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Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meière

Categories: Other

By Catherine Coleman Brawer

Drama, exterior sculpture. Mixed-metal and enamel. Radio City Music Hall, 1932; New York, New York. Design by Hildreth Meière. Photograph ©2009, Hildreth Meière Dunn.

Hildreth Meière (1892-1961) was a prominent American muralist and mosaicist, whose style was synonymous with Art Deco. Her career was launched in 1923 when architect Bertram G. Goodhue (1869-1924) commissioned her to decorate the dome of the Great Hall of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. While Meière was working on this project, Goodhue also asked her to decorate the ceilings and floors of the main areas of the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln. Meière immediately grasped the role Goodhue required of her: to complement the architecture by translating abstract symbols and themes into narrative images that augmented his vision and emphasized a building’s cultural significance. He also asked Meière to paint an altarpiece for St. Mark’s Church in Mount Kisco, N.Y. Here Goodhue was looking for sincere religious sentiment expressed in a familiar way.

All of Meière’s work was collaborative. She worked with the architect and client on the idea for a work, and then with craftsmen upon whose skills she depended to realize her conception. Known for her versatility and her willingness to experiment with new materials, Meière made designs for painted wall murals, glass and marble mosaics, marble floors, glazed terra-cotta tiles, metal relief sculpture, stained glass, leather doors, and wool tapestry. She made a series of studies for each commission, starting with a two-inch pencil sketch and ending with a full-size study called a cartoon, from which craftsmen could then interpret her designs.

Genius of the Air, rotunda floor. Marble mosaic. Nebraska State Capitol, 1927; Lincoln, Nebraska. Design by Hildreth Meière. Photograph ©2009, Hildreth Meière Dunn.

“The craftsman … is the designer’s right hand in the final execution of the job,” Meière said during an interview in 1941. “Through the complete knowledge of his medium he is able to infuse the design with added beauty inherent in the technic [sic] …. Architects have a tremendous responsibility toward craftsmen. Marble workers, metal workers, wood carvers, all craftsmen connected with the decoration of buildings, are getting scarce. Most of them are Europeans trained abroad. Who is going to do this when all the old craftsmen are gone?'”1

Meière’s successful completion of work on the Nebraska State Capitol led to over one hundred secular and liturgical commissions that kept her busy throughout her life. These included churches as well as government and commercial buildings, world’s fairs, a restaurant and cocktail lounge, and even ocean liners. With one exception, the abstract red Banking Room at One Wall Street in Manhattan, for which Meière was color consultant, all of her designs were narrative. She admitted to being “so trained to try to express a thought in design that I find it almost impossible to begin anything until I know what it is all about.”

Air, in the Great Hall of the National Academy of Sciences. Painted and gilded gesso. 1924; Washington, D.C. Photograph ©2009, Hildreth Meière Dunn

Hildreth Meière was born in New York. Educated at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Manhattanville (present-day Harlem), New York, she began her study of art in Florence, Italy. Meière continued her studies at the Art Students League, New York; the California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco; the New York School of Applied Design for Women; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Beaux Arts Institute of Design in New York, where her work was critiqued by the muralist Ernest Peixotto. It was he who introduced Meière to Goodhue. During World War I, Meière was trained as a map maker and became an architectural draftsman in the Navy.

Meière worked hard during the fall, winter, and spring months so that she could be free to spend her summers in Europe. She visited Paris during the summer of 1922 and again in 1925, the year of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. This fair of decorative and industrial arts displayed cutting-edge work in a variety of mediums, reflecting a new decorative style later known as Art Deco. The fair was so influential that the Metropolitan Museum in New York had a similar exhibition the following year. As can be seen in her first architectural commission for the Great Hall at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. in 1924, Meière was an early exponent of this popular, international decorative style. Elements of Art Deco can be seen in her stylized rendering of the helmeted figure of Air in motion, its clean, curved lines of billowing drapery and flowing hair, and the streamlined birds in flight.

Meière’s prominence as an artist was well acknowledged. She was the first woman ever appointed to the New York City Art Commission. She served four terms as president of the National Society of Mural Painters, six as first vice president of the Architectural League of New York, and one as president of the Liturgical Arts Society. For five years she was the Director of the Department of Mural Painting at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design. She also served on the boards of the Art Students League, the Municipal Arts Society, the School Art League, and the Advisory Committee of the Cooper Union Art School.

Throughout her lifetime, Meière received numerous awards, beginning in 1928 with the Architectural League of New York’s Gold Medal in Mural Decoration for her work at the Nebraska State Capitol. Meière became an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1942. Four years later, she received an award from the U.S. War Department for outstanding services through the Citizens’ Committee for the Army and Navy, of which she was vice president and director of the Artists’ Committee. Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart awarded Meière an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters in 1953. That same year she became an honorary member of the Church Architectural Guild of America, and in 1959, Meière received a distinguished service award from Manhattanville College. Meière was the first woman artist to receive the Fine Arts Medal of the American Institute of Architects in 1956. The citation read:

A Master of Murals: the world of art might write your name high on the list of the great among our painters and write truly, but not fully. Mosaic, terra cotta, leaded glass, metal, gesso—these and still other media respond gratefully to the direction of your heart and hands. Your collaboration with architects and other artists brings more than the addition of beauty; it transfuses the joint concept and makes it indivisible. In accepting one more token, added to all the expressions of grateful appreciation your work has earned, you will permit us the realization that you are giving the Institute the greater honor.

For her last commercial commission in 1960, Meière designed three marble-mosaic panels recounting the legend of Hercules sailing past the Rock of Gibraltar for the lobby of Prudential Plaza in Newark, N.J. These were in recognition of Prudential’s well-known logo, the Rock of Gibraltar. That same year Meière submitted a series of narrative vignettes for wall niches in the Resurrection Chapel at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The wall niches would have been her last liturgical commission, but they were never executed. When she died in 1961, Meière still believed what she had written three decades earlier: “Architects, artists and artisans will work together to make the buildings of our time expressive of ideas, ideals, and interests beyond the technical solution to the problem of enclosing space efficiently.”3

Footnotes:

1. Ernest W. Watson, “Hildreth Meière Mural Painter: An Interview with Illustrations of Her Work,” American Artist 5: 7 (September 1941): 6.

2. Hildreth Meière to Hartley Burr Alexander, 28 June 1932, Hartley Burr Alexander Papers, Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College, Claremont, California, cited hereafter as HBA Papers. I am grateful to Karen Wagner, Archivist, Nebraska State Capitol, for bringing this archive to my attention.

3. Meière, “The Question of Decoration,” Architectural Forum 57: 1 (July 1932): 8. 

Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meière was organized by the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts at St. Bonaventure University. © 2009 Catherine Coleman Brawer