew that this painting and three other works by the artist (“Christ in the Temple,” “Christ’s Image,” and “Christ in Gethsemane”) were in the possession of the Riverside Church in New York City. And I often asked myself: Who was this artist? Did he create any other artwork? But I never dreamed where these idle wonderings would one day lead.
It all began several years ago when I learned that Self-Realization Fellowship was making plans to publish The Second Coming of Christ, and that illustrations would be needed. Right away my dormant interest in Hofmann reawakened, and with great enthusiasm I started my quest for answers about the German artist who had so impressed my Guru. Living in Germany, I thought it would be easy. I consulted art books and encyclopedias in local libraries and bookstores. I talked to research librarians, antique dealers, museum directors — and found nothing! It was almost as though Heinrich Hofmann had never existed. What now? How should I proceed?
Then it dawned on me that I needed to go back to encyclopedias, books, and magazines published during Hofmann’s lifetime. In the reading room of a large university library I found my first clues in hundred-year-old reference books — including a list of his artwork. I was delighted! Now I knew that he had been born and raised in Darmstadt; and from the list I learned that among other works he had created three portfolios of pencil drawings depicting the life of Christ. The names of the portfolios were: Come Unto Me, Remember Me, and Peace Unto You.
These biographical facts gave me the idea to call a well-known library in the artist’s home city. I asked the librarian to check whether they had anything under the name of Heinrich Hofmann. When she came back to the phone I held my breath — what would she say? She informed me matter-of-factly: “We have three portfolios with drawings by this artist. Are you interested in those?”
Was I interested? I was in heaven! I was told they were more than one hundred years old, and I could only see them in the library.
The following day I was on my way to Darmstadt. After a short waiting period, I finally held the portfolios in my hands. They were exquisite. The size was thirteen by nineteen inches, and each had a different color and design. With the greatest reverence I opened the first one, Come Unto Me. I don’t know how to describe what happened to me then. It was as if two thousand years simply melted away and I was transported into the life of the blessed Master of Galilee. In the most beautiful drawings I saw Christ healing the sick, raising the dead, staying with Mary and Martha, being tempted by the devil, driving out the money changers, and celebrating the Last Supper. I beheld his crucifixion and his glorious resurrection and many other scenes from his life. I was there and it was always him — in each picture was the same Christ I had come to love so dearly over the years through his picture on our SRF altars. It was instantly obvious that in all the drawings there was a continuity — the features of the man were visible in the boy Jesus and could be anticipated in the baby.
With tears in my eyes I closed the last portfolio. I had seen many works of art — masterpieces in European churches and museums — but never anything that looked so authentic, that radiated such divine beauty, and that conveyed such a presence of Jesus Christ. “I must send this to the Mother Center,” was my next thought. But how?
“Do you have a copying machine?” I asked the librarian, “And can I make copies of these portfolios?” She was hesitant. “Actually we do not allow people to handle our older works, and I do not have the time to make copies.” But I did not give up. “You know,” I beseeched her, “I will take very good care of these folders.” She looked at me, and then said, “All right, I will make an exception.”
But when I saw the first copy I was deeply disappointed — I held a black and white picture in my hands. The fine nuances, the wonderful shading, the warm tone, and the softness of the drawing were lost. It would be impossible to use this quality in a book, and there was no other copying machine. Still I decided to send the copies to the Mother Center.
After this discovery I was eager to find out more about the personal life of the artist. Hidden away in the official Archives of the State of Hessen in Darmstadt (HStA, Darmstadt), I found what had eluded my earlier research: Hofmann’s own draft books of correspondence — never before published — and other documents that revealed his life story, his religious belief, his view on art, and very personal statements about his way of painting. (I have translated excerpts for this article.)
In the meantime I could not get over my disappointment in the black-and-white copies of the portfolios. I wanted SRF to have these original portfolios. One day I passed by an antique shop and thought, “If a library has those portfolios, perhaps I can get them in a shop like this.” I went in and asked the salesperson if she had any works by Heinrich Hofmann. She said, “No, but I could try the Internet.” (At that time I did not have access to the Internet.) She typed in the name — and there it was, our first portfolio: Come Unto Me — one copy only, available from a rare book dealer in Vienna! I was quick to acquire it. Later I was able to continue the Internet search myself, and after many months found an equally rare copy of the second portfolio, Remember Me. But the third portfolio, Peace Unto You, was nowhere to be found.
I consoled myself that at least the Mother Center now had two of the folders. The monastics engaged in the preparation of Paramahansaji’s commentaries on the life and teachings of Jesus were thrilled with the prospect of using the drawings in The Second Coming of Christ.
Nearly half a year had passed and still Peace Unto You was missing. I checked the Internet every day — and I prayed! Finally I was so exhausted that I wrote a letter to our beloved president, Sri Daya Mata, asking her to add her prayers that it might be possible to find this last precious collection of drawings. Well, I am sure you know that this is going to have a happy ending! Only a short time later I looked on the Internet again — for the umpteenth time — and there it was: Peace Unto You! I called the number and found that it was an antique shop in Switzerland.
I asked the owner: “Would you mind telling me why you put this on the Internet right now?”
“Well,” he said, “a few days ago I was going through my warehouse, trying to decide what I could put out for sale, when I saw this portfolio. It came in only recently, as part of a legal estate — I believe it belonged to a library. And somehow the thought occurred to me that someone might like to have it!”
Perhaps readers of The Second Coming will also be interested in some of the personal information about the artist that turned up during my research. From the evidence found in old magazines and other publications written during his lifetime, and in the very precious letters and diaries written by Hofmann himself, there is no doubt that he was highly revered in his time.
Johann Michael Ferdinand Heinrich Hofmann was born on March 19, 1824, in Darmstadt, Germany. He was the eldest son of Heinrich Karl Hofmann, an advocate of the High Court of Justice, and his wife Sophie. Heinrich and his four brothers grew up in a household that was very much devoted to art. Before her marriage, his mother had given lessons in drawing and she was delighted to impart to her sons the rudiments of an art they all loved. His father was a gifted artist, too. Often the children would watch him doing excellent watercolor drawings.
Though all the children showed artistic talent, only Heinrich had the desire to make art his profession. His early career produced many portraits of wealthy and influential persons of the time. A turning point came, however, in 1854, when his dear mother died. It was in trying to overcome his deep sorrow that he began his first large religious painting, “The Burial of Christ.”
The next year he traveled to Italy in search of artistic inspiration. Of Hofmann’s time in Rome, a 1901 article in The Strand (a popular British magazine) noted: “The spiritual side of his nature deepened more and more as the voice of his true calling made itself heard, and from that time it became Hofmann’s lifework to depict the life and work of Christ, although he did not then realize this fully.”
In Rome he was introduced to the famous German painter Peter von Cornelius (1783 – 1867), who supported Hofmann lovingly when he began his great work, “The Arrest of Christ,” which you find in The Second Coming of Christ. In his Italian diaries he remarks: “We talked much about the character and the deed of Judas and about his physiognomy in the moment I wanted to depict him...Judas was one of the apostles, a fact we must never forget when searching for truth. He was tall, perhaps sincere — how else would the Savior have chosen him? He betrays the Savior, sees how they take him away....”
In 1870 Heinrich Hofmann was appointed professor at the Academy of Art in Dresden. Happy years followed in which he painted many of his famous works, faithfully supported by his loving wife. In 1891 — after having been married for more than thirty years — Mrs. Hofmann suffered from an incurable disease and died. The great artist never really recovered from this blow. Shortly after his wife’s death he retired from his position at the Academy and lived a rather secluded life in Dresden until his passing in 1911. He continued to work in his studio and received guests on Sundays.
The image of Hofmann I garnered from his unpublished letters and diaries is of an intensely religious man. Before he painted any scene from the life of Christ he deeply studied the Gospel. Often he would copy out in his own hand a whole passage from the Bible that inspired him. He not only read the Scriptures, but did his best to follow them. Many of his letters confirm that he gave financial support to needy persons. And his heart would deeply feel with those who suffered from loss of a dear one or from diseases. Of one of his paintings, he wrote: “Originally I had painted it for myself. I wanted it to hang over my bed, so that at night, before I would go to sleep, Christ’s eyes would ask me: ‘Have you lived this day according to my commandments?’ ”
An article printed in 1912, shortly after Hofmann’s death, in the Munich journal Die Kunst unserer Zeit (“Art of Our Time”) gave the following insights into the great painter:
“To be able to create high quality works in religious art it is not sufficient to be a gifted artist; you must also have devotion and you must be sincere. Those who are trying to depict religious subjects — especially when the Savior is involved — without being moved in their innermost soul do not have the capacity for this task, even though they may be the greatest masters of art in the whole world. We could compare this to a preacher who gives a sermon about a subject he does not believe in and that he has not made his own....
“About Heinrich Hofmann we know for certain that he started and ended his day by reading the Bible in which he was very well versed — far from any type of bigotry....He very much cared for those less fortunate than he and every Christmas he invited families in need to his own home....
“His portfolios Remember Me, Come Unto Me, and Peace Unto You are spread among Christians everywhere — more so than any of the modern creations....This is all the more impressive because Heinrich Hofmann himself never worked on spreading his fame — as is so common today — on the contrary, he was a very simple person with a noble character and he never aspired to be the center of attention. In his great humility he always found any publication about his person or his artwork embarrassing.”
Often Hofmann was asked to write something about his paintings, to interpret the figures and the scenes. When he sensed that people were only curious, he refused to talk about his inspiration; but when someone expressed genuine interest he did answer — though often reluctantly.
Mrs. Elise Drexler, for instance, an American woman from San Francisco, had bought “Christ and the Rich Young Man” from Hofmann (page 1086 in The Second Coming of Christ). In a letter to him, she expressed the wish to know more about his concept of the painting. Hofmann replied that it was very difficult for him to recall and put into words the innermost thoughts and inspirations that were present when he painted. But then he tried to convey to her his philosophy:
“What always interested me deeply in my art was the expression in the faces of men and women because that expression reveals the inner life of a person. Only painting and no other type of art — not even sculpture — can do this. I believe that people are attracted to my works because I succeeded in expressing some of the soul qualities and the spiritual setup of the figures in the paintings. The face of the rich young ruler, for example, shows clearly that he is ashamed for he rejected what the Lord had asked of him. But a far greater challenge was the expression in the face of the Savior: His keen eyes should fathom the innermost recesses of the young man’s soul and at the same time they should express deep sympathy, for it is written that ‘He loved him.’ You have to judge for yourself whether I have accomplished this task or not.”
Because of the remarkable continuity of Jesus’ appearance throughout Hofmann’s body of work, the author of the article about Hofmann in The Strand, Kathleen Schlesinger, assumed “that Hofmann must have had, as a living model, someone he had known both as boy and man.” She wrote to Hofmann asking about this. In one of his letter draft books in the State Archives, I found the answer from the pen of the artist himself: “It is my pleasure to answer the question you wrote to me. In my pictures I have never used a model for the face of the Savior — where on earth should I find one? When I read about Christ in the Bible there arises quite spontaneously in my mind’s eye a picture of his countenance — that is what I try to retain and reproduce.”
In another very interesting letter about “Christ in the Temple” (page 190 in The Second Coming of Christ) Hofmann writes: “Referring to your kind request I would like to note down a few comments on the figures in the painting ‘Christ in the Temple.’ In the old man who sits to the right I thought to depict someone who firmly clings to the authority of the law and who is amazed by the new interpretations that the boy gives, while the sophist loves to raise captious objections...and the white-haired gentleman only shows good-natured delight in the wise boy. On the left you see the only one who really allows the divine words to flow into his heart (perhaps it is Nicodemus who later visited the Savior at night), and finally we have in the background the beardless man who turns away with contempt from the conversation his colleagues have with a child. About my conception of Jesus, the boy, I cannot talk — I believe that the way I have painted him expresses everything I tried to convey.”
The 1912 article on Hofmann quoted earlier from Die Kunst unserer Zeit ends on a prophetic note — one with which readers of The Second Coming of Christ will surely agree:
“Art history calls him a painter of historical paintings — if he is mentioned at all. But a future generation will pay him due respect as one of the few men and artists who helped to inspire the Christian communities when destructive thinking reigned everywhere.”
The painting was later acquired by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who bequeathed it to the Riverside Church in New York, where it hangs today. Rockefeller also donated “Christ in Gethsemane” to the church — reputed to be the most copied religious painting in the world.