Danish silversmith Georg Jensen is undeniably one of the most innovative and influential artists in history. His work reflects the wide array of different styles that rose to prominence at the start of the 20th century.
Jensen was the son of a maid and a grinder in a knife factory. He was born in 1866 outside of Copenhagen into a large Danish family. Jensen quit school at a young age to work alongside his father making knifes. At the age of 14, he attended technical school and soon became the apprentice of a goldsmith in Copenhagen.
As a young man, Jensen was intent on becoming a sculptor. He enrolled in the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen. At 25, he graduated and started a family, but found it hard to make a living as a sculptor. Jensen realized he wasn’t cut out to earn his keep with sculpture, although the art would greatly influence his later work with silver.
The Road to Becoming a Silversmith
In 1897, Jensen’s wife died suddenly, leaving him to raise two boys alone and without a profitable trade. However, around this time, he met Johan Rohde, who would become a lifelong collaborator. Rohde was a multiform artist, working in disciplines ranging from writing to architecture to painting. He gave Jensen the opportunity to show his pottery and sculpture work at the Free Exhibition, an expo featuring young artists, which Rohde had founded.
Jensen had a piece accepted at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, exposing him to a broader international range of work. These early successes led to a two-year travel grant from the Danish Academy, changing the trajectory of both his life and work.
During his time abroad, he was exposed to Art Nouveau–a movement that blended style and practicality, requiring works of art to be not only beautiful, but useful as well. When he returned to Denmark, Jensen started working for a silversmith with an Art Nouveau flair, and dedicated himself to investing his creations with both beauty and utility.
Jensen realized that silversmithing was his calling. Soon after his first job, he opened up his own workshop and store, selling jewelry in downtown Copenhagen. He was an immediate success, especially after exhibiting his first independent work as a silversmith at Copenhagen’s Decorative Museum of Art in 1904, after which his jewelry would regularly sell out.
His Style and Legacy
Jensen’s style was formed by his diverse experiences. His childhood in the pastoral setting of the countryside near Copenhagen influenced his pieces to have natural themes and motifs. A ring might be embedded with a gilded-silver butterfly, while the pendant of a necklace would be a pair of stacked seashells.
But Jensen was also part of a broader movement, especially early on, which was referred to variously as Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau, and embodied a reaction against the global emergence of mass production spurred by the Industrial Revolution. Jensen’s work was about instilling everyday life with rarified and singular beauty.
As Jensen’s business grew, his work also expanded to include practical items for the home. This allowed him to incorporate utility into his ethos and esthetic, making teapots, candlesticks, and cutlery. It was in this period that he would develop his famous “magnolia” pattern, which remains one of his signature motifs.
Jensen’s personal life was marked by tragedy. He married three more times, and outlived his first two wives. He also experienced a series of major professional disappointments in his later years. The last year of his life, however, was marked by the crowning success of the Grand Prix at the 1935 World’s Fair in Brussels.
Jensen died at the shockingly young age of 35, but his influence as a silversmith lives on today.
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