The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière
Kathleen Murphy Skolnik; Catherine Coleman Brawer
Andrea Monfried Editions Llc, 2014
240 pp., 143.0
A Woman Above
What was "modern art"? We are well into the 21st century, yet the standard answers to that question (whether put forward by enthusiasts or detractors) are largely unsatisfactory. On the other hand, we have an abundance of first-rate scholarship on artists whose lives and works can't be made to fit the familiar narratives, challenging us to rethink "the modern." A case in point is The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière, a beautiful new monograph by art historians Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, with the assistance and wonderful photography of Meière's granddaughter, Hildreth Meière Dunn. Through meticulous archival and onsite research, these scholars have delivered a legacy, too long buried, that illuminates both midwestern art history and American art history at large.
Meière was a highly respected muralist and designer, succeeding in a field dominated by men. She fused Byzantine, Native American, Classical Greek, and Italian Renaissance styles into her own modernized Art Deco style. Her work has been seen and admired by thousands of Americans, and yet, after her death in 1961, she was forgotten.
Born in 1892, Meière was committed to the vocation of an artist at a young age. It was for this reason that her mother, Minnie, took Meière to Europe in 1912. Skipping Paris, the art center of the world, she went instead to Florence, where (she later recalled) the works of such renaissance masters as Giotto, Boticelli, and Fra Angelico "established my taste and my aspirations for only the very best in art."
Her painting and drawing education continued at the Art Students League of New York and later the California School of Fine Arts. During World War I, she took a position drafting for the U.S. Navy. After the war, this interest in architecture led her to make sketches of models at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In 1919, she received her first mural commission, scenes from the Finnish epic Kalevala, after she showed a family friend some sketches she had made. After this she tried to enter the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in New York, but the all-male school rejected her impressive application for no other reason than that she was a woman. Instead she entered the School of Applied Design for Women, which was similar to the Beaux-Arts Institute but was not "quite as inspiring and strong." However, she was still allowed to compete in the Beaux-Arts competitions and consistently won awards.
Encouraged by this success, she applied for a fellowship in painting at the Fine Arts School of the American Academy in Rome. Again, she was rejected because she was a woman. When she went to the academy to retrieve the portfolio she had submitted for review, she met C. Grant La Farge, the son of the great American muralist John La Farge. She told him that she considered herself "the Founder and President of the Association of Lady Applicants and that when the doors were thrown open—she would be sitting on the top step."
In 1921, she received her first big opportunity. Bertram Goodhue, a successful architect and partner of Ralph Adams Cram, had recently won a commission to construct the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln. Though he had already dismissed many sketches from many artists and had told Meière that she "was being tried as a last resort," after seeing her preliminary sketches, he recommended her to the Capitol Commission. In the meantime, since the work on the Capitol would not begin for a couple of years, Goodhue selected her to design decorations for the Great Hall at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.
Goodhue was not only a commissioner of Meière's work but also an artistic influence. Though noted for neo-Gothic churches, he drew on a plethora of historical styles. He disdained the "too rigid and rules-oriented" appropriations of classical architecture; instead, as Richard Guy Wilson noted, he created a "new architectural language of modernized classicism." Meière would adopt this method when she drew on the Byzantine legacy. It was in the Great Hall that she first fused Art Nouveau motifs with Byzantine-style mosaics. The iconographic program drew heavily on Byzantine sources, replacing saints and apostles with symbols of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Her first attempts were not to Goodhue's liking, but she persisted until she found a design which Goodhue loved. Though Goodhue died in 1924, with these two enormous commissions he had jumpstarted Meière's career.
She had eight commissions for the Nebraska Capitol building. In the vestibule, she had to abandon her original sketches for a Native American themes program, which was considered too specific, and instead created a program called "Gifts of Nature to Man on the Plains of Nebraska" spread out over the past, present, and future. She did get to use her splendid Native American designs, however, in the Senate dome, which featured a program called "Native American Life on the Plains." She was instructed to approach these designs in the manner of a Native American artist instead of someone trained in the European tradition. Consequently, she pored over photographs of Indian beadwork and painting. This infusion of Indian design was something that informed much of her work in the years to come.
It was not only academic and state buildings that Meière tackled; she also had a significant number of ecclesiastical commissions. Her first significant commission was the vaulting and ceiling apse of the Rockefeller Chapel for the University of Chicago, depicting the Canticle of Creatures of St. Francis of Assisi. The Native American influence can be seen in the black-outlined chevrons she used in the ceiling. As she completed this project, Mayers, Murray, & Phillip commissioned her to design the decorative program for Temple Emanu-El, the largest synagogue in the world, and St. Bartholomew's Church in Manhattan. Her fusion of the Byzantine style with her own Art Deco visual vocabulary would reach a new height in these designs.
For these commissions she drew on the work she had seen in the churches of Rome and Ravenna. "The whole essence of Byzantine art is the dome," she explained, "and when you put mosaics on a curved surface, the light striking them changes, and shadows some and go … . The result will be a moving light, and a surface that almost appears to be living."
The Emanu-El Temple brings together an exterior of Moorish-Romanesque design with a Byzantine interior. Meière designed the mosaics for the eight-story-high arch in the main sanctuary of the building and the ark which contains the Torah. Utilizing geometric designs presented a unique challenge here as she had to avoid the symbol of the cross. This forced her to develop a widely various and complex design that even incorporates the black-outlined chevrons inspired by Sioux beadwork.
It is at St. Bartholomew's that her skill at moving between styles is most evident. In the apse of the church, she designed a Transfiguration scene in a traditional Byzantine style, but in the narthex she designed narrative scenes of the Six Days of Creation. She found that her preferred Art Deco style was completely compatible with the abstract aesthetic favored by the Byzantines. She turned to the dome of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna for inspiration, and the result was an Art Deco masterpiece.
Her mosaic work reached an even larger scale when she was commissioned to work on the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis. With a Romanesque exterior and a Byzantine interior, the cathedral had designs by various artists already installed, and it was Meière's task to not only complete her own nine separate mosaic commissions but to harmonize the styles already in place. One of her commissions was the Dome of the Twelve Apostles, for which she drew inspiration from the Arian Baptistry in Ravenna, though she placed them on a blue background instead of gold. The magnitude of this task is demonstrated by the fact that her apostles were eighteen feet in height so as to appear life-size from the floor far below.
Meière's expertise and fluency gave her a reputation that earned notice in the corporate world as well. Her versatility became even more apparent in the way that she tailored her style and technique to the needs of her clients, ranging from the abstract glass mosaic color gradation scheme in orange and red for the Irving Trust Company on Wall Street to the classically informed figures that represent Dance, Drama, and Song in the roundels for the Fiftieth Street façade of the Radio City Music Hall. (The Dance roundel adorns the cover of this book.)
Her first corporate commission, in 1929, was for the Baltimore Trust Company Building. As in the Nebraska Capitol, her designs were an Art Deco fusion of geometric shapes and classical figures. One particularly pleasing example of her ability to combine styles to her purpose is the embodiment of the Baltimore Airport: an enthroned woman in classical pose adorned in a flowing Grecian gown and accessorized with an aviator's hat and goggles. Her depiction of the booming Baltimore economy in ancient classical garb took on an eerily prescient mood when the stock market crash at the end of that year caused the company to declare bankruptcy.
Few people today would recognize the name of Hildreth Meière, even among students of art. In my undergraduate experience studying art history, I encountered Meière's work twice without any knowledge of whose it was that I was appreciating. The first instance was when I took an excursion to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, where I found it hard to tear my eyes away from the shimmering mosaic work above. The mosaics of St. Louis are always one of the first recommendations I give for those seeking architectural satisfaction without leaving the Midwest. The second encounter was at the University of Chicago, where, led by my art history professor Dr. Matthew Milliner and together with my classmates, I visited the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. Gazing with appreciation at the Native American–inspired designs on the ceiling, I wondered about the artisans involved in the task.
This monograph brings the name of an important and prolific designer and artist in the American tradition into its deserved place of prominence. Meière commanded many different styles without mimicry, developed an original style while remaining malleable to the needs of the architect, and remained prolific until her last days.
In 1941, she sent a letter to the Commission of Fine Arts to defend a request to sign her name to the public Health and Welfare commission that was installed in the courtyard of the Municipal Center in Washington, D.C. It was important, she wrote, to recognize "the dignity of the craftsman's contribution, and [acknowledge] it publicly." The exquisite photography of Hildreth Meière Dunn and the archival research of Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik do just this by bringing her name and the glory of her craft back into the public eye.
Stephen Westich is a graduate student in art history at the University of Indiana.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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