Published: April 3, 2012
Spanning the arc from tiaras to tombstones, artist Marie Zimmermann’s oeuvre has not been widely recognized †until now. Unconventional, well beyond classification and prodigiously talented, designer Zimmermann was an artist’s artist.
Zimmermann’s work draws at once on many influences and none at all. Although her chronology suggests the Arts and Crafts Movement, and even later Art Deco, her work was unlike that of other artists. Eclectic at heart, she created jewelry and metalwork, even furniture, all the while heeding her own instincts.
Incorporating classical, Japanese and particularly ancient Chinese and Egyptian elements in her work resulted in a style described as “eclectic revivalism.” She experimented with various styles and techniques, which effected unique innovations. Color and surface were essential to her work, in which she also incorporated found and antique objects. Zoomorphism, both subtle and pronounced, was a common element in Zimmermann’s work.
Now the subject of the monograph The Jewelry and Metalwork of Marie Zimmermann by Deborah Dependahl Waters, Joseph Cunningham and Bruce Barnes and published by Yale University Press has brought the artist some long-deserved recognition.
Born in Brooklyn in 1879, Zimmermann and her siblings enjoyed the privileges of an economically secure family †her father was an importer of straw for hats from his native Switzerland and her mother was a mainstay of late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century Brooklyn society. At the family’s country house in Delaware Township, Pike County, Penn., Marie enjoyed fishing, hunting and horseback riding. She was a recognized competitive equestrian in Brooklyn and around the country.
At age 10 Zimmermann began study at the Packer Collegiate Institute, where she thrived on the art classes available. She later trained in drawing, painting, modeling and metalwork at various institutions, none of which did she graduate from, but all of which advanced her skill. She enrolled at the Art Students League at 18 where she studied drawing, painting and modeling. Zimmermann later enrolled at Pratt Institute where she studied art metalwork and absorbed lessons from instructors, such as jeweler Carl F. Hamann. Pratt offered wax modeling, repousse and enameling, and Zimmermann learned to design pieces that she would model in wax and then work into copper, silver or gold. She learned to use semiprecious stones and found objects seemingly whimsically, but actually prescribed to a careful plan.
Among the first professional resources Zimmermann developed was her relationship with Riccardo Bertelli, who had established the Roman Bronze Works in Brooklyn and who cast much of her work using the lost wax method. Records exist of their collaboration as early as 1908.
Zimmermann also relied on Arthur D. Browne, the blacksmith at Dingmans Ferry in Pike County, to forge her iron pieces. Deeply interested in the possibilities of iron, she used what was described as Venetian iron, a considerably thinner and more pliable material than standard iron that allowed fanciful shaping and twisting. She had a unique ability to make a normally heavy metal sing. In addition, she was able to demonstrate a fine balance between soaring and fanciful form and her materials.
Zimmermann joined the National Arts Club in 1901 and first exhibited her work there in 1906 around the time it moved to Gramercy Park. She took a studio in the club in 1910 and by 1914 was a resident, remaining so until 1937.
A December 1916 article, “The Gifts of Christmas” published in Good Furniture Magazine , describes Zimmermann’s studio at the National Arts Club as replete with “precious things designed for ladies’ gowns and costumes&?ith shoulder straps of pearls and sapphires mounted in carved antique gold, embellished with the most indescribable patines of color; lovely necklaces where antique jade ornaments were used together with modern metal work modeled, cast, carved and chiseled into the most fantastic forms of dragons, butterflies&?ats.” The article also describes a bronze fish fountain designed as a centerpiece and “weird dragon forms.”
Also in 1916, in Hand-Built Jewelry , a review of metal craft and art jewelry in America noted that Zimmermann was one of the few who incorporated the human form in her jewelry and other work. One of her earliest known pieces of jewelry is a 1909 gold ring modeled in the form of the Zimmermann crest; another early example is a 1912 pendant of silver, shattuckite and freshwater pearl, which is dated and bears Zimmermann’s logo.
One critic made reference to Zimmermann’s extraordinary sensitivity in adjusting scale to material and purpose, which, regardless of the variety of form and style in her work, prevails. Throughout her career she seldom duplicated an article, whether it was jewelry or a household object.
Her work was reviewed widely, usually highly favorably, and she helped matters along herself by placing ads in various publications, such as Scribner’s . At a 1922 exhibition of her work at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, N.J., Zimmermann showed jewelry and larger objects like the pair of bronze shells on stands designed as garden containers, four gold plated bronze stag-form candleholders and a silver pyxis with gold decoration, tiny rubies, a white jade top and a rock crystal finial. The pyxis was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art the same year.
Zimmermann also exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1924.
The earliest surviving piece of Zimmermann’s art metalwork known to date is a 1902 bronze plaque depicting her nephew John C. Zimmermann Jr, which bears her distinctive signature “MZ.” Another is a bronze door knocker in the form of an angel that, like the plaque, was probably made in a Pratt modeling class.
A pair of gilded tables made sometime in the 1920s is a riff on the neoclassical furniture of Robert Adam with a grooved frieze, reeded legs and delicate paw feet †with toenails of a contrasting color. The mosaic tops, in a Hepplewhite form, contain verses from Sappho in Greek. The pair is fanciful at the same time it is a carefully thought out design and its whereabouts is unknown today.
Zimmermann’s two 1915 “Mistletoe candelabra” were made of bronze and cast at Roman Bronze Works with attached clusters of crystal balls. She exhibited them on several occasions, but kept them in her private collection. She made a number of other candelabra of cast iron, the tour de force of which is a large, 28½ by 35¾ inches, soaring example with 11 lights on a distinctive five-part construction supported by eight zoomorphic feet.
A silver bowl with repousse gourds, leaves and vines was commissioned in 1915 by Emily Bedford Davie, Zimmermann’s girlhood friend and equestrian competitor, who commissioned a number of pieces by her pal. Davie also commissioned a large tureen engraved with the names of her mounts and with each handle modeled as a rampant horse.
Zimmermann’s largest commission up until 1920 was the Groesbeck house in Ohio for which she designed storm doors for the entrance, exterior lanterns and interior lighting, hardware for case pieces, tables, an interior fountain and other furnishings. She also specified a slate floor for a major room. The project allowed her to exhibit consistent styles across a range of forms throughout the house.
The Roaring Twenties intrigued and stimulated Zimmermann, who responded to the demand for items of luxury with jeweled objects, such as daggers, fanciful cigarette holders and cases and other fancy goods. Her daggers are exquisite, with intricately jeweled hilts and steel blades with gold and silver damascene, some with geometric twisted copper, silver or gold.
Memorials provided another avenue of expression for Zimmermann and represented her largest efforts. She designed two large sets of bronze doors for A. Montgomery Ward and his brother-in-law and partner George R. Thorne that she described as “built as a great big piece of jewelry.” They were unique and incorporated Egyptian design elements, including the lotus. She exhibited them in New York before shipping them to their ultimate destination, the Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago, in 1926. She designed a stained glass landscape memorial window for the Levy Mayer crypt, also at Rosehill.
Zimmermann later designed the furnishings for the garden room of a house built by Ward’s widow and daughter. Thorne’s daughter-in-law later commissioned the metalwork for the miniature Our Lady Queen of Angels church that was exhibited across the country.
The Jewelry and Metalwork of Marie Zimmermann by Deborah Dependahl Waters, Joseph Cunningham and Bruce Barnes was published by the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation in association with the Yale University Press. It is available for $65 at http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/home.asp .
Another impressive book released by the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation is The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs, released in conjunction with an exhibition that finished its tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011, after previously being seen around the country. The exhibition was organized by the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation, Chipstone Foundation and Milwaukee Art Museum. For information, 212-501-9672 or www.ada1900.org .
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