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While reading Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik’s splendid new book, The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière, I thought—it’s time to go to Nebraska. For it is in its state capital, Lincoln, where one can see Meière’s extraordinary suite of mosaic murals done for the interior domes and floor of the state capitol. Completed between 1924 and 1932, the project catapulted Meière (1892–1961) to the status of one of the nation’s foremost mosaicists and architectural decorators.
The primary focus of this excellent study is Meière’s Art Deco projects, which Brawer and Skolnik organize into various types of decorative commissions: civic, ecclesiastical, corporate, New Deal, as well as decorative interiors for world’s fairs. Expanded from Brawer’s catalogue for the exhibition Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meière (St. Bonaventure, NY: Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts at St. Bonaventure University, 2009), this book, illustrated with spectacular photographs by Meière’s granddaughter, Hildreth Meière Dunn, goes a long way toward rehabilitating Meière’s career.
Meière was born in Flushing, New York, and perhaps the biggest influence in her life was her mother who had aspired to be an artist. From an early age she encouraged her daughter’s artistic pursuits—taking her in 1911 to Italy, a trip that is said to have inspired Hildreth’s interest in mosaic work and mural painting. Upon their return Meière studied at New York’s Art Students League and later in California. In her twenties she made two trips to Paris, one in 1922 with her mother and a second in 1925 to attend L’Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes where she was introduced to a new modern decorative style that came to be called Art Deco.
Meière considered herself a muralist even though her work appears at a far remove from the late nineteenth-century work of Puvis de Chavannes, a French muralist admired by American painters. Yet she employed his principle that a mural should be planar, at one with the wall and not a window into a three-dimensional realm. Meière “believed that a mural in any medium had to be integral to the structure it decorated” (19). This principle, to which she adhered throughout her career, contributed to the beautiful decorative unity found in most of her interior work. Furthermore, her adoption of a linear, Art Deco-inspired style aided this desire to merge image with structural form.
Meière was twenty-nine when she received an invitation from the eclectic modernist architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue to submit a program for the Nebraska state house. So impressed was Goodhue with Meière’s proposal that he immediately hired her to create a decorative scheme for the National Academy of Sciences (1924) in Washington, DC. It was in Nebraska and Washington that Meière began her fruitful collaborations with the Guastavino Company, America’s preeminent tile and vaulting firm. For the National Academy of Sciences Meière was responsible for the decoration of the interior of the dome, pendentives, and soffits of the Great Hall where she created a mosaic mural from painted and gilded gesso in which she referenced the decorative program of the Library of Congress at the other end of the Washington Mall. Many of the murals in the library are based on the history of the book, whereas the imagery of the academy calls upon the history of science. There the comparison stops, for Meière does not allude to the European academic tradition but demonstrates an indebtedness to the Art Moderne she saw in Paris—flattened forms, a limited palette, and abbreviated compositions that signal a decided break from the articulated figural compositions of the Library of Congress.
The Nebraska state capitol is unlike any other, and critics were hard pressed to identify the roots of what was termed a “new style” or “new tradition.” Most often state capitols reflected the design of the United States Capitol which incorporates a classically infused decorative program. Instead of the traditional dome, Goodhue created a tall tower that he surrounded with a low, two-story podium absent reference to classical columns, pediments, or other time-honored decorative motifs. It was seen as an important departure for Goodhue who had trained with the New York Gothicist James Renwick and continued to work in a neo-Gothic style with his partner Ralph Adams Cram until 1914. Tragically, Goodhue died before either commission was completed, but such were the strengths of Meière’s mosaics and work ethic that she continued to receive commissions from the successor firm for many years.
In Nebraska, again collaborating with Guastavino, Meière created an extensive decorative program in ceramic tile. She also began to expand the symbolic vocabulary of her designs and consulted with the Nebraska-born ethnologist and philosopher Hartley Burr Alexander who had been hired by Goodhue to create a modern iconographic program for the Nebraska capitol. Alexander grew up in Lincoln, and after receiving a PhD from Columbia returned home as a professor of philosophy at the University of Nebraska. Alexander maintained a lifelong interest in Native American religion and spirituality which he combined with Western personifications and symbols to form the philosophic basis of his iconographic programs that are central to his program for the state capitol. This melding of the ideals of European civilization with Native American imagery is also found on the exterior where the architectural sculptor Lee Lawrie carved figures of important law givers who collectively expressed a Western history of the law along with relief carvings of bison, settlers, the flora of Nebraska, and Native Americans.
Similarly, Meière created programs for the interior of the vestibule and rotunda domes and floors, as well as for the Senate chamber, that illustrate Alexander’s program. For the vestibule dome she created a stylized sun in glazed ceramic tile as the central image. Surrounding the sun is a series of concentric fields with representations of nature’s bounty and personifications of the seasons of the year and the zodiac. One of the most dramatic features of Meière’s Nebraska program is her floor designs which also reflect Alexander’s ideas with such titles as the Genius of Creative Energy and Mother Nature Enthroned between Agriculture and Industry. It is in these flat figural compositions created in contrasting black-and-white marble mosaic that the influence of her trips to Paris and Art Moderne are most strongly seen.
Meière first met Goodhue in conjunction with an ecclesiastical commission for the altarpiece at St. Mark’s Church in Mt. Kisco, New York. That lone altarpiece was a prelude to a series of impressive interiors for religious institutions in New York and Saint Louis. In these projects Meière “departed from tradition, combining Art Deco modernity with Byzantine splendor” (81). For New York’s Temple Emanu-El (1929) she collaborated with the American-based firm Ravenna Mosaic Company for the embellishment of the arch and ark of the main sanctuary, utilizing sparkling-glass mosaic. At St. Bartholomew’s Church (1929–56), she worked for almost thirty years on various decorative assignments. She used luminous-glass mosaic for the apse and interior of the domes of the narthex. One of her last and most extensive projects was the ornamentation of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis (1945–61). Here, in designs for the dome, pendentives, and friezes, she adopted a Byzantine style found in such early Christian buildings as the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna. The interiors of the sanctuaries in New York and Saint Louis are without rival in the United States. Summarizing the impact of ecclesiastical commissions on her career, Brawer concludes that in these religious projects Meier was able to realize “the artistic potential of her Art Deco style on truly a grand scale” (131).
The roundels for the southern exterior wall of Radio City Music Hall in New York are among her best-known work. These three large-scale tondi executed in mixed metal and enamel frame personify the arts of dance, drama, and song—all appropriate representatives of the art of performance for the building.
Meière also undertook a number of important corporate commissions that evince the same panache and refinement found in her civic and religious projects. Among the best of these corporate commission was her first, the marble mosaic floor for the Baltimore Trust Company Building in Baltimore (1929). This was followed two years later by a striking interior for One Wall Street, Irving Trust Company (1931, now BNY Mellon). From floor to ceiling on the walls of its banking room she placed gorgeous glass mosaics in abstract patterns that modulate from an ox-blood red to a bright orange, while for the foyer she created a stunning Art Deco-inspired ceiling in silver leaf titled The Creation of Wealth. In 1932 she designed a second ceiling mural for the New York AT&T Long Distance Building called Continents Linked by the Telephone and Wireless, this time in mosaic and colored cement for the lobby ceiling.
During the 1930s she also found time to undertake several murals for Chicago’s 1933–34 Century of Progress International Exposition and commissions for the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture (later the Section of Fine Arts) with a now-lost project for the Treasury Department Building, along with the still-extant exterior frieze in glazed terra cotta for the courtyard of the Municipal Center in Washington (1941).
Richard Guy Wilson, who wrote the book’s foreword, eloquently notes that part of the reason for the neglect of her work, and Goodhue’s as well, was the embrace of what he calls “strict, or reductivist, modernism” (10). Never mind that she was a woman and a decorative artist, a vocation also proscribed by the modernist vanguard.
Brawer and Skolnik spend a substantial amount of time, appropriately, on the technical aspects of Meière’s craft—her experimentation and her collaboration with a number of prominent fabricators. The book focuses on her Art Deco style, rightfully claiming that Meière was one of the first Americans to adapt this modern motif for major architectural commissions. The authors successfully demonstrate how she translated Native American, Byzantine, and classical sources into the flat, fluid images of Art Deco.
It is also clear that much more needs to be known in terms of the power, if not the employment and ubiquity, of the materials, forms, and iconography of Art Deco in many American buildings from the 1920s to the 1950s. Simply put it appears that Art Deco was more than a stylistic tic, that it carried forward, and perhaps married, two tendencies of the first half of the twentieth century—beaux-art planning and design combined with the stylization of art nouveau.
My enthusiasm for Meière’s work, its professionalism and ambition, almost overwhelmed my critical facilities; my complaints are few. The book contains a welcome list of commissions but lacks a bibliography and list of illustrations. I also wanted to know more about Meière’s personal life, particularly her relationship with her mother. One gets tantalizing glimpses in her letters that are quoted throughout the text. In them one senses an intimate sharing of ideas about her commissions that suggests a mature relationship free of a daughter’s need of approval. Her mother’s support was not misplaced. Hildreth stepped into a man’s world—not of the café and gallery, but the universe of architects and public commissioning boards—with confidence, élan, and dedication to her craft.
Much more also needs to be known about her iconographic programs and her association with Hartley Burr Alexander. Did she continue to employ his ideas in her commercial work? Was his melding of Native American references with western symbolism adopted by other artists? For me, the Nebraska project, in particular, was a revelation. Here in one of America’s Plains States a vision of beaux-arts collaboration using the vernacular of Art Deco for a new symbolism was fulfilled.
With this publication and other books such as John Ochsendorf’s Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010) and Romy Wyllie’s Bertram Goodhue: His Life and Residential Architecture (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), a new history of modern American design and architecture is slowly emerging, one that challenges the hegemony of the modernist enterprise and brings to the foreground a more accurate and lived experience of the early twentieth-century built environment in America.
Professor Emerita, Art Department, Lehman College and the Art History Program, Graduate Center, City University of New York