Interdisciplinary historian of 19th- and 20th-century art, museum director. Hofmann was the son of Leopold Hofmann and Anna Visvader (Hofmann). He studied art history in Paris and Vienna, graduating from the University of Vienna. Between 1950-55, he worked as an assistant curator of the Albertina Museum in Vienna. In 1957 Hofmann took on fellow Vienna-school art historian Hans Sedlmayr in his review of Sedlmayr's book Verlust der Mitte. The 23-year-old Hofmann decried Sedlmayr's racist views (Sedlmayr had been associated with the Nazis in Vienna) as well as what he termed Sedlymayr's "unscholarly speculation." He was a guest lecturer at Barnard College in 1957. In 1960 Hofmann burst onto the international art-historical scene with his groundbreaking monograph on 19th-century European art, Das Irdische Paradies which was immediately translated into English as The Earthly Paradise. The work examined 19-th century art based on opposing themes of the art rather than a chronological treatment. In 1961 he was a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley in 1961. In 1962 Hofmann became the founding director of the Museum of 20th Century Art (Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts) in Vienna, part of the Museum moderner Kunst, Stiftung Ludwig. This was a normal advancement structure for a university position. However, an Austrian university position was not forthcoming, and Hofmann resigned from the Museum in 1969, moving to Germany as the director of the Kunsthalle in Hamburg. Two of the major exhibitions Hofmann organized for the Kunsthalle included the 1975 Fueseli (shared with the Tate) and the 1980 exhibition on Goya, a subject which would continue to occupy Hofmann for many years. He was guest professor at Harvard University for the 1981-1982 academic year and at Columbia University, New York, as Meyer Schapiro Professor, in 1984. He remained at the Kunsthalle until his retirement to Director emeritus in 1990. The following year he lectured at New York University and at the University in Vienna. In 2003 Hofmann issued a monograph on Goya published simultaneously in German and English, Goya: vom Himmel durch die Welt zur Hölle (Goya: to Every Story there Belongs Another) and later a book on Degas. Das Irdische Paradies (The Earthly Paradise) remains a groundbreaking monument of western art historiography. Hofmann defined nineteenth-century art as contending with a series of opposing tensions (such as the "earthly paradise," the "holy prostitute," etc.). His work was highly interdisciplinary, drawing examples from music, philosophy and literature to elucidate what were in many cases well-known works of art in new ways. This non-linear, a-historical (but not anti-historical) view of art history influenced a generation of modernist art historians who viewed their art works thematically rather than as a series of style changes.
Das Irdische Paradies: Kunst im neunzehnten Jahrhundert. Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1960, English, Art in the Nineteenth Century. London: Faber & Faber, 1961, (British edtion), American edition, The Earthly Paradise: Art in the Nineteenth Century. New York: George Braziller, 1961; Grundlagen der modernen Kunst. Stuttgart: Kröner, 1966, English, Turning Points in Twentieth-Century Art: 1897-1917. New York: George Braziller, 1967; Gustav Klimt und die Wiener Jahrhundertwende. Salzburg: Verlag Galerie Welz, 1970, English, Gustav Klimt. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1972; Anhaltspunkte: Studien zur Kunst und Kunsttheorie. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1989; Caricature from Leonardo to Picasso. London: John Calder, 1957; Goya: vom Himmel durch die Welt zur Hölle. Munich: Beck, 2003, English, Goya: to Every Story there Belongs Another. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003; Goya: das Zeitalter der Revolutionen, 1789-1830. Munich: Prestel, 1980; and Schiff, Gert. Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1741-1825. Munich: Prestel, 1974; Wie Deutsch ist die deutsche Kunst?: eine Streitschrift. Leipzig: E. A. Seeman, 1999; "Die geschichtliche Stellung von Daumiers graphischer Form", in: Jahrbuch der kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien 52 (1956): 147 ff.
Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, no. 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, pp. 81, 148; Belting, Hans. The End of the History of Art? 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 38; "Der Autor." in, Hofmann, Werner. Anhaltspunkte: Studien zur Kunst und Kunsttheorie. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1989, verso of title page; Zaunschirm, Thomas. "Wiener Noblesse: Werner Hofmann zum 70." Kulturchronik 6 (1998): 4-5; International Who's Who, 2005 ed., p. 792.