When George Ernest Germer died in 1936, he had established himself as the finest maker of ecclesiastical silver of the American arts & crafts movement.
In many ways, Germer was a quintessential member of the arts & crafts movement. He was above all else an exceptionally talented artisan who, after employment at some of the finest firms of the time, found his muse working independently in his farmhouse in the woods of New Hampshire.
Germer developed a deep knowledge of historical and pre-industrial ecclesiastical art through his training and study in Germany and the United States. While raised as a Lutheran, (1) he understood the symbolism and liturgical needs of both Catholic and Protestant churches.
At the turn of the 20th century, religious art could be a cacophony of Gothic decoration with little respect for overall design. In Germer's work, especially the pieces he designed himself, we can see that his decoration forms part of a complete design. Semi-precious stones and other materials become part of the larger whole rather than overwhelming it.
Born in Berlin in 1868, it was not long before Germer's talent as a silversmith became apparent. The son of a jeweler, Carl Gustav Germer, (2) George Germer apprenticed to chaser Otto Gericke and, at the age of 17, won a medal of achievement at the Berlin apprentices' exhibition. (3) After studying at the school for arts and crafts, he studied and traveled to other German art centers (Dresden, Hanau, and Cologne), and took a position at the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin, one of the oldest decorative arts museums in the world. (4)
At the age of 24 in 1893, Germer sailed on the Normannia to New York City. (5) Two things happened almost immediately. First, he met and later married Elizabeth Agnes Lochner, also a German immigrant. (6) Secondly, Tiffany & Co. hired him - more evidence of his considerable talent. (7)
George and Agnes settled into the German-American community of Jersey City, NJ, studiously learned English and developed friendships that would last their entire lives. The German-American silversmith William Fuchs became such a friend, working with him at Tiffany & Co. Fuchs daughter, Henriette, was the executor of Germer's estate and delivered a tribute to him after his death. (8)
By 1900, Germer was working at William B. Durgin & Co. in Concord, NH as a modeler and chaser. (9) It is interesting to note that at this time, Durgin started to produce beautifully modeled cast and stamped works. These pieces are rare and were made only briefly. While there will probably never be any supporting documentation, it is fun to speculate that Germer could have had a hand in these exceptional items.
Moving to Providence, RI in 1903, (10) Germer began employment at Gorham as one of their premier chasers, working on Martelé and other notable pieces. The first recorded Martelé piece that he chased was an alms dish that was exhibited at the St. Louis World's fair of 1904. (11) Not only was Germer working in his favorite area - ecclesiastical art - but Gorham was showing great confidence in their new employee.
A remarkable Martelé pitcher chased by Germer is in the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design's Museum. Only the very best Martelé chasers were given figural work to execute - more evidence of his exceptional skill.
Some of Gorham's employees were closely associated with the nascent arts & crafts movement in Boston and were members of the Arts & Crafts Society there. A great artisan, Germer was drawn to the Boston arts & crafts scene, and in 1912, he left Gorham to work at his own bench in a shop on Lime St. in Boston with other members of the Society. (12)
George C. Gebelein, a German-American silversmith who was at the center of the Boston Arts & Crafts community, was another close friend. Gebelein worked for Tiffany & Co. and William B. Durgin & Co. during the same periods as Germer; however, Gebelein joined the arts & crafts focused Handicraft Shop in Wellesley Hills, MA in 1903 at about the same time Germer went to work at Gorham.
In 1912/13, they collaborated on an altar set (likely designed by renowned Gothic architect Ralph Adams Cram) that was exhibited later at the Worcester Art Museum. (13) In his 1913 article "The Craftsman and the Architect," Cram used the cross of this set as an example of improved craftsmanship in the United States. (14)
Germer quickly gained a reputation as an exceptional artist. In 1914, he received a commendation from the Boston Society of Arts & Crafts jurors for his work. (15) In 1915, he won the Mrs. Albert H. Loeb Prize for best original design in silverware at the Exhibition of Applied Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago (16) for a chalice that was purchased by Detroit art patron George Booth, who would later gift it to the Detroit Institute of Art.
A second jury commendation from the Boston Society of Arts & Crafts came in 1915 (17) as well as inclusion in an American Federation of Arts exhibition at the National Museum (Smithsonian Institution) where the above alms dish was shown and purchased by George Booth in addition to the chalice. (18)
About 1917, Germer developed an eye disease which incapacitated him. (19) He and Agnes moved to a farmhouse in Mason, NH that they had purchased in 1907. (20) Germer loved nature and being outdoors, and to his great fortune, the move proved beneficial to his sight. (21) He recovered and was able to work again, and the 1920s would become his most creative and artistically successful period.
"The Supper at Emmaus" ciborium, designed and executed by Germer, was completed by 1922 and exhibited widely to considerable acclaim. Included in the American Federation of Arts' juried 1922-23 Exhibition of American Handicrafts, it was shown at several major venues, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (22)
Brilliantly executed, the silver gilt ciborium features figures of the four evangelists chased in deep relief on each corner. One side shows a chased scene of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, the other Him bearing the cross to Mt. Cavalry. The front depicts "The Supper at Emmaus," when Jesus explains to his followers that he has risen from the dead. The lid is jeweled, topped with a cross with a small central carnelian that spins in place.
Germer also exhibited the ciborium at the Boston Society of Arts & Crafts' 1927 Tricennial Exhibition, (23) the same year he was awarded their "Medal" of achievement - one of only eight silversmiths to win the Society's highest honor. (24) This piece is one of Germer's singular achievements.
Another masterpiece from this period is the jeweled altar cross he finished about 1929. This stunning silver gilt piece is set with carnelian and chrysoprase stones. Supported by a square base with repousséd symbols for Saint Mary, Saint John, and the Holy Trinity, the cross features flowing foliate decoration incorporating the stones. The stones and chased decoration are all part of a balanced and whole design. Exhibited at the Boston Tercentenary Fine Arts Show of 1930, (25) the cross won Germer both a jury medal for ecclesiastical art and a popular award for silver. (26)
The cross, ciborium and alms dish, all designed and executed by Germer, are his three most famous pieces and were all widely exhibited and praised during his lifetime. In these three masterpieces, we see Germer working as his own artist, producing the most beautiful pieces he could. They were his masterworks that displayed his immense talent for all to see.
Germer undertook significant financial risk when making these pieces for exhibition. They were neither part of a commission nor pre-sold. The significant costs associated with both precious materials and his time were undertaken without knowing when they would be recovered. This would have been a real concern as so much ecclesiastical art is designed by architects as part of a large commission.
In ways, Germer was taking similar risks with these pieces that the large silversmithing firms such as Gorham and Tiffany had taken making pieces for world's fairs decades earlier. Some of those incredible and extremely expensive pieces did not sell for decades and, in Germer's case, he never sold the ciborium or cross. (27) The difference was that the large manufactures had enormous capital at their disposal, while Germer was an independent artist without significant financial resources.
Most of Germer's work was in collaboration with architects commissioned by churches and cathedrals. Nearly all these pieces remain with the institutions that ordered them. Germer worked slowly and typically made only one or two pieces a year. One of his masterpieces, a gold jeweled baptismal book cover, took nearly three years to complete. (28)
Along with silver and gold, Germer worked in brass that was usually gilded. The range of ecclesiastical objects he made also includes altar candlesticks, altar desks, chalices and patens, monstrances, croziers, and more. One of his smaller pieces, a pectoral cross worn as jewelry, is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, (see here) and is currently part of the Boston Made: Arts and Crafts Jewelry and Metalwork exhibition.
When the Germers moved to Mason, they suffered the discrimination against Germans that was common during World War I. However, after the War, they integrated into their community, with George serving on the Mason School Board and as a trustee of the Boynton School Fund. (29)
The 1930s were tough for Germer. The Great Depression saw a significant decline in commissions and exhibitions. His wife Agnes died from cancer in 1931, (30) and he gave the Mason Congregational Church a brass altar cross in her memory. (31) Germer's health declined, and he died of a heart attack on December 7, 1936, in nearby Peterborough (NH) Hospital. (32)
George C. Gebelein wrote:
"An unusual background of experience provided his talents with the basis for his outstanding ability and achievement. In his profound and patient study of design and workmanship...he brought to America a knowledge and skill unique in this country and meriting the highest recognition among artists of the world." (33)
The farmhouse on about 50 acres that George and Agnes bought in 1907 is now part of conservation land in Mason, NH. It seems fitting the natural surroundings he loved, and in which he thrived, are now preserved for all to enjoy. His tombstone in Mason is adorned with the epitaphs, "Master Craftsman in Precious Metals" and "His Creations Remain The Outward Symbol of His Noble Soul." (34)
We would like to thank Gebelein Silver for their assistance.