You’ve likely seen the work of Hildreth Meière. Radio City Music Hall, St. Bartholomew’s Church, Temple Emanu-el in New York City, the National Cathedral, the National Academy of Sciences and the Nebraska State Capitol are just a few of the noteworthy buildings decorated by Meière’s Art Deco mosaics and murals. For an artist whose work is so omnipresent, she’s not exactly a household name.
A new exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., organized by St. Bonaventure University’s Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts is honoring the work and legacy of the late artist by displaying sketches, cartoons, photographs, models, mosaics and painted altarpieces. They’re selections from more than a hundred of the artist’s commissions originally collected for an exhibition at St. Bonaventure University in 2009.
View a slide show of images from the career of Hildreth Meière:
“Her legacy is everywhere. It’s absolutely everywhere,” says Joseph LoSchiavo, executive director of the Quick Center. “She’s more ubiquitous than people who are much more well known.”
Meière was born into New York City’s social elite — her family is still listed in the exclusive social register — in 1892, an era when women of her stature rarely worked. But Meière was far from your typical turn-of-the-century blueblood New Yorker. She took up painting and art when she was still young, studying her craft in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Florence, Italy.
“[Meière] started out in the theater, which would have been more typical for a woman of that time,” says LoSchiavo. She designed costumes for lead actresses at a time when traditional divas still ruled the stage. It wasn’t until she met prominent architect Bertram Goodhue in 1923 that her work with mosaic and mural really took off.
Goodhue commissioned Meière to decorate the dome of Washington’s National Academy of Sciences. Her charge was to translate abstract scientific ideas into concrete symbols and narratives. As Meière began work on this project, Goodhue commissioned her for a second: the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln.
From there she went on to design decorative themes in University of Chicago’s Chapel (1927), St. Bartholomew’s Church (1928), Temple Emanu-El (1929), One Wall Street’s lobby ceiling (1931) and Radio City Music Hall (1932).
Her reach went beyond her own artistic expression. She held a string of leadership roles in the arts world and was the first woman to hold many of them. She served on the New York City Art Commission, was president of the National Society of Mural Painters, first vice president of the Architectural League of New York and president of the Liturgical Arts Society.
It’s difficult to separate her accomplishments as an artist from her accomplishments as a woman of her time. “What makes her unique is that she was very successful as a woman in a man’s profession,” says LoSchaivo. Still, he admits that “[Meière’s] daughter and granddaughter, who are the keepers of her legacy, are bound and determined that she be regarded as an artist and not as a woman artist.”
The breadth of projects Meière undertook is a testament to her artistic curiosity. In a talk in 1950, Meière once compared mural painting to a liberal arts education. “At one time or another,” she said, “I have been an authority on a wide range of subjects such as astronomy, anthropology, California flora, Renaissance ornament, Biblical History, the lives of the Saints, mosaics of all periods, American Indian art, the history of Nebraska, the manufacture of brick, and the women’s movement — to name only some.”
“Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meière” is at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., through Nov. 27, 2011.