Notes from ningyo editions studio and gallery

(I’m a) Stranger to Kindness: The Drawings of Norma Hoffmann

Go, pencil! Faithful to thy master’s sighs!

   Go-tell the Goddess of the fairy scene…

-Anne Radcliffe

Cabin, 3.75 x 5.875″

Like an apparition out of a Victorian Gothic novel, Norma Hoffmann’s fey, unsettling presence haunted the farmlands and banks of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts during the last decades of the 19th century.  Aside from an occasional police report for trespassing and public drunkenness (erroneously – in reality her erratic behavior was due to her emerging psychotic breakdown and possible schizophrenia), and a single line obituary in the Concord Enterprise from 1904, there is very little on record to confirm that Norma Hoffmann ever existed.  What we are left with is a small, remarkable trove of drawings done in graphite, none of which exceeds 8 x 10 inches in size.

Although there is no extant birth certificate, town records show a “Nora Hoffman” born in 1872 to German-Austrian parents who probably arrived as part of the large influx of German immigrants during the second half of the 19th century. By 1870, German-born farmers made up about one third of agricultural industry in the Northeast.  These included the Hoffmann family (an extremely common name literally meaning “landed farmer”).  Her parents were probably among the hundreds of thousand Germans who endured long, circuitous, but cheap routes through Great Britain to the US in the years following the German Revolutions of 1848, ultimately landing at Castle Garden Immigration Depot in lower Manhattan, just across the bay from what was to become Ellis Island a few decades later.

Comprised almost entirely of Protestants, these German immigrants came to embody the disposition today referred to as the New England work ethic.  This can be loosely characterized by staunch, physical labor combined with a dour, Yankee piety (originating with the humorless fervor of the Massachusetts puritans nearly two centuries prior), and with the first generation immigrant’s wariness of domestic politics and public involvement.  It was for the latter reason, combined with a fairly lax system of record-keeping on the part of the town for servants and farmhands, that Norma’s birth was not recorded until she began attending school in 1881.  Along with her two brothers, Moritz and Hermann, and a sister Lotte, Norma is listed as being born to Dörthe and Hermann Hoffmann in 1872.  The date’s accuracy is dubious.  It is highly unlikely that all four children were born within the same year, as recorded nine years later.  For one, the arrival of quadruplets in the small county would almost certainly have been noted in local papers or highlighted in town records.  Furthermore, it was not unusual for city clerks, overwhelmed by the boom in immigrant births, to lump children of the same family, or even different families from the same farms together under one birth date as a time cutting measure.  At best, the date helps place Norma’s birth somewhere between 1869 and the “official” date of 1872.

Photograph thought to be Norma Hoffmann, circa 1898 (courtesy Concord Town Archives)

Nothing is known of Norma’s childhood or early adulthood excepting the death of her sister Lotte from Pneumonia in the winter of 1880 as recorded in town records.  Most likely she lived and worked on one of the six active farms in Concord together with her entire family.  No written records of her exist before 1896, when she was somewhere between 24 and 27 years old.  At this point a few small notes in the constabulary broadsheets of the Concord Enterprise and the Middlesex Patriot appear recording the above-mentioned complaints of trespassing and “drunkenness” by local landowners.  None of these led to arrest, however, as it seems she would always retire when asked.  She soon became a local fixture, and was generally regarded as a harmless, if unsound, eccentric.  Her presence was generally tolerated or ignored altogether.

The turn of the century saw a rapid decline in her mental health.  By her late twenties her increasingly unkempt appearance and erratic behavior (including incoherent rants, and a penchant for walking barefoot in all weather) began to arouse wariness – if not outright fear – in her neighbors.  So too did her habit or appearing unexpectedly in private yards and farmlands at any hour, day or night, with pencil, paper, and a small wooden box on which she would sit and diligently sketch for hours on end. According to one complaint, she was seen sketching outside a private residence on a November evening “past the stroke of midnight wearing nothing but a filthy white gown and no shoes to cover her feet.”

In examining her drawings, it is worth dividing them into categories, as her style, and later her subject matter, shifted over the course of her short-lived output.

The Small Drawings

By far the most numerous examples of Hoffmann’s work are small drawings, ranging in size from 3 ½ x 6” to 5 ½ x 8”.  Many of the scenes can be positively identified as landscapes and homesteads within Middlesex County.  These include houses, cabins and streams; pastoral views of Walden Pond, and hybrid landscapes featuring humble local architecture adorned with decidedly non-native, likely invented craggy mountainous growths and backgrounds of massive rolling hills. Hoffmann probably began these drawings in situ, adding the adornments both for compositional effect and to gratify her own taste for Romantic landscape (a popular subject at the time).  The scenes are sometimes peopled with farmers or household servants in moments of repose and communion: a woman stands in front of a family farm holding her infant, accompanied by another young girl; a man stands outside his modest log cabin and regards a flock of geese with familiarity; a mother and daughter walk along the yard of a lakeshore home holding hands.  As an unmarried and by all scant accounts solitary (and possibly celibate) woman, these scenes of familial bliss take on an added poignancy, imbued as they are with a distant tenderness where even lone figures find company with wildlife outside their door.

Cabin with Man and Geese, 5.125 x 8.25″

Landscape with Pond and Chimneys, 5.125 x 8.25″

The drawings in this group vary both in style and quality.  In some cases a hard, sharpened pencil yields tremendous detail and depth through an economy of silvery marks.  In others a soft, dull tip produces dirty, uniform patches.   Hoffmann’s sense of depth and perspective can be misleading and frequently faulty, such as in Villa, where a lone figure stands in such relation to the house as to suggest he is not more than three feet tall, while the wispy grass in the background towers to the height of small trees.  It cannot be known whether such inaccuracies were done intentionally in service to composition, or are the result of a naïve hand with little grasp on perspective.  Though untrained, Hoffmann was a tireless practitioner, and the former seems the likelier possibility.  In the same piece, a lapse of continuity occurs where the faded – and definitely invented – mountain moves from right to left across the background and suddenly vanishes when it reaches the tall tree behind the house, leaving an empty void where reality dictates that it should continue. Does this visual hieroglyph suggest that Norma thought its compositional purpose adequately served, or just a clumsy oversight?  Much of the charm lies in that viewers are left to determine these inconsistencies for themselves.  However, so effortlessly do they serve the harmony of the overall pieces that they may go unnoticed altogether.

Villa with Mountains, 5.5 x 7.125″

The Large Drawings

The larger drawings measure 8 x 10” and are dated around 1902 (the year preceding Hoffmann’s breakdown and commitment to the Danvers State Hospital).  Here she eschews the strait forward landscape for visual vignettes consisting of three or four landscape or architectural elements lovingly arranged with a keen attention to composition.  Present also is a newfound confidence and ability in the use of graphite, with sharper, harder pencils producing finer, surer lines and a controlled touch yielding wider tonal ranges. Gone are the direct, occasionally clumsy architectural portraits.  They are replaced now by isolated, often elaborate details fairly dripping with the Gothic and Romantic devices of austere stonework, arches, knotty trees, secluded knolls, gloomy ruins and abandoned shacks.

Rocks on rocks piled, as if by magic spell;

Here scorch’d by lightnings, there with ivy green.

Large Drawing: Cottage Studies, 8.375 x 10.5″

As an untrained “outsider”, it is worth noting that for much of the 19th century, drawing was considered an essential part of a female education among the upper classes (along with numerous other skills such as piano and embroidery), honed in order to charm potential suitors. Fashionable ladies’ social clubs in which drawing was taught (usually under the tutelage of a mediocre male instructor) provided a social forum under the pretext of practicing line and perspective.  This was a world completely alien to Hoffmann. Her anti-social behavior, to say nothing of her low social standing and impoverishment, excluded her completely from any opportunity to join such society, let alone a formal art class.  She was, however, familiar with many of the customs and mores of the Victorian upper class through her fanatical obsession with literature.  She was a great devotee of Radcliff, Dickens, Sheridan Le Fanu and Wilkie Collins.  The latter, of whose lesser-known novel No Name about a young woman unfairly disinherited of her fortune upon her parents’ deaths who sets about to regain it from the very lowest social strata was (not surprisingly) among her favorites, and her copy of the 1873 edition still survives.  We can only imagine the frustration and painful sense of insignificance she must have felt as she diligently taught herself to draw while learning the manners and customs of the upper classes in solitude through Gothic Bildungsromans.  In these popular, sometimes-formulaic novels, destitute and persecuted heroines undergo a series of trials and setbacks to ultimately rise triumphant over their tormentors.

A keen observer of nature, Hoffmann was also highly attuned to reproductions and the contemporary work being done by the very circles from which she was excluded.  Examples of these were often on view in windows of social clubs or gallery-style boutiques.  Without exception they were copies of classic European works or staid landscapes.  As European vistas become fashionable with the proliferation of tours abroad, the European landscape became a wildly popular subject for its combination of the familiar and the exotic.  Hoffmann was quick to pick up on this trend, purchasing both cheap lithographic reproductions of European scenes and novels by European authors, at that time being translated en mass.  From the formulaic best-selling parlor novels that have vanished over time to the gritty realism of Emil Zola and the penetrating moral and religious existentialism of Dostoyevsky, Hoffmann read whatever she could acquire.  By such means she could in some sense absorb these various sites of Old World decay along with a cosmopolitan knowledge of European culture. While parts of the large drawings depict details observed through local observation, there is no question that many were copied from reproductions of the European vistas she would never see firsthand.  Some were likely invented altogether.

Large Drawing: Lewes Castle, 8.375 x 10.5″

It is worth noting that while she followed these trends with a careful eye, she generally eschewed the predictable and fashionable illustrational approach to the subject matter. Instead she focused on unusual, fragmented compositions and separate, isolated elements.  Excepting a few examples, including a rendering of Lewes Castle in Sussex, England, (certainly copied from a reproduction), or a somewhat clumsily drawn mounted cavalier strait out of Alexandre Dumas (probably invented), these works are all presented in this odd but harmonious manner.  They occupy the sheet not as sketches or disparate studies, but as finished drawings in their own right.

Large Drawing: Fences and Windows, 8.375 x 10.5″

Large Drawing: Romantic Rider, 10.5 x 8.375″

It is the larger work, full of invention and wanderlust that seems to have preceded a mental breakdown for which she became hospitalized in the now-infamous Danvers State Hospital.

Danvers State Hospital

“It’s a pretty simple layout, if you consider a giant flying bat. The main staff building in the middle, the bat body, and slanting off to each side are these crooked bat wings: one for female patients, the other for male.

-Session 9

In 1902 Hoffmann suffered a bout of what would today be likely recognized as severe Bipolar Disorder (typically alternating manic periods consisting of sleepless, euphoric mood elevation followed by periods of suicidal depression).  This condition was complicated by violent fits that, at the turn of the century, were categorized under the blanket moniker of hysteria (or specifically, in her day, “secondary dementia”, roughly akin to schizophrenia).  Contemporary psychiatry would probably apply the label Conversion Disorder to Hoffmann‘s case, where symptoms included loud, violent sobbing and frantic, incessant pacing coupled with the above-mentioned sleeplessness. These episodes were interspersed with near comatose periods during which she confined herself to her bed for days at a time.  In late November Norma’s brother Moritz had her committed.  It is difficult to say if she would have been shielded from this confinement had she come from a more privileged background.

Danvers State Hospital was opened in 1878 in what was then a rural city thirty miles north of Boston.  The town where most of the drowning, stoning and torture took place during the Salem Witch Trials two centuries prior, Danvers is now home to giant shopping malls and endless stretches of retail chains.

In its day the hospital was the largest psychiatric facility in the Greater Boston area, treating extreme psychotic cases such as schizophrenia and catatonia as well as milder forms of mental illness including depression, mania and “hysteria”.  The monstrous red brick Gothic structure is reputed to have inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Asylum (which in turn became the model for the asylum-prison that held the deranged villains of the Batman comics.)  Built in 1874 and opened in 1878, the hospital is famously credited as the birthplace of the pre-frontal lobotomy in the 1930’s. In the 1960’s, amidst reports of inhumane treatment and overcrowding, the facility was permanently closed.

Historical attitudes toward depression and mental illness in general underwent a massive shift at the turn of the century. Since the late 1700’s depression (or melancholy as it was termed until the first decades of the 20th century) had been associated almost exclusively with brilliant men – the burden and curse resulting from an over-abundance of intellect, creativity and sensitivity. In the late 19th century, the theory shifted to a view of the malady as a hallmark of the “instability of the fairer sex” (It is worth noting that the word hysteria, dating from the early 17th century, has it’s roots in the Latin term for “of the womb.”)  In Vienna during the late 1880’s Freud was developing his inflexible doctrine linking all cases of hysteria to sexual trauma, repression, and inhibition. While this may speak more to the patriarchal zeitgeist of the Victorian era than to an accurate sexual demographic of mental illness, it was nonetheless for this reason that over two thirds of mental hospital patients – both extreme and mild cases – were female. As the 19th century came to a close (almost three decades before the advent of Electro Convulsive Therapy), the most common treatment for females suffering from hysteria was genital massage – either by the physician’s hand, vibrators or water sprays.  The goal was to cause orgasm in the patient in order provide a release from pent-up sexual repression thought to be causing the psychosis.  Alas, we have not a single detail pertaining to Hoffmann’s sexual life outside of the fact that she never married. If there were any sexual relationships, early traumatic encounters or repressed sexual urges, they are forever lost to history and open only to pointless, dubious theorizing based solely on the work.  It is safe to say that such speculation would be a futile exercise.  Further adding to the mystery is that we know nothing of Hoffmann’s stay at the facility.  In 2002 an asbestos removal crew inadvertently disposed of thousands of pages of patient records, eradicating the stories, experiences and treatment histories of thousands of individuals (including Hoffmann). With the disappearance of these records the world has also lost an invaluable insight into the history of American psychiatry seven years before Freud unleashed his theories to an astonished American public at Clark University, permanently altering the course of psychiatric treatment.  We can take heart that the hospital’s superintendent at the turn of the century, Dr. Charles Page, famously declared the routine mechanical restraint of patients cruel, unnecessary and harmful in cases of mental illness.  We can only hope that this assured Hoffmann’s (and countless other individuals’) relatively humane treatment during her confinement.

The Last Drawings

“Bats, rats birds, insects will as soon nest inside a house as out; it is to them a normal growth of the eternal jungle…”

E.M. Forster, A Passage to India

Upon her release from the Danvers State Hospital in 1904, where she had stayed for about 18 months, Hoffmann turned almost exclusively to renderings of animals and plants, her days roaming Concord’s farmlands with pencil in hand forever behind her.  Whether this was due to debasing, traumatic treatment at the hands of hospital staff or exposure to physical illness from other patients we will never know.  Her body significantly weakened and her health failing rapidly, she died in June of the following year.  No cause of death is given on her certificate.  Her last drawings consist of subjects she could observe exclusively within the confines of her home:  insects and small rodents (including a rat who seems to have been a pet as she scrawled the moniker “Doc” under his image), tree stumps, rabbits and squirrels (probably observed through her window).  Also among these drawings we find sea lions, penguins and polar bears striking majestic poses, or fossils of extinct paleographic species complete with a budding scientist’s notations of scale.  Without doubt these were copied from books.  The gap in stature between the common, diminutive animals she observed first hand and the foreign, wholly unfamiliar creatures she would never see in her lifetime is dramatic, presenting vast extremes of the exotic and the commonplace.  A shakiness of line and a loss in her ability to render are apparent as well – we are miles away from the controlled shades and sensitive tones of the Large Drawings only two years earlier.  Sadly, this brings strong evidence to a deterioration of motor functioning.  Whether this resulted from administrations preformed during her hospitalization, or a dependence on now outdated psychiatric palliatives such as laudanum or morphine we will never know, although one or both of these possibilities seems likely.  The subject of each drawing is diligently written under its image in a child’s careful hand or a distressingly unsteady scrawl.  Her penchant for compositional organization as seen in the Large Drawings now combines both subject matter and the labeling devices of an amateur naturalist using frequently loopy, demented, or child-like penmanship.  Nevertheless she imparts the same care – complete with fastidious line and a high level of concern with placement on the page – to these drawings as to her earlier work.  For these drawings both sides of the paper were utilized – Hoffmann appears to have became ever more parsimonious in her use of materials.  Of these late drawings, not more than ten examples are known to exist.  They are charming in their earnestness, but present a heartbreaking record of the severe dissolution of motor and mental facilities.

Late Drawing: Paleolithic Creatures, 6.875 x 7.75″

Late Drawing: Paleolithic Creatures (verso)

Late Drawing: “A Sea Lion”, 6.875 x 7.75″

Late Drawing: “A Sea Lion” (verso)

One can talk circles in an attempt to explain Hoffmann’s shift from diligent landscapes and Romantic, pastoral studies to these varied creatures – sniffing and buzzing with life outside her window, or millions of years extinct.  It is tempting, in light of her painfully solitary existence, to ascribe this shift to a yearning attempt at communion with the animal world after having been rejected, ostracized and mentally brutalized by the human one.  But it is equally plausible that these final drawings are the product of a soul weakened, injured, and broken by life, wherein her final energies were employed in service to the habitual, automatic depiction of worlds – however miniscule, insignificant or long-since vanished.

House by a Lake, 5.5 x 8.25″


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