Hildreth Meière, the Forgotten Art Deco Artist
Hildreth Meière, the Forgotten Art Deco Artist
By CELIA McGEEMAY, New York Times, 5/1/2014, original
HOW many worshipers, at the 1920s Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan, or St. Bartholomew’s Church, the Episcopal bastion nearby, realize — if they notice them at all — that the intricate mosaic ornamentations in these contrasting houses of faith were produced by a singular vision? The same sensibility distinguishes an altar in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the glistening red mosaic walls at One Wall Street, which turn to orange the higher they go. If audiences dashing to Radio City Music Hall tilted their heads back, they would suddenly be struck by brightly colored figurative roundels on the 50th Street facade. From one coast to the other are many more instances of the same artist’s remarkable decorative work, forgotten in plain sight.
Her name was Hildreth Meière, and she rose to fame as the most prominent muralist of her day. Working in an extraordinary range of media for a series of powerful architects, she radically advanced the field, helping to introduce America to the modernism of Art Deco.
Meière was an unmistakable New York blue blood, invariably photographed in her ever-present pearls, her genteel designer attire, her hair upswept and her elegant gaze turned away from the viewer (in photographs of her at work, her clothing is protected by a smock).
Yet the story of her pioneering art and adventurous life were for decades lost on all but a small group of historians versed in Art Deco or American mural art.
Now a handsome monograph, The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière, (pronounced mee-AIR) may help change all that with its publication this week. In April, two long-lost panels from Meière’s 1960 marble mosaic triptych, “The Pillars of Hercules,” originally commissioned for the Prudential Plaza in Newark, were formally installed at the Center of Hellenic Studies in Washington. And on May 18, openhousenewyork will offer a tour of Meière’s works throughout the city, also noting her murals and mosaics for churches and ocean liners, government buildings and cocktail lounges, business headquarters and children’s playrooms.
Describe her as among the few established female artists of the time (born in 1892, she remained active until her death in 1961), and she would take umbrage, said Catherine Brawer Coleman, an art historian and co-author of the monograph, with Kathleen Murphy Skolnick, an architectural historian with Rockefeller University in Chicago. “She wanted to be called an artist, not a woman artist,” Ms. Coleman said.
Nonetheless, said Francis V. O’Connor, a specialist on the history of American murals, “she became one of the leaders of an art world that had forever been dominated by men.”
Much of the research has been done by the artist’s daughter, Louise Dunn, and her granddaughter, Hildreth Meière Dunn, who live in Stamford, Conn., not far from the family summer house built decades earlier by Meière. They carefully tend to an office filled with memorabilia. (Most of Meière’s papers are at the Archives of American Art.)
Hildreth Meière knew early on that she wanted to be an artist, a portraitist at first. In 1911 her mother, once an aspiring painter, took Hildreth to Italy as a graduation present from the Academy of the Sacred Heart, along with her sister, Lloyd.
In Florence, Hildreth steeped herself in manuscripts and prints in libraries, stared mesmerized at the work of the masters of the Italian Renaissance, and was so impressed “by the great beautiful frescoed walls,” she wrote, that she decided to pursue mural painting instead.
Back in New York, she enrolled at the Art Students League, and then, when her father’s health prompted a move to San Francisco, continued at the California School of Fine Arts. Sketching and painting the city’s theater and ballet crowd (Anna Pavlova was a subject), she made connections that lured her back to New York. Moving into a residential hotel, the Madison Arms, she resumed her performing arts work, which included costume design.
Because the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in Turtle Bay didn’t accept women, Meière settled for the New York School of Applied Design for Women, which gave instruction considered practical for female students. This was a pattern repeated for much of her career. She once said jokingly, in her deep voice, that she considered herself “the Founder and President of the Association of Lady Applicants.”
Meière had not just the art training, but also her well-honed social skills to fall back on. She joined the Architectural League, once it began admitting women, in 1934 — six years after she had won a gold medal in the League’s annual competition. Witty, bordering on impudent, she reveled in the night life of her professional peers and the more sedate sorties of her upper-class world. Invited to a black-tie dinner of the New York City Arts Commission as its first female member, “she wore a black tie,” Ms. Dunn said, “with the lowest-cut long black evening dress.” Meière wrote her mother about enjoying the dog shows. She went to boxing matches.
Her first important commission was the decoration, in painted and gilded raised gesso, of the Great Hall of the National Academy of Sciences, designed by Bertram Goodhue. Characteristically, Meière always stressed that her design work — translated into mosaic in Europe from her giant renderings and then transported by ship in sections — was at the behest of an architect and part of a collaborative enterprise with craftsmen, and she quickly learned how to direct many people. She became a businesswoman.
By then, she had also visited Paris twice, in 1925 for the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, where many saw the style that would become known as Art Deco for the first time. Meière’s passion for Art Deco really came to the fore in Temple Emanu-El, at 1 East 65th Street, particularly in the geometric motifs interspersed with Judaic symbols that ascend the eight-story-high arch of the main sanctuary. She also embellished the ark. “You can’t imagine how hard it is,” she told a friend proudly, “to avoid using a cross shape anywhere.”
Her work at the Byzantine Revival St. Bartholomew’s Church, at Park Avenue at 51st Street, for the half-dome apse and the entrance lobby, was happening at the same time. The church stipulated more traditional figurative representations of the Transfiguration, in the Byzantine style. But in the lobby, Meière got away with “The Six Days of Creation” in full-blown Art Deco.
Also toward the end of the decade, on a trip to Europe with her close companion, the wealthy, divorced Louise Benedict Harmon, she met and married Richard von Goebel, an Austrian aristocrat and playboy. The marriage lasted briefly and was annulled, but produced a daughter, named Louise, after Mrs. Harmon.
Louise Dunn said she called Mrs. Harmon, who was older than Meière, Granny. When her mother was at work in a studio she maintained on West 57th Street, Louise stayed home with Granny, in an apartment where the three lived, at 620 Park Avenue (at 65th Street).
As the Depression set in, Meière did several painted murals under the Works Progress Administration, and won extensive commissions for the 1933 and 1939 World’s Fairs. Concurrently, Rockefeller Center was being finished, and she was commissioned to decorate the 50th Street side of Radio City Music Hall and the 49th Street expanse of the RKO Roxy Theater (known as the Center Theater), which was demolished in 1954. When she presented her Radio City designs to John D. Rockefeller Jr . — three brightly colored enamel-over-mixed-metal roundels with allegorical figures of theater, music and dance — he reacted in shock at what he considered naked bodies. Meière agreed to alterations, but not much of the nudity vanished,
But she seldom defied a client. For the ceiling of the AT&T Long Distance Building, at 32 Avenue of the Americas (near Walker Street) in what is now TriBeCa, in 1932, she entertained the notion of depicting a day in the life of a contemporary “telephone girl,” but agreed instead to symbolic personifications of electronic communication, rendered in glass tile and colored cement. In the lobby of the Travelers Insurance Company Building in Hartford, she devised a marble mosaic mural that was almost pure Currier & Ives.
That was in 1956, and the stripped-down architecture of the International Style, which had no use for elaborate ornamentation — or refined ladies like Hildreth Meière — soon ended her prominence. She and her daughter had moved to an apartment in the neo-Classical Artists’ Studio Building at 131 East 66th Street. And there, still working on commissions that continued to come her way, she stayed.
On May 18 openhousenewyork and the International Hildreth Meière Association will offer tours of mosaic murals, stained-glass windows and other works; ohny.org.