Hildreth Meière’s Creations Are the Embodiment of Florentine Muralism, American Glamor and Her Own Determination

Hildreth Meière, American painter and designer (1932). Photo by Peter A. Juley & Son via the Smithsonian Learning Lab.

Among the hidden architectural gems of America, you will find Hildreth Meière’s work bringing personality and intrigue to each building she decorated. Many of her pieces, such as the sumptuous mosaics of the AT&T Long Distance Building, are scattered throughout New York City. After seeing a few of her creations in person, I could not stop thinking about them. I had to know more.

Hildreth Meière was born into a financially stable family in New York City, in the neighborhood of Flushing, Queens. That helps, being financially stable. But she was also incredibly talented, and even at a young age her potential as an artist was noted. During her attendance at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, she designed costumes, sketched and painted quality works. This was just the beginning of her journey into a plethora of diverse mediums.

Meière’s mother was eager to support her in developing the artistic talent that was clearly present — she too considered herself an artist and had artistic ambitions before her marriage. As a graduation present, she sent Meière to Florence to study art. Meière’s experiences there along with her exposure to the Italian murals solidified the path she would take as an artist, shifting her interest from portrait painting to mural design [1].

Three mixed-metal relief sculptures designed by Meière: Dance, Drama and Song. They were installed on Radio City Music Hall in 1932. Photo by Lih Handsome.

Before her dream could come to fruition, World War I commenced. Meière spent a stint in the Brooklyn Navy Yard as an architectural draftsperson [2]. When her family moved to California, she joined them there for several years to study art in San Francisco. Though she wasn’t creating murals, these were both experiences that would help Meière down the line when she did secure her first commission.

It was there in California that she completed a sketch of the famous ballerina Pavlova and Canadian-born theatre actress Margaret Anglin. This connection with the performance arts led Meière to believe that she could have a future in New York again — a future as an artist. She moved back to design sketches for theatre costumes and was hired by the Metropolitan Opera. That is a pretty impressive first gig!

St.Bartholomew’s Church, Six Days of Creation mosaic. Photo by Mel Graf.

Meière had tremendous support from her mother. The two women maintained extensive letter correspondence once Meière moved to New York on her own. She became dedicated to keeping her mom in the loop. Meière’s daughter, Louise Meière Dunn, shared that she would see Meière writing 2 or 3 times per week to her own mother, in stints of 5–10 pages per letter [3]. Staying connected seemed to be important and it is heartwarming to think of the support Meière’s mother showed for her ambitions.

Upon completion of the war, Meière had hoped to enrol at the Turtle Bay, Manhattan location of the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design. However, the institute did not allow female students at that time [4]. (This is likely a sore spot in the history of the institute, especially after seeing how Meière’s career successfully unfolded.) She had attempted to pursue studies at the American Academy in Rome as well, but was similarly told they couldn’t make accommodations for a woman.

As a result, Meière opted for the School of Applied Design for Women. She also studied in Chicago and with the Art Students League in New York. In fact, she studied at so many universities and colleges that I really have lost track. Her drive to learn is definitely inspiring.

Cartoon studies for the Nebraska State Capitol. Photo by Peter A. Juley & Son via Smithsonian Learning Lab.

Though they were not allowed to attend Beaux-Arts Institute, female students from other schools were still allowed to enter competitions hosted by Beaux-Arts (Yay!). In the end, Meière would triumph, winning first place in a competition hosted by Beaux-Arts Institute for her auditorium panel designs [5]. She would eventually go on to become the Director of the Department of Mural Painting at the institute that once rejected her [6].

As for the American Academy in Rome, by the time they began accepting women, Meière’s career had already grown legs of its own. She no longer needed their institution for further education. Sick burn, Meière. Sick. Burn.

An exciting opportunity arose for Meière in 1921, when architect Bertram Goodhue approached her to collaborate on designs for the Nebraska State Capitol. Hartley Burr Alexander, a creative collaborator on the project and an avid student of Native American culture, guided Meière’s designs showing Native American lore.

Today, you will see Meière’s designs from floor to ceiling, from the East Chamber to the West Lounge. Walk across and touch the flooring of the Foyer, Rotunda and Rotunda Entrance Panels for an especially intimate and enchanting brush with Meière’s designs. In total, she completed 12 commissions for the Capitol to be executed in ceramic tile, gold leaf, wool, leather, oil stencil and marble mosaic — a feat she was truly proud of.

But before her work on the Nebraska State Capitol could even begin, Bertram Goodhue hired her again to decorate the Great Hall of the National Academy of Sciences, located in Washington, D.C. [7]. Though I have never been to the Great Hall in person, this 3D 360° image of it is jaw dropping and gives you an idea of the scale on which Meière was working.

Right panel of altarpiece for St. Mark’s Church, Mt. Kisco, New York. Photo by Peter A. Juley & Son via the Smithsonian Learning Lab.

Around the same time, Meière began working on an altarpiece. It was happening all at once for Meière! Yet a third commission from Goodhue, the altarpiece of St.Mark’s Church would become Meière’s first of many religious commissions to come.

Located in Mt.Kisco, New York, the completed altarpiece showcased a Sienese style depiction of the transfiguration of Christ. There was much gold leaf, and Meière worked alongside a framer and gilder to complete the project. However, she expertly painted the altarpiece in oil on her own.

Unfortunately, during a cleaning of the altarpiece most of the original color was removed, leaving large portions of the altarpiece damaged. That person was probably fired, don’t worry. The adjacent photograph, though in black and white, shows the nuanced detailing painted by Meière before the damage occurred.

Though much of Meière’s popular work is in the medium of mosaic, the St.Mark’s altarpiece is a nod to her talent as a painter.

Meière nearly always collaborated. She would draw up and paint gouache studies for each commission, then oversee the installation by gifted artisans. Gilders, mosaicists, architects, framers and creative directors were sought out to ensure the highest quality of finished product.

Often, the finished product was more an interpretation of her designs by the artisans rather than an exact replica of her design studies. But she understood the importance of delegation and how it enhanced the final results of each project. In return, contractors and fellow artisans knew that she could be relied upon to contribute her part to the project in a timely manner [8].

Meière’s designs surround the rose window on the south wall of Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis. Photo by Bill Badzo via Flickr.

Even when working in her private studio on 57th street she had a secretary, someone in charge of lunch preparation and an assistant. This allowed Meière to fully focus on her design commissions. She meant business.

Creating proper cartoon studies that were large enough for the artisans to work from was a project in and of itself. According to Meière’s daughter Louise, Meière’s easel was 17 feet by 24 feet — large enough to accommodate the swaths of thick, brown paper used to paint cartoon studies on. Note that the cartoons were not humorous sketches meant to produce a chuckle, rather they were mock ups of the intended final mosaic creation. The artisans could follow these studies as they executed the installation of Meière’s designs.

A study print with leopards and a satyr by Meière. Photo by Peter A. Juley & Son via Smithsonian Learning Lab.

A lantern-lit enlarging machine, something like a projector, would allow her to start with small sketches that could be projected onto the wall and cartoon paper. From there she could follow the outlines that were cast.

In 1956, one of Meière’s last civic commissions was completed. Alongside the mosaicists of the Long Island City Foscato factory, Meière guided the installation of a marble mosaic creation that would grace the entrance of the Travelers Tower, a Neoclassical-Beaux-Arts work of architecture in Hartford, Connecticut [9]. She continued to complete commissions until her passing in 1961.

Meière’s artful imagination and ornate style did become less popular near the end of her life. International Style took the world of architecture by storm. This new style was inspired by cheaper building materials such as glass, steel and reinforced concrete — think the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, or the Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago. And with the world industrializing rapidly, simplicity and conformity in aesthetic became a top priority [10].

A glimpse into the Red Banking Room of One Wall Street, Irving Trust. It is not open to the public at this time as the building is being converted into condos. Photo by R. Tom via Flickr.

Simplicity and conformity were not what Meière was about, though. Instead, her work was a reflection of Art Deco with its bold colors, high contrast, sleek elegance and a nod to Cubism.

Following Meière’s passing, a revival in Art Deco architecture and design came about in the 1960s [11]. And the intrigue of Art Deco has never quite left us since.

Meière’s works are now being appreciated by a new generation. New York’s Temple Emanu-El was recently restored, including the 8-storey-high main arch and the Ark showcasing Meière’s intricately designed mosaics. Each Sabbath and Friday evening, congregations gather in the Temple, surrounded by her art. And for a $1 million price tag, The Red Banking Room at One Wall Street was renewed [12]. It was well worth it, as The Red Room is otherworldly in its splendor. One Wall Street is currently in the midst of redevelopment, with the first floor rooms set aside for retail space and 567 apartments slated for completion in 2022.

Not all of Meière’s creations have been so fortunate. The R-K-O Roxy Theatre and the ceiling of the lobby at One Wall Street, once a magnificent piece covered entirely in silver leaf entitled The Pursuit of Wealth, are no longer intact. Only photos, studies and smaller reproductions of these pieces now exist. And also, the shame of the contractor who tried to install air conditioning ducts in the silver leaf ceiling, damaging it beyond repair. That probably still exists. Poor guy.

The half dome and stringcourse of St.Bartholomew’s Church showcase Meière’s Byzantine mosaic designs. Within the dome is the Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah flanking Christ’s sides. The stringcourse is composed of animals and birds that symbolize Christian virtues. Photo by Mel Graf.

Hildreth Meière’s works are now preserved and shared by the International Hildreth Meière Association, a labor of love directed by her daughter Louise Meière Dunn and granddaughter Hildreth (Hilly) Meière Dunn. In total, Meière completed over 100 commissions throughout her career, many of which can be seen in New York City.

If the purpose of art is to uplift the human spirit and increase morale, Meiere’s work has succeeded. Should you have the chance, absolutely go see her work. Many of Meière’s creations are available to the public to view by simply walking into the buildings which showcase her work, no tour needed.

REFERENCES

  1. The Editors of the National Building Museum Website. (2011, March). Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meière. Retrieved from https://www.nbm.org/exhibition/hildreth-meiere/ on November 20, 2019.

2. Skolnik, K. (Presenter & Producer). (2019, Oct.16). Open House 2019 [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.hildrethmeiere.org/files/assets/audio/OpenHouse2019-Skolnik.mp3

3. Bloom, A. [Alice Bloom]. (2017, Sept. 27). A Town and Village Two, featuring Louise Meière Dunn and Hildreth, Hilly Meière Dunn. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/Efw-JuzVuRw on November 19, 2019.

4. McGee, C. (2014). “If These Walls Could Speak, They’d Say Her Name.” The New York Times. May 1, 2014. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/02/arts/design/hildreth-meiere-the-forgotten-art-deco-artist.html on Nov.18, 2019.

5. Unknown Author. (1923). “Beaux Arts Institute of Design: Competitions and Awards”. The American Magazine of Art, 14(1), 52–56. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/23928069

6. The Editors of International Hildreth Meière Assocation Inc. (2019). Hildreth Meière. Retrieved from https://www.hildrethmeiere.org/bios/hildreth-meiere

7. Bruegmann, R. (2014). A Look Inside “The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière”. Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine, Spring 2014, pg.28–29. Retrieved from https://chicagodeco.org/Resources/Documents/Spring_14_Issue.pdf

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

9. The Editors of the International Hildreth Meière Assocation Inc. (2019). Travel in the Early Days of Insurance, 1956. Retrieved from https://www.hildrethmeiere.org/commissions/travelers-insurance

10. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, Nov.19). International Style. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/art/International-Style-architecture on November 20, 2019.

11. Etynkowski, M.(2011, Feb. 21). Resurgence of Art Deco. Retrieved from http://artdecostyle.ca/art-deco-style-blog/art-deco-revival on November 20, 2019.

12. Montes, G. (2017). A Hidden Art Deco Lobby on Wall Street Undergoes a $1 Million Restoration. Galerie Magazine, Summer 2017. Retrieved from https://www.galeriemagazine.com/wall-streets-red-room-undergoes-1-million-restoration/

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