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Joseph Meert (1905-1989)

Standing Nude in Interior

1941

Oil on canvas, 40 x 28 inches. Signed lower right: "Meert 41"

Exhibitions:

Enduring America: Selections from the Collection of Art and Peggy Hittner, Northern Arizona University Art Museum, April 7 - May 29, 2015.

Reproduced:

Enduring America (catalogue).

References:

Berardi, Marianne, Under the Influence: The Students of Thomas Hart Benton (The Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, 1993), p. 113

Provenance:

Grogan & Company, Dedham, MA (September 23, 2007, lot 132); deaccessioned, May 3, 2019, Heritage Auctions, Dallas, TX (lot 68215). 

Notes:

Original 3-inch red/gold frame; original stretcher. East Orange, NJ, warehouse sticker on reverse of frame. Unlined, some gesso bleeding through back of canvas.

Screen Shot 2018-09-18 at 11.57.59 AM.pn

Fig. 1 - Photograph of the studio of Thomas Hart Benton at the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site, Kansas City, Missouri.

    Joseph John Paul Meert immigrated to the United States from his native Belgium in 1910 with his parents and four siblings, settling in Wyandotte Township, Kansas (on the outskirts of Kansas City) with his aunt and uncle, a truck farmer.

 

     Meert studied at the Kansas City Art Institute (1923-26) and then at the Art Students League in New York City (1926-29), where the quiet, unassuming artist came under the influence of Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975). Meert was a close friend of Charles Pollock (brother of Jackson Pollock), and the two artists were generally acknowledged as Benton’s favorite pupils. He returned to the Kansas City Art Institute in 1935, serving as Benton’s teaching assistant when his mentor moved there to head the Painting Department. During his tenure at the Art Institute (through 1941), Meert produced paintings and lithographs in the Regionalist style popularized by Benton, favoring rural subject matter, while also executing several W.P.A. mural commissions for post offices in Missouri and Indiana. 

 

      Meert probably painted Standing Nude in Interior in Kansas City, shortly before relocating to New York City in 1941.  While more restrained than his mentor in his portrayal of the figure, the stylistic influence of Benton is clear.  His composition, however, is more natural, peaceful and straightforward, lacking the contortions and raw energy characteristic of Benton’s work. The artist pays homage to Cezanne by including a Cezanne still life reproduction in the background.*

 

     After his return to New York in 1941, Meert pivoted rather decisively toward abstraction. Never financially successful, his legacy, ironically, is tied to the legendary Jackson Pollock, whom he purportedly rescued from oblivion when he found him drunk and unconscious in a snowbank not far from his New York apartment one winter evening in 1943 or 1944.  Meert and his wife, the artist Margaret Mullin, remained close friends of Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner. 

 

     Meert’s later years were tragic. His mental and physical condition deteriorated following the death of his wife in 1980 and he was institutionalized in a state-run nursing home. Five years later, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation contributed funds to allow his transfer to a better facility in Cheshire, Connecticut. There he received extensive art therapy treatment from which he benefited until his death in 1990.

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* Comparison with photographs of Benton’s Kansas City studio (Fig. 1) suggests the possibility that Standing Nude in Interior was produced there.  The distinctive graining of the floorboards, the location of the light source, the position of the wood stove (conceivably altered in shape for compositional purposes) and the inclusion of the Cezanne print (Benton was an unabashed acolyte of the French master and often tacked prints or photos on his studio wall, as revealed in the photograph) support this hypothesis.