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Miz Hoffman (portrait), 1902, by Hans Hoffman

Miz Hoffman (portrait), 1902, by Hans Hoffman

by Robert McCaffrey

Bavarian-born Hans Hoffman was an era-spanning artist whose style and artworks evolved and engaged with the dominant movements of the day. In his lifetime he was a young scientist, an artist, and an influential art teacher. From Impressionism to New Wave American Abstract Expressionism, he created iconic artworks that are found in galleries and private collections all around the world.

Born in 1880, Hoffman studied at the Moritz Heymann’s art school in Munich just as new ideas about the role of art in the age of photography took hold across the European continent. While a student, he was introduced to the French artistic movement of Impressionism and the emerging impressionistic painting technique known as Pointillism.

This painting from 1902, titled ‘Miz Hoffman’, was completed when he was just 21. It elegantly reveals his growing interest and experimentations with color theory whilst showing the impasto thick daubs influenced by the new generation of Parisian impressionists.

Like the early works of many artists, here, the style is different from what he would become famous for in his later years. Yet, the painting still reveals the first glimmers of his exceptional talent and his natural talent for color composition. Like many artists who graduated to abstraction, he honed his skills painting from life, but demonstrated a novel way of seeing and representing the world he saw.

The female figure, his future wife Maria Wolfegg, offers an unrelenting intense direct gaze. She sits on a low red chair dressed in dark formal clothing with a large hat perched atop her thick black hair. The contrast of her dark clothing and accessories made up of greens and blacks are an inversion of the pinks and whites that make up her skin.

While many impressionists were in the habit of painting ‘loose women’, Hoffman is taking the loose impressionistic aesthetic but painting a fairly formal, respectful and traditional portrait.

His subject’s direct stare and less-than-idealized appearance reflect the impressionistic interest in conveying a feeling over an idealized, romanticized (and sanitized) reality. At this time, photography could capture a person’s image, so it was the work of a skilled portrait painter to try to capture a person’s essence.

Hoffman’s portrait challenges the notion of the delicate and helpless female often depicted in antique and Parisian salon-style history paintings. There is no sense of narrative, no overt sexualisation and no pretensions to wealth and status. The sitter, Wolfegg, is presented as a serious, well-dressed, middle-class woman. Her firm gaze suggests a complex internal world where we are invited not simply to admire her beauty but contemplate her persona and character. Her expression, much like that of the Mona Lisa, is hard to discern and we are left wondering what she might be thinking. Hoffman has succeeded in creating a painting that acts as a window to his fiancé’s psyche rather than a flattering and forgettable depiction of her ‘pretty face’.

Away from the inner psychology of the sitter, we get glimpses of Hoffman’s skill at blending and placing complimentary colors. Behind Wolfegg is an abstracted field of colors that evokes a delicate and almost scientific skill with color transitions. Reminiscent of the grassy slope of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. The wall taken in isolation could be a pure study in Pointillist color theory to rival the likes of Georges Braque, Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet. Some of whom this particular painting prefigures.

Like the finest impressionists of the era, Hoffman has paid close attention to light and the way that light interacts with his fiancée’s skin. We can sense this is perhaps the light of a spring afternoon rather than the overly warm light of a candle or the hard light of an electric light. On the hands and face his brush picks up subtle contours despite using thicker lines of color. Likewise, he has experimented with pointillist-style color combinations in her clothing and the aforementioned wall behind. In both instances, the primary color that reaches the viewer’s eye is made up of a multitude of other colors tightly painted together to create an optical effect.

A few years after completing this painting Hoffman relocated to Paris and further immersed himself in the impressionistic movement. He had the opportunity to meet Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque who each influenced his artistic early style. Later he would return to Germany and then move to the United States where he would open an influential art school.

Over the course of his life, Hoffman proved himself to be a great study of emerging artistic movements and evolving styles. His work would be influenced by Impressionism, Pointillism, Fauvism, Cubism and German Expressionism. Eventually, he developed a personal style that has been described as the earliest example of Abstract Expressionism. A movement usually credited to the likes of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko who came to prominence a whole generation later.

Through his later works, his influence on the artists that followed him is clear. But his earliest works, and Miz Hoffman in particular, remain unique for revealing the first tentative steps of a great artist. A life that spanned the most influential and impactful movements of 20th-century art began with one painting: A faithful, honest and enduring painting of his Fiancé.


February 23, 2022


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Hans Hoffman, Miz Hoffman