Frank Mechau Biography

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Colorado artist Frank Mechau (1904-1946) created works of enduring potency and beauty, earning him an important place in American art. Much of his best-known artwork depicts scenes inspired by the early American west, scenes rendered in a distinctive style conveying elegant movement in the arrangement of figures and forms. His deep love of the natural world, from which he abstracted both monumental and delicate elements, contributed greatly to his work. And he was especially taken by the beauty of horses, their forms and movement, their grace. 

Mechau’s boyhood unfolded in the western Colorado mountain town of Glenwood Springs.

Determined from an early age to forge an artistic career, he struggled with the reality that he would have to leave his treasured homeland to explore the creation of fine art. So, following his graduation from high school and knowing he had much to learn, he followed his impulse to head east to the metropolitan centers with their many art schools and fine museums.

And so he departed, landing in turn for brief stays in Denver and Chicago and then New York City. He tried more than one art school and, finding their formalism uninspiring, turned to museums and their treasured collections. New York City held his interest for more than two years, enabling him to find art-related work and meet many fascinating people. Among them was Paula Ralska, a young Russian-born actress who swept him off his feet and soon became his wife. In 1929, the two of them sold all their belongings and bought a one-way ticket on the S.S.Leviathan for Paris.

At that time, Paris was the center for a burgeoning interest in modern art, and Mechau was exposed to cubism and surrealism and their growing influence. He was equally interested 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 effective integration of mural painting with architecture. And he was greatly impressed by Japanese prints and ancient Chinese painting that he encountered in museums and in his studies. His own work developed significantly. In the course of his three years in Paris, his paintings were exhibited and received high praise from prominent art critics. Rich as this European experience was, Mechau nevertheless yearned to return home.

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 at his own school. Among his particularly talented students were Jenne and Ethel Magafan and Eduardo Chavez, who became his apprentices and mural assistants. Thus began a major facet of Mechau’s career, which was his inspired teaching of drawing and painting. The Magafans and Chavez worked with him closely over the course of several years, and went on to become highly accomplished painters and muralists themselves.

The Roosevelt administration’s New Deal art programs opened remarkable competitive opportunities for mural commissions in federal buildings. Mechau’s entries were repeatedly selected. His first mural, Horses at Night, painted in 1934, now hangs in the Denver Public Library. Response to the mural at the time was immediate and positive. When exhibited in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C., it was praised as “the greatest work of art which had been produced under the project.” In all, Mechau painted eleven such murals, including two in Washington, D.C., one of which, Dangers of the Mail, has stirred much controversy.

1934 was also the year that Mechau was awarded his first Guggenheim fellowship, providing badly need financial support for him and his family. He was one of the only Guggenheim recipients whose award allowed him to stay and work in the U.S. rather than traveling abroad. The award was twice renewed.

In 1935, Mechau taught as a substitute instructor at the Broadmoor Art Academy in Colorado Springs. His talents as a teacher prompted nationally noted artist Boardman Robinson to invite him to join the faculty at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center. He continued to teach and produce new work around the family’s 1937 move to Redstone, a place that remains a touchstone for the Mechau family.

Mechau’s growing success as an artist and teacher prompted an invitation, in 1940, to head up the Department of Painting and Sculpture at Columbia University in New York. He occupied the prestigious position with mixed feelings because it prevented him from giving time to his painting or his wife Paula and their four children.

In 1943 Mechau took a leave of absence from Columbia University to participate in a War Department project in which artists were selected to portray U.S. World War II military activities. He was assigned to Panama and the Caribbean and travelled widely in the region, including neighboring parts of South America. Based on his observations and sketches of military and local activities, he completed a series of paintings now in the Army Art Collection at the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

Following that adventure, Mechau decided to resign from his academic duties at Columbia and devote himself full-time to painting at home with his family in Redstone. As fate would have it, however, he had little more than two years before his life was cut short by a heart attack at age 42. Students, colleagues, art critics, and associates around the country, as well as his close friends and family mourned Frank Mechau’s untimely death.