Full Name: Zimmern, Helen
Date Born: 25 March 1846
Date Died: 11 January 1934
Place Born: Hamburg, Germany
Place Died: Florence, Tuscany, Italy
Home Country/ies: Germany and United Kingdom
Subject Area(s): Jewish (culture or style) and women (female humans)
Career(s): art historians
Institution(s): Bayswater, Finishing school, and London
Victorian art historian, writer, biographer, translator. Zimmern was born into a Jewish family in Hamburg, her father was Hermann Theodor Zimmern, a lace merchant, and her mother Antonia Marie Therese Regina (Zimmern). After the political unrest in Germany in 1848, the family emigrated to Britain in 1850, where she spent the rest of her childhood. She received sporadic and somewhat disjointed education until 1860, completing a finishing school certificate in Bayswater, London, in 1864. She thereupon decided to begin her career as an author and translator, writing biographies, novels, and reviews covering a broad range of topics. Her first literary appearance was “An Account of Goslar in the Hartz” in Once a Week in 1868. As an art historian, she contributed frequently to The Magazine of Art and the journal Modern Art, writing biographies and for periodicals for English, American, German, and Italian newspapers. She lectured on Italian art in Germany and Britain, and then moved to Florence in 1887. This same year she edited and wrote the introduction for English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds’ The Discourses, and published the book Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: His Life and His Works on Lessing’s contributions to art and aesthetics. The following year, she wrote a thirty-two page essay in The Art Annual, “The Life and Work of L. Alma-Tadema,” which was expanded into Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, R.A., published by George Bell in 1902. In 1906, she wrote the book Italy of the Italians, including a section on plastic art, architecture, and sculpture. During her time in Italy, Zimmern began to write on political relations between Italy, Britain, and Germany; she expressed strong anti-German sentiments in Jewish Home Life by criticizing the German persecution of Jews. Zimmern grew sick in 1933 and died in Florence in 1934, having remained single.
Much of Zimmern’s work points to her role as an advocate for European art and writer on topics that many believed to be exclusively for male voices (“Helen Zimmern Corriere”). By writing about sculpture, like that of Leonardo Bistolfi in “A Modern Italian Sculptor,” 1896, she aimed to help women understand how to appreciate and evaluate a sculpture when they looked at one. Zimmern’s writing encouraged women into the artistic sphere; in “The Work of Miss Bessie Potter,” 1900, Zimmern credits Miss Potter’s identity as a woman as the reason for her sculpting skills. Her art reviews are cited as being “largely adulatory” and including many references to artists she claimed she was friends with (Fraser 83). However, this practice introduced continental European artists to people in the British Commonwealth who would otherwise not have had this artistic literacy; in this way she facilitated an international conversation on sculpture and disseminated information on sculptors (Fraser 76).
- edited, Reynold, Joshua. Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses. .London: Walter Scott, 1887;
- “Contemporary Italian Art. I.” Modern Art 2, no. 1 (1894). ;
- “Contemporary Italian Art. II.” Modern Art 2, no. 2 (1894). ;
- “A Modern Italian Sculptor”, Art Journal (1896): 339;
- “The Work of Miss Bessie Potter.” The Magazine of Art (1900): 522-524;
- “Jewish Home Life”. Fraser’s Magazine no. 616 (04, 1881): 482-500.;
- The Life and Work of L. Alma Tadema. London: Art Journal Office, 1888;
- Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: His Life and His Works. London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1878;
- Italy of the Italians. London: Pitman, 1914.
- Frances, Hays. “Zimmern, Helen.” Essay. In Women of the Day; a Biographical Dictionary of Notable Contemporaries, 224–24. London: Chatto and Windus, Piccadilly, 1885;
- Moon, George Washington. Men and Women of the Time: A Dictionary of Contemporaries. 13th ed., rev. London: G. Routledge, 1891;
- Creffield, C. A. “Zimmern, Helen (1846–1934), translator and author.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 17 Oct. 2022. ;
- Fraser, Hilary. “Women and the Modelling of Victorian Sculptural Discourse.” Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation 33, no. 1/2 (March 2017): 74–93. doi:10.1080/01973762.2017.1279877;
- Del Vivo, Caterina. Helen Zimmern: Corriere di Londra, 1884-1910. Milan: Fondazione Corriere della sera, 2014. Accessed October 17, 2022..
Contributors: Rachel Hendrix