Monday, December 1, 2014

THE MOSAIC ART OF HILDRETH MEIÈRE

A recent traveling exhibit of Hildreth Meière’s work came to New York City from Washington, DC. In Washington the exhibit focused on Meière’s work in that city, and in New York a tour of four buildings with her mosaic work was organized. I was lucky to take the New York tour, along with Susan and Paul Tunick of Friends of Terra Cotta, and photograph three of the sites: Temple Emanu-El, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church and 32 Sixth Avenue.

But, who was Hildreth Meière?


(Photo from: http://www.mosaicartnow.com/2010/12/a-few-of-our-favorite-things-hildreth-meiere/

“Hildreth Meière [1892-1961]...was an integral part of the art deco movement creating drawings, paintings mosaics, leather works, gold leafed objects, and metal sculptures. ...Not only did she put art on the inside of buildings, but on the outside as well.” (http://www.brightestyoungthings.com/articles/hildreth-meiere-epic-mosaics-all-over-the-place.htmMeière was “a distinguished Art Deco muralist, mosaicist, painter and decorative artist, [who is ranked with a] very small number of women artists -- such as Violet Oakley, Berenice Abbott, Isabel Bishop and Georgia O'Keeffe -- whose achievements gained the recognition of the established art world during the first half of [the Twentieth] Century. ...Her major commissions include the Nebraska State Capitol at Lincoln, and the National Academy of Sciences, the Municipal Center and the Resurrection Chapel of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.  In New York, her most famous designs are the Art Deco plaques on the exterior wall of Radio City Music Hall.  Her work may be found in St. Patrick's Cathedral, St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, Temple Emanu-El, and the banking room of The Bank of New York Mellon (formerly the Irving Trust Company) at One Wall Street.  Her murals also appeared in Chicago's 1933 Century of Progress Fair, and the 1939-40 New York World's Fair.  An accomplished ecclesiastical artist, she created numerous altarpieces and stained glass windows.” (http://www.hildrethmeiere.com/Biography.html)

“[What] makes her career most notable was the groundbreaking influence she had as a woman in a time where men dominated every profession. She was the first woman ever appointed to the New York City Art Commission, and she came to found the Liturgical Arts Society in her 57th Street studio in New York, serving as the organization's first president. She served four terms as President of the National Society of Mural Painters; six terms as First Vice President of the Architectural League of New York; Director of the Municipal Arts Society; Director of the Department of Mural Painting at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design; member of the Architectural Guild of America; and a board member of the Art Students League, the Municipal Arts Society, the School Art League, and the Advisory Committee of the Cooper Union Art School, all in New York.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hildreth_Meiere“As the county’s leading practitioner of the art of mosaic, her mural art stands among the most distinguished of her era.” (Don Chandler, “Marie Hildreth Meière 91892-1961) Art Deco Mural Painter and Mosaicist”; http://www.hildrethmeiere.com/Profile.html)


(Color photos courtesy of Michael Padwee unless otherwise noted)


The Nebraska State Capital Building, Lincoln, Nebraska

Meière’s first major commission was the Nebraska State Capital Building (built 1922-1932).


A drawing by Meière from the R. Guastavino Company Archives for a tiled section of the Rotunda Dome. (From:  "Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile",  an exhibit at The Museum of the City of New York, March 26- September 7, 2014; borrowed from the Guastavino/Collins archive, Drawings and Archives, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University;  http://findingaids.cul.columbia.edu/ead/nnc-a/ldpd_3463538/summary)

“The architect of the Nebraska State Capital Building, Bertram Goodhue, hired Hildreth Meière to design the mosaic floors, ceilings and walls. The De Paoli Company and the R. Guastavino Company, both of New York, executed Meière's designs: De Paoli in marble and Guastavino in ceramic and "Acustalith" tiles.” (http://www.hildrethmeiere.com/CommissionsNebraskaNE.html)


Hildreth Meière’s design for the R. Guastavino Company-tiled Rotunda Dome.

"Her extensive assignment included designs for the ceilings of the foyer, rotunda, senate, and house chambers, 


The De Paoli Company's marble mosaics on the Rotunda floor.

"the mosaic floor in the foyer and rotunda (patterned after the floors in the Cathedral of Siena);





"the Indian Tapestry in the senate; the leather doors of the house chamber (modeled after the Tree of Life in Assyrian reliefs, with an Egyptian sun-burst); the gold-leaf friezes in the house; and the domes of both the rotunda and the vestibule. 


Some of the Guastavino-tiled wall murals and window arches in the foyer hallway.

"Begun in 1924, Meiere's work on these commissions continued until at least 1932.





"The tile mosaics of Meiere also depend to some extent on antique models. Before deciding on technique, color, and style, she studied floor and wall mosaics in Venice, Ravenna, Siena, and Rome. The influence of such fourth-century art as that in the Basilica of Junius Bassus may be seen in Meiere's use of the technique of opus sectile* and in the bright coloration of the decorations for the dome and foyer. That Meiere was not only a capable designer but also an excellent draughtsman can be seen in the treatment of the figure and its relationship to its surrounding space.





“In comparison to the [painted] murals [on the main floor], the tile mosaics are remarkable for their color. Depending on the space to be decorated -and in many cases the areas seem more decorated than painted the colors vary from the vestibule to the rotunda. In some areas the color of the limestone on the walls and ceilings forms an integral part of the work itself and serves as the background color for groups of figures." (http://www.nebraskahistory.org/publish/publicat/history/full-text/1974-3-Capitol_Design.pdf; pp. 394, 402-403)





*[“Opus sectile is an art technique popularized in the ancient and medieval Roman world where materials were cut and inlaid into walls and floors to make a picture or pattern. Common materials were marble, mother of pearl, and glass. The materials were cut in thin pieces, polished, then trimmed further according to a chosen pattern. Unlike tessellated mosaic techniques, where the placement of very small uniformly sized pieces forms a picture, opus sectile pieces are much larger and can be shaped to define large parts of the design.”] (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opus_sectile)






"Surviving documents illustrate the working relationship [between Meière and the Guastavino Company] during the Nebraska project. Meière sent images of her mural designs to the Guastavino Company, which then fired the correct size and color of the various tiles. The elaborate tile finish work required much more extensive scaffolding than usual for the vault builders. ...Befitting Goodhue's scrupulous vision of craftsmanship, the custom tile pieces were cut by hand to size, taking account of the shrinkage which occurred during firing. Due to the meticulous attention to color, many tiles 'required two and three glaze firings at different temperatures.' Despite this great care, 'Hildreth Meière was a perfectionist and rejected many tiles so the manufacture of many extra batches of tiles became a necessity." (John Ochsendorf, Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2010, pp. 173-174. [A further discussion of the making of extra tiles for an installation can be found in Richard D. Mohr's article, "Art Tiles in the Prairie School: Part II--Griffin + Mahoney + Teco" in the Journal of the American Art Pottery Association, Winter 2012, Vol. 28, No. 1])


According to the Hildreth Meière website, Meière completed over one hundred commissions throughout the country, a number of which can be seen in the New York City metropolitan area. (http://hildrethmeiere.com/ComissionsByState.html)



32 Sixth Avenue, The Walker-Lispenard Telephone Company Building/The AT&T Long Distance Building (1932)


Facade of 32 Sixth Avenue/Avenue of the Americas.

The lobby of the AT&T Long Distance Building was conceived by the architect of the building's third expansion, Ralph Thomas Walker (1989-1973). Walker designed Art Deco skyscrapers such as the Barclay Vesey Telephone Building at 17th and West Streets and the Western Union Building at 60 Hudson Street, among others, and he believed that a building's lobby should be a "jazzy" and "lively" introduction to the business conducted in the building. To this end he hired Hildreth Meière to design the lobby of 32 Sixth Avenue for AT&T. (From the PBS documentary Treasures of New York: Ralph Walker)

Meière designed the lobby ceiling as you enter the building from the Avenue of the Americas. The lobby ceiling mosaic is titled “The Continents Linked by the Telephone and Wireless” and showed mosaic “lines of communication” connecting four mosaic representations of the continents. 





Meière used “allegorical figures to convey the function of the Long Distance Building as a hub of international communication... . Meière’s mural embodies the exoticism that typifies many Art Deco designs. Two classically inspired female messengers command the center of the ceiling.” (Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière, Andrea Monfried Editions, New York, 2014, p. 146)










“Over one hovers an eagle; over the other, a condor. Diagonal gold lines representing telephone and telegraph wires connect to regal personifications of four continents reclining at the periphery of the ceiling... .” (Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière, Andrea Monfried Editions, New York, 2014, p. 146)







Australia


“Australia holds a sheaf of wheat and rests her arm on the back of a sheep while a kangaroo looks on.



Africa

“Africa, holding a fan and accompanied by lions, gestures toward the Great Pyramids.



Asia






”Asia, set against a backdrop of pagodas, is garbed in a kimono and flanked by a tiger and elephant.



Europe


“Finally, a crowned Europe holds a scepter and orb while reclining on an Ionic capital before a Roman aqueduct. The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the towers of Notre Dame in Paris rise in the distance.” (Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière, Andrea Monfried Editions, New York, 2014, pp. 146-147)




A side hallway ceiling above a bank of elevators. Although it looks as if the ceiling is not flat, that effect is due to the optical illusion in Meière’s mosaic design.






These murals were composed of silhouette glass mosaic with colored cement and were executed by the Ravenna Mosaic Company* in 1932. The silhouette mosaic technique “used glass tesserae [to] form the outline and details of a design that is filled in with colored cement. More economical than solid mosaics, silhouette mosaics were frequently used in the 1930s to reduce the cost of mosaic decoration.” (Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière, Andrea Monfried Editions, New York, 2014, p. 147)


*[“In the United States, Paul [Heuduck (1882-1972)] helped establish the Ravenna Mosaic Company, a joint endeavor between the St. Louis art glass studio owned by Emil Frei and Puhl-Wagner. The Ravenna Company was founded primarily to work on the Byzantine glass mosaics which were to fill the new St. Louis Cathedral. Under the direction of Gerdt Wagner, Ravenna maintained offices in both New York and St. Louis during its early years. Many of Ravenna's important early commissions were executed in New York, including murals at Rockefeller Center, St. Batholomew's Episcopal Church and Temple Emanu-El. Frei amicably broke with Ravenna in late 1929 or early 1930. In 1935, Arno [Heuduck, Paul’s son], who had studied art at Washington University, joined the company. Paul took full control of Ravenna when, in 1939, Gerdt Wagner abandoned the company to return to Germany, where he became a high-ranking Nazi propagandist.”] (http://archon.slu.edu/?p=collections/findingaid&id=13&q=The St. Louis University Library has a series of explanatory photos on its website illustrating the process of making a mosaic mural by Ravenna. (http://libraries.slu.edu/a/digital_collections/ravenna/process1.htm)




In addition to the ceiling mosaics, Meière also designed a wall mural in the lobby made of ceramic tiles. The tiles pictured a world map and were executed by Continental Clay Products* in 1932. (“Hidden in Plain Sight: Hildreth Meière Sunday, May 18, 2014”--a brochure prepared by Open House New York)

*[Continental Clay Products--of Kittanning, Pennsylvania and Martinsburg, West Virginia--supplied the bricks for 32 Sixth Avenue, as well as the lobby tiles. According to the April 30, 1927 Charleston (WV) Gazette, “[Four] brick manufacturing companies...have been consolidated into the Continental Clay Products Corporation of Delaware... . The new company will acquire all of the fixed properties, sales organizations and trade names of the Kittanning Clay Manufacturing Company, Kittanning, Pa., Williams Grove Brick Company, Bigler, Pa., the Fallston Company, Beaver, Pa., and the Continental Products Company, Martinsburg, W. Va.” (“Four Brick Plants Joined in Merger”, Charleston (WV) Gazette, Saturday, April 30, 1927, p. 7) Continental Clay Products was reorganized in 1933, probably as a result of the Depression.] 



St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, 325 Park Avenue




“Saint Bartholomew's Church in New York City (often known as 'St. Bart's') offers an example of early twentieth-century appreciation of the Byzantine aesthetic. In 1918 the St. Bart's congregation moved from its building at Madison Avenue and 44th Street to a grand structure in the Romanesque style on Park Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets.” (Annie Labatt, “St. Bart’s and Hildreth Meière”; http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2012/byzantium-and-islam/blog/cultural-connections/posts/saint-bartThe architect for this building was Bertram Goodhue. The original free and simplified Byzantine design by Bertram Goodhue (1916-17)...was somewhat compromised by the requirement that the French Romanesque portal be preserved from the previous church and re-erected on the new site. It...was designed by McKim, Mead, and White (1902-03) and was beloved by the parishioners. The magnificent bronze doors, with bas-reliefs in panels depicting episodes from the Old and New Testaments, had been carried out by some of New York's established sculptors: Andrew O'Connor, working freely under the general direction of Daniel Chester French, executed the main door; the south door was executed by Herbert Adams, the north door by Philip Martiny. The foundation stone of Goodhue's original design, a vast, unified barrel-vaulted space, without side aisles or chapels and with severely reduced transepts, was laid 1 May 1917 and the construction was sufficiently far along for the church to be consecrated in 1918; its design was altered during construction, after Goodhue's sudden, unexpected death in 1924, by his office associates... . [Goodhue’s associates] also inserted the...dome, tile-patterned on the exterior and with a polychrome Hispano-Moresque interior dome, which substituted for the spire that had been planned but never built.” (http://www.nyc-architecture.com/MID/MID034.htm)



The tiled dome of St. Bart’s.


“In 1930, Hildreth Meière...designed a series of mosaics for the narthex and the apse.


(Photo from: http://www.museumplanet.com/image/nyc/bart/bart086.jpg)

"As you walk into St. Bartholomew’s you enter the narthex which has Meière’s Creation mosaics on domes placed from North to South.



Creation: Day 1



Creation: Day 2



Creation: Day 3




Creation: Day 4




Creation: Days 5 and 6 with Day 3 to the left and Day 4 to the right

















“For the apse, Meière chose to depict the scene of the Transfiguration, described in the synoptic gospels as the episode in which Christ, accompanied by the apostles Peter, James, and John, goes to the top of a mountain. There, the apostles witness Christ's transfiguration (or ‘metamorphosis,’ in Greek), as well as the appearance of Elijah and Moses, the two Old Testament prophets.



The apse half-dome mosaic: the Transfiguration

"Meière's selection of this scene for the apse was a clear reference to the sixth-century mosaic in Saint Catherine's Monastery at Sinai. ...In both monuments, Christ stands against a golden background surrounded by a mandorla, or almond-shaped ring of bright colors and rays of light. The vivid rays illustrate the emphasis in the synoptic gospels on the brightness and whiteness of Christ. ...The Sinai mosaic shows the apostles literally knocked over by the light emanating from Christ.” (Annie Labatt, “St. Bart’s and Hildreth Meière”; http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2012/byzantium-and-islam/blog/cultural-connections/posts/saint-bart)



The Grand Mosaic of the Transfiguration in St. Catherine's Monastery: “One work within he Monastery's main church (Katholikon), decorating the sanctuary apse, is particularly notable. The subject of the Transfiguration is very appropriate to this holy site, which is associated with the two instances when God was "seen" by the Prophet Moses and by the Prophet Elijah, the latter of whom had felt God as a light breeze on Mount Horeb, below the Peak of the Decaloque.” (http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/catherines2.htm)

“Meière’s scene corresponded with a new emphasis [in the Episcopal church] on the theme of immanence, or inherent spirituality, which was also [the architect, Bertram] Goodhue’s central focus for the architecture [of the building]. Although Meière depicted the Transfiguration in a ‘primitive’ Byzantine style, as requested, she injected Art Deco motifs in the sunburst pattern for Christ’s mandorla and in the pale blue and white zigzag lines representing water.” (Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière, Andrea Monfried Editions, New York, 2014, p. 92)



Art Deco motifs in the almond-shaped mandorla and the blue and white, zig-zag water lines in the Transfiguration mosaic.

Between 1948 and her death in 1961 Meière designed stained glass windows for St. Bartholomew’s. She designed three sets of three windows--the south clerestory windows--and was part way through a third set--the Benedicite window in the north clerestory was the only set completed (1956)--before she died.


“The south windows depict Canticles of Evening Prayer from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. Each bay [of] three windows..are the Magnificat, Gloria in Excelsis Deo, and Nunc Dimittis. ...As you look at the clerestory windows, you will see that the colorful medallions are surrounded by clear glass, which allows light to stream in. ...The iconography for Meière’s windows was done by Dr. Albert Friend, the well-known Byzantine scholar; the stained glass was manufactured by the Rambusch Studio, with whom Meière had a long-standing relationship. The Byzantine style dictated that all the lettering be in Greek, the original language of the New Testament.” (Becca Earley Richards, Holy Light: The Iconography and History of the Stained Glass of St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City, self-published, 2007, p. 9)



”The Magnificat (1948): The Magnificat is the song of the Virgin Mary from Luke 1: 46 in which she expresses her thanks in being chosen to bear the Christ Child: ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord.’” (Becca Earley Richards, Holy Light: The Iconography and History of the Stained Glass of St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City, self-published, 2007, p. 10)

Part of an unpublished manuscript about the history of Rambusch Studios, written by Catha Grace Rambusch, describes the technique that was developed with Hildreth Meière for these windows. "The original glazing, installed under the direction of architect Bertram Goodhue, was monochromatic light grey glass. The effect on the interior was one of subtle diffused mysterious light. The effect of the new windows was to be the same, but subject matter, as opposed to the simple geometric forms of the original temporary glazing was to be introduced.



”Gloria in Excelsis Deo (1949): 'Glory to God in the Highest’ is based on the song the angels sang at Christ’s Nativity, as told in Luke 2: 14.” (Becca Earley Richards, Holy Light: The Iconography and History of the Stained Glass of St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City, self-published, 2007, p. 12)

"The solution lay in the use of lead cames. Throughout, very inexpensive commercial grey glass was the base. Over it, the design was fabricated exclusively by lead cames of varying thicknesses… . This unique solution allowed the windows to 'read' in daylight and at nighttime. It introduced subject matter while at the same time retained the aura of mystery in the church's interior." (Catha Grace Rambusch, Unpublished manuscript, Chapter 6, p. 62)



"Nunc Dimittis (1955): The Nunc Dimittis is the song of the Temple functionary Simeon, at the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple, Luke 2: 29-32.” (Becca Earley Richards, Holy Light: The Iconography and History of the Stained Glass of St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City, self-published, 2007, p. 14)


Temple Emanu-El, Fifth Avenue and 65th Street





“Temple Emanu-El, the largest synagogue in the world, has a sanctuary almost 150 feet long and more than 100 feet high. Architects Kohn, Butler and Stein chose the Byzantine style for the interior to complement the Moorish-Romanesque design of the temple’s facade, which symbolizes a mingling of Eastern and Western cultures.





“Design elements throughout the synagogue combine biblical imagery with stylistic traditions from medieval Spain, Eastern Europe, and mid-nineteenth-century Berlin. Mayer, Murray & Phillip, as associate architects, commissioned Meière to design mosaics for the eight-story-high arch of the main sanctuary and for the ark on the eastern wall behind it, where the Torah scrolls are housed.” Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière, Andrea Monfried Editions, New York, 2014, p. 84)












”Design on vertical band rising from bimah behind main arch,...in glass mosaic...1929. These mosaics “incorporate elements of Art Deco in their flamelike shapes, yet they also contain lozenge and tulip patterns from the East.” (Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière, Andrea Monfried Editions, New York, 2014, pp. 84, 89)

”Meière’s designs for the arch incorporate Judaic symbols into a wide band of intricate geometric patterns. ...Meière later wrote, ‘The difficulty in working for Temple Emanu-El came in devising geometric patterns which do not contain a cross.’ ...She developed elegant vertical bands of different interlocking patterns in vibrant colors and various shades of gold that sparkle as they rise behind the arch.” (Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière, Andrea Monfried Editions, New York, 2014, p. 84)
























The German firm of Pühl & Wagner was chosen to fabricate and install the mosaics. “The company’s mosaicists had restored several of the Byzantine mosaics in Charlemagne’s Palace in Aachen and made reproductions of mosaics from Ravenna.” (Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière, Andrea Monfried Editions, New York, 2014, p. 87)







The ark surrounded by mosaics.





These are just three of Hildreth Meière’s installations in the New York City area, many of which can be visited with prior preparation. 


The three Meière metal medallions at the Radio City Music Hall.

Other Meière installations include the three metal medallions on the facade of Radio City Music Hall; the altar in the Lady Chapel of St. Patrick’s Cathedral; the “Eternal Christ Enthroned in Judgement” mosaic in the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY; the exterior terra cotta reliefs on St. Mary’s High School, Manhasset, NY; the colored concrete “Stations of the Cross” in the Newark, New Jersey St. Charles Borreomeo Church; and the enameled cabinet doors, “The Shrine of Remembrance”, at St. Thomas Church, One Fifth Avenue, Manhattan. For a list of all Meière’s commissions by state, see http://www.hildrethmeiere.com/ComissionsByState.html


*****

I would like to thank Open House New York (https://www.ohny.org) for organizing the tour of four of Meière’s commissions. I also thank Catha Grace Rambusch and Rambusch Studios for allowing me to use the quote from an unpublished manuscript about the company, which fabricated Meière's stained glass designs for St. Bartholomew's

*****

Recommended Reading:

Catherine Coleman Brawer and Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière, Andrea Monfried Editions, New York, 2014.

Catherine Coleman Brawer, Curator, Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meière, The Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts, St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, NY, 2009.


Becca Earley Richards, Holy Light: The Iconography and History of the Stained Glass of St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City, self-published, 2007.