Building Beauty: Exhibit Brings Murals to Life

Posted March 28, 2011 at 5:31pm

Hildreth Meière may not be a household name, but her artwork towers over Washington, D.C. 

The massive murals and glittering mosaics she created adorn three buildings in the city, offering a larger-than-life look at this 20th-century Art Deco artist. The works stretch across walls and ceilings, decorating the National Academy of Sciences’ dome, the apse of the National Cathedral’s Resurrection Chapel and the Henry J. Daly Building’s inner courtyard. 

“The scale of her work is sometimes incomprehensible,” National Building Museum curator Chrysanthe Broikos said.

In cities throughout the country, testaments to Meière’s 50-year career remain in churches, banks and government buildings. And at the Building Museum’s new exhibit, “Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meière,” the sometimes-incomprehensible scale of her mosaics and murals comes into focus. 

Organized by independent curator Catherine Coleman Brawer, the show traces Meière’s career chronologically and highlights her most impressive large-scale narrative installations. Broikos said the museum jumped at the chance to bring the traveling exhibition to D.C.

“We’d been wanting to do a show on the importance of ornamentation and the decorative arts in architecture,” Broikos said. “In so much of Meière’s work, the experience of the architecture is really incomplete without the art.”

Yet there’s an obvious problem for any art exhibition centering on works so intrinsically connected to architecture. After all, the show explores murals and mosaics that can’t be moved from the ceilings, floors and walls they decorate. The exhibition, however, circumvents this issue by focusing on Meière’s designs and plans. The exhibition showcases the artistic process behind creating artwork for architecture, displaying numerous studies and drawings Meière made in the preparatory stages of her work. Broikos noted Meière started with a pencil sketch and then painted color studies before moving on to full-scale models and cartoons.

“You can see the process in her studies,” Broikos said. “She was very adaptable and really studied the type of art and the situation she was in, and she wanted her designs to reflect that.”

Meière’s finished products — presented here through designs and sketches or in photographs taken by her granddaughter — were the work of a collaborative process with the architects who commissioned her and the craftsmen who put together her mosaics and murals.

Meière’s art decorates buildings as varied as the Nebraska State Capitol and Radio City Music Hall in New York. Throughout her career, she received commissions to create pieces for world’s fairs, restaurants and ocean liners in addition to her public building projects. The exhibition showcases the breadth of her work, which included painted murals, gold leaf friezes and intricate mosaics. 

Meière’s versatility comes through in the array of mock-ups and models on display. The selected pieces demonstrate her handiwork in a variety of mediums including paint, metal, mosaic, ceramic and stained glass. Although Meière experimented with her process, she maintained a quintessentially Art Deco style, Broikos said.

“It’s streamlined, and there are flowing forms, a sense of movement,” Broikos said. “Her work is classic Art Deco.”

While Meière may not be quite so well-known today, she was widely recognized in her lifetime as a prominent figure in the art world. She was the first woman appointed to the New York City Art Commission and to receive the Fine Arts Medal of the American Institute of Architects. In World War II, Meière took an active role in the effort and created 70 portable altarpieces for military chaplains — visitors can see one of her creations in the exhibition. 

In addition, Meière (who died in 1961) served on various boards and taught courses as she worked her way through her commissions for mosaics, murals, paintings and decorative art pieces. “She really was a one-woman shop,” Broikos said.

“Walls Speak,” the first major retrospective of Meière’s works, runs through Nov. 27 at the National Building Museum. The museum is hosting several events in conjunction with the exhibition, including an April 5 talk by curator Catherine Coleman Brawer and several family programs.