Christ in Gethsemane, 1890
On this canvas we see unfolding the opening scene of Jesus Christ’s atonement from Matthew 26:36-44, Mark 14:32-41, and Luke 22:39-46. The spiritual drama of Gethsemane is emphasized with spot lighting and the intense wringing of hands, yet Christ’s sensitively rendered face remains placid. The features of a garden have been reduced to flinty stones and a prickly thorn bush that prefigures a crown of thorns. The picture’s success lies in the appropriateness of its tone: the transformation of abject agony into a palatable scene of devotion. Christ’s solitude may well reflect Hofmann’s own isolation and reliance upon faith; his wife, who was often in poor health, passed away only months after the completion of Gethsemane, leaving Hofmann a widower for nearly 20 years
Like many of Hofmann’s religious paintings, Christ in Gethsemane soon found a home in an American collection. Purchased by John Zeile, so treasured was the picture that it was the only object saved from the collector’s home when it was destroyed in the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906.
In 1932 the famous philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. purchased Christ in Gethsemane and donated it to the Riverside Church in New York City. Talking about the painting he stated, "I have always been interested in the picture, but never felt that an individual ought to possess such a rare treasure. I feel that it should be made available to the general public."
While many of Hofmann’s paintings have either been destroyed or hidden away in museum vaults or collector’s attics, Gethsemane has remained on permanent exhibition to the public at Riverside Church. This is doubtless what the artist would have intended for what he considered one of his best pictures.
by Angela Swanson Jones