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Joseph Meert (1905 – 1989)

Goldmine, Central City, Colorado, c. 1936 oil on canvas, 28 x 36 inches, c. 1936 – 38, signed lower right; provenance includes Platt Fine Art, Chicago (label verso); likely original frame painted gold


About the Painting

Joseph Meert’s painting, Goldmine, Central City, Colorado, depicts the short-lived resurrection of a once prominent city just outside Denver. Central City was founded in 1859 soon after John Gregory struck gold in the area. As word spread, thousands of miners converged into “Gregory’s Gulch” and its surroundings became known as the “richest square mile on earth.” Mining production quickly increased resulting in Central City to becoming Colorado’s largest city in the early 1860s. Despite some technical difficulties transitioning to lode mining and the rise of competition from Leadville, Central City remained an economic boom town through the turn of the century. But, with every boom, there is a bust. World War I marked the end of Central City’s prominence as ore production ground to a halt and by 1925, the town’s population shrank to only 400 people. The desperation of the Great Depression and a nearly 100% increase in the price of gold lured labor and capital back to Central City. Meert painted in Colorado during the mid-1930s, a time when he created his most desirable works. It is during this period of renaissance that Meert captures one of Central City's outlying dirt streets bordered by 19th century wooden houses from the town's heyday and the more recently installed electric lines leading to a distant gold mine. A lone figure trudges up the hill, a mother with a baby in her arms, putting us in mind of the rebirth of the town itself. Meert had solo exhibitions at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in 1936 and the Denver Art Museum. Although it is not known whether Goldmine, Central City was included in either of these exhibitions, it seems likely. Moreover, the painting is closely related to Meert’s painting, The Old Road, which was painted in 1936 and exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and at the Dallas Museum of Art.

About the Artist

Joseph Meert was a well-regarded painter and muralist, who initially made a name for himself in the American Scene and later as an abstract expressionist. Although initially successful, Meert struggled financially and with mental illness later in life. He was born in Brussels, Belgium, but moved with his family to Kansas City, Missouri. As a child, a chance encounter at the Union Pacific Railyard changed his life. Meert happened upon a worker repainting and stenciling a design on a railroad car. Meert later recalled that this experience introduced him to the idea of being a painter. Without support from his father, Meert obtained a working scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute. After four years at the Kansas City Art Institute, Meert studied seven years at the Art Students League and in Europe and Los Angeles. At the Art Students League, Meert fell under the spell of Thomas Hart Benton and Stanton MacDonald-Wright. In 1931, he befriended Jackson Pollock. By 1934, Meert was part of the Public Works of Art Project when he met his wife, Margaret Mullin, a fellow artist who was introduced to him by Pollock. When Benton became the Director of the Kansas City Art Institute, he invited Meert to join him as an assistant. From 1935 through 1941, Meert taught at the Institute and began the most successful period of his career, showing at many of the country’s most important venues, winning several awards, completing three public works projects murals and being honored with a handful of solos shows, including at the Colorado Springs Art Center and the Denver Museum of Art. Meert’s work during this period was a very well-considered combination of regionalism and social realism, as neither Meert nor Mullen could ignore the plight of so many during the Great Depression. When Benton lost his position at the Kansas City Art Institute, Meert also resigned. Meert and Mullin moved to New York, where Mullin found a job at the Traphagen School of Design, which provided the couple with a steady income. After taking a brief pause in his artistic career, Meert shifted his practice towards abstraction. During the 1940s and early 1950s, Meert’s and Mullin’s closest friends were Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner and one night, Meert was credited with saving Pollock’s life when he rescued the troubled artist who had passed out intoxicated in a snow drift. During the 1950s and 1960s, Meert’s practice continued to focus on pure abstraction and a kind of abstract figuration. In 1964, he received a Tiffany Foundation grant for work in stained glass. Mullin retired from Traphagen in 1967 and by the 1970s, Meert’s and Mullin’s health began to suffer. The couple moved into a nursing home in 1979 and Mullin died the following year. Meert fell into a deep depression and stopped painting. Meert was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and received the wrong treatment while in a sub-standard state sponsored facility in New York. The author Jeffrey Potter discovered Meert’s struggles while researching a book on Pollock. Meert received one of the first grants given by the Krasner-Pollock Foundation, which allowed him to move to a better facility. With the support of the grant and two graduate students at the Yale School of Fine Art, Meert began art therapy and produced a series of water color abstractions before eventually relapsing into depression. He died in 1989, the year after he produced his last works. Meert is listed in Who was Who in American Art and other standard references.


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