Page 1

The Art Deco Murals

of Hildreth Meière CATHERINE COLEMAN BRAWER AND KATHLEEN MURPHY SKOLNIK


THE ART DECO MURALS OF HILDRETH MEIÈRE


2

THE LAUNCH OF A MURALIST’S CAREER


The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière CATHERINE COLEMAN BRAWER AND KATHLEEN MURPHY SKOLNIK PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY BY HILDRETH MEIÈRE DUNN FOREWORD BY RICHARD GUY WILSON

ANDREA MONFRIED EDITIONS


Support for this publication has been provided by the Ida and William Rosenthal Foundation, the Dayton Fund, and the International Hildreth Meière Association. Copyright © 2014 by Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik Photographs (except as credited on page 240) copyright © 2014 by Hildreth Meière Dunn All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Andrea Monfried Editions LLC, New York Library of Congress Control Number: 2013954493 ISBN: 978-0-9910263-0-2 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 First edition Designed by Yve Ludwig Printed in China www.andreamonfried.com CKH LGLB Frontispiece: Drama, Fiftieth Street facade of Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center, New York, in mixed metal and enamel by Hildreth Meière, 1932


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS FOREWORD

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8

RICHARD GUY WILSON PREFACE

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INTRODUCTION

18

HILDRETH MEIÈRE AND THE AMERICAN MURAL TRADITION THE ASPIRING MURALIST

30

THE LAUNCH OF A MURALIST’S CAREER ECCLESIASTICAL DECO

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ART DECO MURALS FOR THE CORPORATE WORLD NEW DEAL COMMISSIONS

168

ART DECO MURALS FOR WORLD’S FAIRS BEYOND ART DECO

192

MURALIST AND BUSINESSWOMAN

NOTES

224

LIST OF COMMISSIONS INDEX

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ILLUSTRATION CREDITS

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220

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This book would not have been possible without the assistance of many people who generously shared their time, resources, and enthusiasm for Hildreth Meière and her work. We are especially grateful to Louise Meière Dunn, whose meticulously kept records and personal recollections of her mother’s work were invaluable in tracing Meière’s life and career. We would like to thank the staff members of the institutions housing Meière’s sketches and murals for graciously responding to our many inquiries, including Robert C. Ripley, Thomas L. Kaspar, Roxanne Smith, and Karen Wagner at the Nebraska State Capitol; Janice Goldblum, Alana Quinn, and J. D. Talasek at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.; Diane Ney at the Washington National Cathedral; Patricia Kane at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York; John Waide and Alice Faye Hubbard at Pius XII Memorial Library, Saint Louis University; Elka Deitsch and Mark Heutlinger at Temple Emanu-El in New York; Carolyn Peery and Wanda Butler at the Municipal Center in Washington, D.C.; and Catha Rambusch of the Rambusch Company in Jersey City, New Jersey. For their assistance with archival materials essential to our research, we would like to thank in particular Marisa Bourgoin at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., where Hildreth Meière’s papers can be seen, and Joy Weiner in New York; Janet Parks at Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia


University, New York; William Creech and Eugene Morris at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and College Park, Maryland; Tal Nadan at the Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library; Ronda Kasl at the Indianapolis Museum of Art; Christine McKay, archivist at the Bank of New York Mellon at One Wall Street; Robert E. Carbonneau C.P. and Sean Peragine, formerly with the Passionist Historical Archives, Union City, New Jersey; and the staff of Special Collections, University Library, University of Illinois at Chicago. Frank Schütz at the Berlinische Galerie, Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst, Fotografie und Architektur in Berlin, Germany, gave Hannah Muller access to the records of Pühl & Wagner, Gottfried Heinersdorff, which Gavin Santacross translated from the German. We owe a special debt of gratitude to Brian Allen, Robert Brawer, Teri Edelstein, John King, and Richard Guy Wilson for their input on early drafts of our manuscript; to Helen Evans, Tod Laverty O.F.M., Gary Lawrance, Thomas Luebke, Denise Marcil, Martha Roth, Patricia Pongracz, and Romy Wyllie for their many helpful suggestions; and to Michael Tischman for his sage advice. We would also like to recognize Elizabeth Broman, Annamaria Calia, Chris Deloges, Becca Earley Richards, Elizabeth and David Fuchs, Elizabeth Leckie, Steven Miotto, the Reverend Lynn Saunders, Antonio Davide Schiavo, Trudy Sensat, Xavier Seubert O.F.M.S.T.D., Robert Sideman, and the Reverend Sam Sung for aiding us in our research. Kathryn E. Holliday and Tobey Cornejo generously shared their discovery of Meière’s cartoons for the banking room at One Wall Street. In Italy, Ilana Melchior clarified traditional mosaic fabrication at the Orsoni factory in Venice; Fabrizio and Giovanni Travisanuto demonstrated design techniques at their studio in Spilimbergo; and Giampiero Brovedani explained the work of students at the Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli in Spilimbergo. We would like to thank Thomas Mellins for introducing us to our publisher, Andrea Monfried. It is an honor to present this volume as part of the inaugural season of Andrea Monfried Editions. We could not have imagined a more dedicated team than designer Yve Ludwig, marketing and publicity consultant Lisa Dierbeck, and photographic processor Donna Callighan. Last, we would like to thank the Ida and William Rosenthal Foundation and the Dayton Fund for their generous support of this publication and the International Hildreth Meière Association for its assistance with the photographs.


Foreword RICHARD GUY WILSON

In spring 1973, I made a foray from Iowa State University in Ames, where I was teaching, westward to Lincoln to visit the Nebraska State Capitol. What today we call Art Deco was at the time beginning a small comeback, and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, forgotten for many years, began to spark some interest among those of us looking to reclaim elements of an original American modernism. I was, needless to say, excited by the capitol and its exterior sculptural decoration by Lee Lawrie; what I did not expect was the interior. I could not believe what I was seeing! The ceiling murals on Guastavino vaults, the floor decorations and panels, and the dome with the Virtues of the State in glazed ceramic tile overwhelmed me, and indeed I still count entering the Nebraska State Capitol as a unique aesthetic experience. No tour guides existed and I couldn’t find any literature on the interior, but I kept asking and finally learned that the work was done by a person named Meière. Sometime later I visited the State Capitol collections and found drawings by the unknown Hildreth Meière, which I still use in lectures. A few years later, now teaching at the University of Virginia, I explored Goodhue’s National Academy of Sciences on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C.; again, the interior and its decoration by Meière captivated me. Subsequently I have visited many of Meière’s other commissions: St. Bartholomew’s in New York, the Cathedral Basilica of Saint

1 Vestibule dome with view toward foyer, Nebraska State Capitol, Lincoln, with decoration in glazed ceramic tile by Hildreth Meière, 1925


Louis, Rockefeller Chapel in Chicago, and others. Each is an experience. The work she did for the world’s fairs in Chicago (1933–34) and New York (1939–40) no longer exists, which is very sad, since her murals were modern and at the same time helped tell the story of the buildings they adorned. But she is still there in New York, at Fiftieth Street and the Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue), catching the eye at Rockefeller Center as you pass Radio City Music Hall. The obscurity of Hildreth Meière is not unusual; she was a decorative artist working on buildings by great architects, and we like to assign one great creator—normally the architect—to each project. Also, decorative art, or “applied decoration,” gained a bad reputation with the advent of strict, or reductivist, modernism. Only a few blocks from Rockefeller Center, the newly created Museum of Modern Art mounted, in 1932 (the same date as Meière’s work on Radio City), an exhibition in which the curators, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, announced that one of the principles of the new architecture—the International Style— was “avoidance of applied decoration.” Gone from modern buildings from the 1940s onward was any work by artists except for perhaps a lonely abstract sculpture in the forecourt, or maybe an abstract painting in the lobby that had no relationship to the building or its purpose. The history of decoration goes back to the beginnings of recorded civilization, whether as murals in caves or carvings in rock. Each age discovered for itself how to convey meanings and messages in murals, sculptures, glass, and other mediums. For the United States, small attempts at decoration begin in the very late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, especially with the U.S. Capitol, but there was not much. The real blossoming of decorative work commences in the 1870s with a sort of Renaissance spirit and indeed competition: “Let’s catch up with the Old World and show them.” To put it mildly, art catches on, museums and schools of art are founded, and it is off to the races. Artists such as John La Farge, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Edwin Blashfield, John Singer Sargent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, and many, many more changed the public, corporate, and religious faces of America with their contributions. Important buildings, whether small or large, were expected to have decorative work testifying to their purpose and significance. What was accomplished in the United States in architectural decorative work in the period 1870–1940 ranks with any other time and/or movement as one of the best. Out of this background emerges Hildreth Meière, who significantly changes the type or, more appropriately, the style of art being produced. Drawing upon the past, she modernizes figure and pattern, creating a more geometrical and simplified appearance, still rich in color, but new. She succeeded and helped establish an American modernism. Her career

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FOREWORD


did not end with the 1940s, of course; there are some significant commissions at the National Cathedral in Washington and elsewhere in the 1950s, but tastes had changed, and she was out of fashion. This study by Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, based upon extensive archival and site research, is a major accomplishment and will return Meière to her rightful place as one of the central figures in American mural and decorative art. Hyperbole comes easy to academics and enthusiasts, but the achievements of Hildreth Meière are overwhelming; she stands at the top of the pyramid.

FOREWORD

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Preface

American muralist Hildreth Meière was recognized and acclaimed by colleagues and critics alike throughout her forty-year career, but she was largely forgotten after her death in 1961. It may appear difficult to comprehend why such a prolific and accomplished artist, whose work was both exceptionally beautiful and readily accessible to the public, faded into obscurity. Like many muralists of her era, Meière generally received her commissions from major architects. These individuals were the ones who were remembered for having overseen entire projects; the names of their colleagues and collaborating artists were lost to history. Moreover, the movement toward minimalism, in both art and architecture, and the shift in public favor in the second half of the twentieth century toward nonfigurative works overshadowed the narrative, representational style for which Meière had been known. During Meière’s lifetime, however, the story was quite different. Numerous articles in newspapers and journals from New York to San Francisco applauded her talent, even in the early phase of her career. In 1924, a reporter called her “strikingly embellished dome” for the new headquarters of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., her first major mural commission, a “crowning architectural effect.” 1 Two years later, Genevieve Parkhurst wrote in the Pictorial Review: “Not only is [Meière] recognized as having few peers and no rivals as a painter of religious

2 Foyer ceiling, Nebraska State Capitol, Lincoln, with Life of the Present in glazed ceramic tile by Hildreth Meière, 1927


murals, but to her has fallen one of the largest artistic commissions of the year—the mural decorations for the new State-house in Lincoln, Neb., and the designs for the dome and the mosaic floor in the rotunda.” 2 Meière’s participation in exhibitions held by the Architectural League of New York and the National Society of Mural Painters also brought her notice. When she received the commission to design the roundels for the facade of Radio City Music Hall in April 1932 and a solo exhibition at the Architectural League that same month, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle commented: Miss Meière has long been recognized as one of the most accomplished mural designers in this country and this is the more interesting since the artist is to be classed with the younger generation. Her work is traditional, but is never commonplace. She invariably meets the commissions assigned to her with able understanding of the technical problems involved and with a distinguished solution of the artistic possibilities. With the result that Miss Meière has received many of the most important mural commissions that have been offered in recent years.3 Praise for Meière and her work continued throughout the 1940s and 1950s. In a 1941 profile written for American Artist, Ernest W. Watson concluded: “Yes, we need more artists in America like Hildreth Meière, men and women with enough vision and enough skill to carry on the great traditions which have given form and color to man’s aspirations throughout the centuries.” 4 The trustees of Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart awarded Meière an honorary doctorate in 1953, noting “Beauty and Truth shine forth in all her works.” The citation that accompanied the American Institute of Architects’ Fine Arts Medal, which Meière received in 1956, labeled her a “Master of Murals.” Despite the awards, Meière’s contributions were largely ignored as both mural painting and the Art Deco style she had helped introduce to American architectural decoration went out of fashion. There is scant reference to the artist for at least two decades after her death in 1961. Meière reappears in a 2001 dissertation by Elizabeth Jean Sharer, “Hildreth Meière, 1892–1961: An Artistic Biography of an American Muralist,” which presents Meière’s life and work in the context of class, patronage, religion, and patriotism.5 Meière is also mentioned in publications relating to projects in which she was involved, although she herself is never the primary focus. The monograph St. Bartholomew’s Church in the City of New York (Oxford University Press, 1988) by Christine Smith explains the background for Meière’s mosaic designs at the church. “The Decorative Art of Hildreth Meière,” Joan Woodside and Betsy Gabb’s chapter in A Harmony

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PREFACE


of the Arts: The Nebraska State Capitol (University of Nebraska Press, 1990), describes how Meière’s designs for the capitol fulfilled the iconographic requirements of Hartley Burr Alexander and suggests possible Italian prototypes. J. B. Bullen’s Byzantium Rediscovered (Phaidon, 2003) places Meière’s designs for the apse of St. Bartholomew’s and the vestibule and rotunda domes of the Nebraska State Capitol within the context of Byzantine revival projects that substituted secular for Christian iconography. Christine Roussel includes a discussion of Meière’s Radio City Music Hall roundels in The Art of Rockefeller Center (W. W. Norton, 2005). In Ralph Walker: Architect of the Century (Rizzoli, 2012), Kathryn E. Holliday addresses Meière’s collaboration with Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker on the banking room and lobby ceiling of the Irving Trust Company headquarters at One Wall Street. Catherine Coleman Brawer’s chapter in Convergence: The Art Collection of the National Academy of Sciences (National Academy of Sciences, 2012), “Hildreth Meière Decorates the Great Hall,” describes Meière’s first major commission from Bertram Goodhue. In Bertram Goodhue: His Life and Residential Architecture (W. W. Norton, 2007), Romy Wyllie calls Meière “a brilliant artist who specialized in murals and mosaics.” John Ochsendorf ’s Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010) describes Meière’s collaboration with architect Bertram Goodhue and the R. Guastavino Company on the Nebraska State Capitol as marking “the height of the Guastavino Company’s decorative and vaulting work.” He concludes: “Hildreth Meière was a major American muralist of the twentieth century. . . .  Her work is largely underappreciated and her close collaboration with Guastavino and Goodhue deserves greater attention.” It is the very qualities that critics, architects, and clients appreciated from the beginning of her career as a muralist that make a rediscovery of Meière so exciting today. A recent assessment of Meière’s murals began with an exhibition curated by Brawer entitled Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meière. Organized by the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts at St. Bonaventure University, the exhibition traveled from St. Bonaventure, New York, to the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Biblical Art in Manhattan. Forty thousand visitors examined sketches, mosaic samples, models, and full-scale cartoons illustrating Meière’s design process. The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière, the first monograph on the artist, reaffirms Meière’s role as a leader in revolutionizing American architectural decoration. Her stylized figures and geometric patterning introduced modernity to buildings across the country. The text follows Meière’s fascination with Art Deco from the nascent Deco-inspired elements in her designs for the Great Hall of the National Academy of Sciences to her iconic masterpieces for the Nebraska State Capitol and

PREFACE

15


Radio City Music Hall. Although the Art Deco murals that gained Meière such renown are the principal focus, this volume also addresses works that epitomize her tremendous conceptual and stylistic range, illustrating the artistic versatility that attracted numerous commissions. The text draws heavily on primary source material, much of it previously unpublished. Meière was a prolific writer and correspondent who kept meticulous photographic records of cartoons before they left her studio. Letters and diaries in the Hildreth Meière Papers at the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., chronicle her early artistic development. This valuable trove includes Meière’s correspondence with architects, clients, and the firms that executed her designs, all indispensable in tracing the evolution of her projects. Meière’s own published and unpublished manuscripts offer further insight into her artistic process. Meière’s correspondence with Hartley Burr Alexander, which is preserved in the scholar’s papers at the Ella Strong Denison Library at Scripps College, Claremont, California, describes the extent of Meière’s dependence on Alexander for design direction at the Nebraska State Capitol. Their letters further reveal that Meière continued to seek his advice for later commissions unrelated to the capitol, including Radio City Music Hall. The German firm Pühl & Wagner fabricated Meière’s designs for glass mosaic in Berlin, then shipped the completed works in sections to their American affiliate, Ravenna Mosaics, for installation in the United States. The extensive corporate records of Pühl & Wagner, Gottfried Heinersdorff, now in the collection of the Berlinische Galerie, Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst, Fotografie und Architektur in Berlin, contain detailed information on Meière’s relationship with both Pühl & Wagner and Ravenna Mosaics. Photographs of Meière’s cartoons for several commissions, as well as the actual full-scale cartoons for the main arch at Temple Emanu-El in New York, form part of the collection at the Berlinische Galerie. The Ravenna Mosaic Company Records in the Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections provide additional insight into Meière’s collaborations with the craftsmen who interpreted and installed her mosaic designs. Photographs and correspondence illustrate the mosaic-making process in Berlin and explain how Ravenna Mosaics’ difficulties with the mosaicists’ union in New York complicated the installation of Meière’s designs there. The records of the R. Guastavino Company at Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York, include working drawings and letters detailing Meière’s association with the firm. Fullscale cartoons, sketches, and correspondence in the Nebraska Capitol Collections in Lincoln aid in understanding issues involving the artist’s eight commissions at the capitol.

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PREFACE


The Century of Progress Records in the Special Collections of the University Library, University of Illinois at Chicago, document Meière’s two contributions to the 1933 exposition in Chicago. Information on her several projects for the 1939 New York World’s Fair is included in the New York World’s Fair 1939 and 1940 Incorporated Records in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library. The National Archives in Washington, D.C., and College Park, Maryland, contains documents and correspondence related to Meière’s participation in federally sponsored programs for artists established in the 1930s. The minutes of the Commission of Fine Arts, located in the National Archives, record the commission’s selection of Meière to design a terra-cotta frieze for the Washington, D.C., Municipal Center. Meière’s correspondence with the Washington National Cathedral between 1951 and 1961 forms part of the cathedral’s archives. These documents describe the contentious circumstances surrounding Meière’s initial commission for the apse mosaic in the Resurrection Chapel and are indispensable in explaining her later incomplete commission for the ­chapel’s niche mosaics. Meière was unusually articulate, with a quick wit, as is evident in her correspondence, memoirs, articles, and other writings. Her appearance and demeanor conveyed self-confidence and intelligence, giving, in the words of a reporter, “the impression of dignity and concentrated force—of unerring discrimination whether in the use of words or of color or design.”6 The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière allows her to speak for herself wherever possible so that readers will enjoy Meière’s personality alongside her remarkable art.

PREFACE

17


Introduction

For artist Hildreth Meière, one of the most talented and prolific Art Deco muralists of the twentieth century, a mural was more than a painting on a wall. A mural “should more properly be called decoration,” she once said, and could embellish “domes, ceilings, curtains, and even floors.” 1 She believed that a mural in any medium had to be integral to the structure it decorated. A good mural was “something that cannot be taken away without hurting the design of the building. If the building can look as well without it, it shouldn’t be there in the first place.”2 During her forty-year career, Meière completed approximately one hundred commissions for churches, civic and commercial buildings, theaters, world’s fairs, schools, restaurants, and ocean liners. Meière pioneered a distinctive Art Deco approach to murals that broke away from academic tradition and blended such influences as early Byzantine mosaics, classical Greek vase painting, and Native American beadwork. Meière’s fascination with Art Deco was apparent in her first major architectural mural. In 1923 architect Bertram Goodhue commissioned her to design decoration for the Great Hall of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. Although she worked in a neoclassical style in designing her figures on the dome of the Great Hall, she combined Art Deco imagery with Art Nouveau and Byzantine

3 Hildreth Meière, c. 1911


influences in her modernized personifications of the four elements on the pendentives. Meière refined her personal interpretation of Art Deco in her decoration of Goodhue’s Nebraska State Capitol, the commission that established her reputation and earned her the Gold Medal in Mural Decoration from the Architectural League of New York in 1928. Like Meière’s designs at the National Academy, the work at the Nebraska State Capitol demonstrates her early expertise in filtering historic styles through an Art Deco lens. Her designs for the marble mosaic floors of the foyer and rotunda infuse classically inspired figures with an Art Deco exuberance; her winged virtues on the glazed ceramic-tile dome of the rotunda represent a reinterpretation of Byzantine prototypes; and the geometric borders surrounding her dynamic panels of Native American life on the Great Plains on the ceiling of the senate chamber incorporate motifs derived from Sioux beadwork. Meière remained intrigued by Art Deco throughout her long career. Art Deco elements feature prominently in both secular and liturgical commissions. Among the most notable of these are her Byzantine-style glass mosaics of the Creation in the narthex of St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York; her brilliant vermilion and gold coloring for the glass-mosaic banking room for the Irving Trust Company at One Wall Street in Manhattan; her colossal mixed-metal and enamel roundels of Dance, Drama, and Song on the Fiftieth Street facade of Radio City Music Hall; her stylized glazed terra-cotta frieze for the Municipal Center in Washington, D.C.; and her no longer extant monumental, mixed-metal relief sculpture Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, and the Dragon of Ignorance for the Science and Education Building at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Meière devised creative solutions to the technical challenges of designing in different, sometimes unfamiliar mediums. She explained: “A mural painter has more of a technical range than most painters—he often works in a great variety of mediums.”3 Meière enjoyed the challenge of pushing a new medium to an extreme. In her commission for the Great Hall of the National Academy, budgetary restrictions forced her to experiment with painted and gilded raised gesso to simulate the appearance of glazed ceramic tile. Her colorful designs for the domes throughout the Nebraska State Capitol, however, were executed in actual glazed ceramic tile set into the Guastavino Company’s structural Akoustolith tile. During her career, Meière continued to test the limits of a variety of mediums, working closely with the architects who awarded her commissions, the studio assistants who helped paint her full-scale cartoons, and the European-trained craftsmen who fabricated and installed her designs. Meière was well aware of what her chosen profession entailed and how it differed from easel, or picture, painting:

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INTRODUCTION


When a picture painter . . .  attacks a canvas, it is to express his own reaction, his own emotions or experience, and he alone sets the conditions and governs that painting. The whole thing is subjective, no matter what the “subject”; but no matter how personal a mural painter may be about his work—no matter how much he is expressing his own beliefs in what he does, his problem is objective—and comes to him from the outside, and his finished work exists not merely in itself, but in relation to three dimensional form—to “enclosed space”— as someone has defined architecture. He is dealing, not with his own reactions alone, but with the relating of them to existing conditions and needs, outside of himself. 4 Meière led a rich and busy life as a muralist and a businesswoman at a time when mural painting and business were both fields dominated by men. In 1955, she wrote of her career: From 1922 on, I have been just as busy as I could be on jobs of all sorts; for churches and bars, for World Fairs and ships, and for big buildings, both public and commercial. I have painted or designed for many mediums—mosaic, marble, glass, metal, gesso-relief, wood, ceramic and even brick! It has meant hard work—long, long hours over a drawing board or before a big easel, or climbing up ladders or on scaffoldings—it has meant being business-like and reliable and always finishing things on time—being tactful and untemperamental in running a big studio and dealing with architects, clients and assistants—in fact, it has been anything but the sort of artist’s life I probably dreamed of. 5

INTRODUCTION

21


Hildreth Meière and the American Mural Tradition

At the time of Hildreth Meière’s birth in 1892, few American artists identified themselves as muralists. In fact, mural painting was not regarded as a distinct art form in the United States until the 1890s.1 The beginning of Meière’s career in the early 1920s coincided with a coming of age of the American mural tradition. By that time, muralists were experimenting with new subjects, mediums, and styles. The murals they created lent beauty and vitality to office buildings, theaters, department stores, and train stations. While murals had decorated the walls of churches and private residences as far back as the colonial era, the paintings for the interior of the U.S. Capitol were the first monumental murals created for a public space. American artists Robert W. Weir, John Vanderlyn, William Henry Powell, John G. Chapman, and John Trumbull painted eight large historical murals for the Capitol rotunda, which were installed between 1826 and 1855 (fig. 5). In 1865, Italian artist Constantino Brumidi painted a fresco, The Apotheosis of Washington, for the rotunda dome (fig. 6). Notable mural projects of the 1870s included William Morris Hunt’s lunettes for the Assembly Chamber of the New York State Capitol in Albany and John La Farge’s decorative scheme for the interior of Trinity Church in Boston. Such large-scale public projects, however, were rare until the last decade of the nineteenth century. Before that

4 Narthex dome, St. Bartholomew’s Church, New York, with Day Four of Creation in glass mosaic by Hildreth Meière, 1930


5 John Trumbull, Declaration of Independence, oil on canvas, rotunda, U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., 1818, installed 1826

time, Pauline King wrote in 1901, “mural painting had awakened no great enthusiasm.”2 The World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, essentially launched the American mural movement.3 The so-called White City featured a monumental assembly of classically inspired buildings, the Court of Honor, designed by architects trained in the traditions of the French Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The cavernous interior spaces of these buildings called for an extensive decorative program, including murals. Frank David Millet, the fair’s director of decoration and a former assistant to La Farge at Trinity Church, recruited more than twenty artists to paint the domes, pendentives, and lunettes of these massive structures. Some of the artists had previously painted murals for churches or private homes, but none had ever worked on the colossal scale required for the buildings of the fair. Painter Will H. Low remarked in an 1893 article in Scribner’s Magazine that most of the painters “were virtually winning their first spurs.”4 In 1923, Edwin Blashfield, an American artist who had painted one of the murals in the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building (fig. 7), reminisced about the fair: “We lucky candidates were all green together. . . . Mural painting was brand new to all of us save William Morris Hunt and La Farge.”5 The carefully organized grounds of the world’s fair were a sharp contrast to the chaos of nineteenth-century industrial cities. The harmony, order, and beauty of the fair generated widespread interest in urban planning and beautification, preparing the way for the City Beautiful movement, with its focus on classical principles of planning and design. The Municipal Art Society, founded in 1893 to monitor urban planning in New York; the U.S. Senate Park Commission (known as the McMillan Commission), formed in 1900 to guide the development of Washington, D.C.; and scores of similar bodies in other cities throughout the United States reflected this new interest in public spaces. The City Beautiful

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HILDRETH MEIÈRE AND THE AMERICAN MURAL TRADITION


movement also increased awareness of mural painting and accounted for many public mural projects undertaken in the late 1890s. An 1899 survey identified eighty-two commissions for figurative and landscape murals (purely decorative designs were excluded), some involving multiple components.6 Notable among these murals were those painted for McKim, Mead and White’s Boston Public Library by French artist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Americans Edwin Austin Abbey and John Singer Sargent (fig. 8), none of whom was known exclusively as a muralist.7 Even more ambitious was the extensive mural program for the Library of Congress, which opened in 1897. Several of the nineteen artists engaged to create the more than one hundred murals for the library had first become familiar with mural painting techniques at the 1893 fair. The demand for mural painters after the World’s Columbian Exposition led to the rise of mural painting as a distinct profession. In 1895, muralists formed The Mural Painters, A National Society, later renamed the National Society of Mural Painters. The group was formed to foster “the development of the arts, which, whether executed in pigment, stained glass, mosaic, tapestry or other appropriate mediums, are used to embellish architecture; also to formulate a code for decorative competitions, by-laws to regulate professional practice, to establish an educational propaganda through the agency of lectures, existing schools and in whatever suitable manner opportunity may suggest.”8 Meière would become active in the organization and serve as its president from 1936 to 1937 and again from 1946 to 1949. Mural painting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was primarily a male profession. This predominance of men was attributable in part to the physical challenges of mural painting, difficulties that Meière herself acknowledged.9 The immense size of most murals required artists to stand for long periods and to work on ladders or scaffolds.

HILDRETH MEIÈRE AND THE AMERICAN MURAL TRADITION

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6 Constantino Brumidi, The Apotheosis of Washington, fresco, rotunda, U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., 1865 7 Edwin Howland Blashfield, Metallic Arts, ceiling mural, Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois, 1891–93 8 John Singer Sargent, Israelites Oppressed, oil on canvas with plaster reliefs, Sargent Hall, Boston Public Library, 1895

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