Biography | Frank Mechau

Frank Mechau Frank Mechau

Colorado artist Frank Mechau (1904-1946) created works of enduring potency and beauty that have earned for him an important place in American art. Much of his best-known artwork depicts scenes inspired by the American west, scenes rendered in a distinctive style that conveys elegant movement and fluidity in the arrangement of figures and forms. Central to much of his work is a deep love of the natural world from which he abstracted both monumental and delicate elements. - He particularly loved the beauty of horses - their forms and their movement.

Determined from an early age to forge an artistic career, after graduating from high school in Glenwood Springs in western Colorado, Mechau pursued the study of art in Denver, Chicago, and New York City. In 1929, having found the formalism of art schools uninspiring, newly married he departed for Paris. In that exciting time and place for modern art, he was exposed to cubism and surrealism and felt their influence, but he also immersed himself in the great art and architecture of preceding ages. Pieter Breughel and early Italian Renaissance painters particularly won his admiration. He also saw and admired various instances of the harmonious marriage of mural painting with architecture. And Japanese prints and ancient Chinese painting, which he encountered in museums and in his studies, greatly impressed him. His own work developed significantly, and in his three years in Paris, in the course of which his paintings were exhibited, he received high praise from prominent art critics. Rich as his experience in Europe was, Mechau nevertheless yearned to return home feeling, as he put it, "an extreme desire to get back to nature and life in Colorado".

Upon returning to Colorado in 1932 at the height of the great depression, Mechau taught at the Vance Kirkland School of Art in Denver, and briefly had his own school. Among his particularly talented students were Jenne and Ethel Magafan and Eduardo Chavez, whom he trained to become his apprentices and mural assistants. They themselves subsequently became highly accomplished painters and muralists. Thus began a major facet of Mechau's career, which was his inspired teaching of drawing and painting.

A major boost to Mechau both as a means of sustaining himself and his family and as an opportunity to develop his art were commissions awarded him through the New Deal art programs of the Roosevelt administration to paint murals in public buildings. His first mural, Horses at Night, painted in 1934 hangs in the Denver Public Library. When exhibited in the Corcoran Gallery in Wash., D.C. it was praised as "the greatest work of art which had been produced under the project." In all, he painted eleven such murals, including two in Washington, D.C. one of which, Dangers of the Mail, has stirred much controversy. Mechau's achievements were further recognized in 1934 by his being awarded a Guggenheim fellowship that was later twice renewed.

Mechau taught at the Broadmoor Art Academy and was engaged by Boardman Robinson to join the faculty at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center. In 1940 he became head of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at Columbia University - a prestigious position but one that he occupied with mixed feelings because it prevented him from giving much time to his painting or his family which by then consisted of his wife Paula and their four children.

In 1943 Mechau took leave from Columbia University to participate in a War Department project in which artists were selected to portray U.S. military activities around the world. He was assigned to the region around Panama in which he travelled widely. Based on his observations and sketches, some of which depict very unmilitary-like scenes of natives and native life, he completed a series of paintings now in the Army Art Museum.

Following that adventure, rather than resuming his academic duties at Columbia, he decided to devote himself full time to painting at home with his family in the mountains of western Colorado. As fate would have it, however, little more than two years remained for him as his life was cut short when he died from a heart attack at age 42.

Frank Mechau's paintings are found in private collections and various museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Sheldon Memorial Museum, and the Samuel P Harn Museum of Art. On an outside wall of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is the fresco, Wild Horses, 60 feet long, painted by Mechau in 1936, still in place and in good condition. His murals are in public buildings in Wash, D.C., Denver, Colorado Springs, Fort Worth, Brownfield, Texas, and Ogallala, Nebraska.