I am a craftsman. I have tried to bring back the old idea of the artist that flourished in the days of such men as Michelangelo and Cellini. They were masters of a dozen crafts and they used all of them in producing perhaps one object.

Marie Zimmermann

Marie Zimmermann 1878–1972

Born into privilege but driven to forge her own path, Marie Zimmermann is considered the most versatile and skilled craftswoman of the 20th century with an oeuvre that spanned movements, styles, and mediums.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Zimmermann was the daughter of wealthy Swiss immigrants and heiress to a sizable fortune. Rejecting her father’s wishes that she study medicine, Marie Zimmermann instead chose to pursue a career in the arts, attending the Packer Collegiate Institute and later the Art Students’ League and Pratt Institute.

Zimmermann was deeply inspired by “Renaissance Men” – polymaths like Michelangelo and Cellini – and their pursuit of mastery across multiple disciplines. A female pioneer in metallurgy, a field dominated almost exclusively by men, she dedicated the first 25 years of her career to learning the techniques she would later employ in artworks produced in her own atelier from the 1910s through the 1930s. During this period she regularly spent ten to twelve hours each day honing her craft.

The result was a rich outpouring of work as varied as it is impressive. She produced jewelry, candelabra, vessels, garden gates, and more, in a dizzying array of materials: gold, silver, bronze, copper and iron. She was also a painter, sculptor and furniture maker.

It is nearly impossible to ascribe Zimmermann’s creations to a single artistic movement or period. In nearly every piece she created, aesthetic inspirations drawn from ancient Egyptian, Classical and Chinese forms mingle with traces of Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Art and Crafts motifs. A fearless designer, she experimented eclectically with materials, surfaces, colors and applied ornamentation, so that a jewel-encrusted steel dagger might recall elaborate Mughal scabbards, or a brilliantly enameled jewel casket with stylized palmettes might evoke ancient Egypt.

Zimmermann’s astonishing creative range was widely recognized by her contemporaries. In 1926, journalist Harriet Ashbrook of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described Zimmermann as “perhaps the most versatile artist in the country,” going on to proclaim, “there is hardly a beautiful thing which human hands can make that Miss Zimmermann hasn’t made.” Zimmermann hired contractors, whom she trained herself, to help execute her designs, but continued to demand full creative control of their output.

In 1940, Marie Zimmermann closed her studio following a tragic five-year period in which all of her family passed away. Zimmermann’s renown faded following her retirement, but interest in her work has seen a revival in the past few decades, as a number of her pieces have been accepted into museum collections, and a book-length study has detailed her life and work (The Jewelry and Metalwork of Marie Zimmermann, 2012).

Works by Marie Zimmermann can be found in the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbus Museum in Georgia, Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, among others.

Zimmermann is believed to have sold or bequeathed to household staff some of her most substantial pieces. These works, though slow to return to market, have begun emerging in recent years. In 2005, Rago Auctions established the record for one of her works at auction – a carved and painted wooden box decorated with cast bronze Egyptian motifs which sold for $120,000. This example is currently held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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