Frank Mechau's mural Horses at Night is one the crown jewels of the art collection in Denver Public Library's Western History and Genealogy Department. Though Mechau's work is fairly well known in art history circles, he carries a much lower profile amongst the general public.
During his short life Mechau left an impressive artistic legacy that embraced Asian influences while presenting an authentic rendering of the Colorado landscapes, people and animals he knew from a lifetime in the Centennial State. And among his catalog of works, Horses at Night stood out as a sterling example of what he was capable of doing.
Who Was Frank Mechau?
Though not technically a native, Mechau's family moved to Glenwood Springs when he was still a child, and he would be awed by Colorado's natural beauty for the rest of his life.
During his Glenwood years, Mechau established a reputation as a solid boxer and earned himself a half scholarship to the University of Denver to study art. Formal art studies, it would turn out, were not a good fit for the budding artist, and he quickly ran through stints at both DU and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Though the halls of academia didn't suit Mechau, big city life was a different story. In 1925 he took more prize fighting cash and moved to New York City. In NYC, Mechau met his future wife, Paula Ralska, and set off for a several-year stint in Paris where he refined his skills and showed his work at several exhibitions.
During this period, according to Stan Cuba's Colorado Artist Frank Mechau (American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2016), Mechau was introduced to the work of Paolo Uccello, "...whose work attempted to reconcile the decorative late Gothic style with the new heroic style of Piero della Francesca. Piero's work influenced Mechau's murals for the WPA-era federal art projects in America..."
Indeed, the WPA's signature large-scale art projects would be where Mechau would truly make his mark on the art world.
In the early 1930s Mechau moved his family, which now included his daughter Vanni, back to Colorado, where they settled in Denver. Mechau worked at the (Vance) Kirkland School of Art and established his own art school, which ultimately failed.
Despite the grim prospects for an aspiring artist in Depression- era Denver, Mechau managed to catch a few breaks. His first big break came when Anne Evans, daughter of Governor John Evans and a patroness of the Denver art scene, recommended Mechau for a spot painting a mural for a Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). She'd seen sketches of the work that Mechau had made as far back as 1927 and thought they would be a good fit for a large scale mural.
That mural would be called Horses at Night and was destined to hang on the wall of the Fine Arts Department at the Denver Public Library.
Painting for the PWAP
The PWAP was a short-lived program that actually pre-dated the better known Works Project Administration (WPA) - originally known as the Works Progress Administration - by about a year. Its goal was to help put artists back to work because, in the words of PWAP boss Harry Hopkins, "Hell, they've got to eat just like other people." The works the artists produced were generally hung in public places and were frequently, but not always, large murals like Horses at Night.
Artists employed by the agency were both grateful for the opportunity and extremely productive. During its four month run the program hired 3,749 artists who produced 15,663 objects, according to Smithsonian Magazine. For their efforts, artists earned around $75.59 (or $1,400 in 2017 dollars).
A paycheck from the PWAP was not, however, a handout and it certainly didn't go to anyone who lined up expressing an interest in painting a pretty picture. The agency only hired qualified artists who could pass both a skills and a needs test. Mechau passed with flying colors on both counts.
With regard to whether or not he needed the work provided by the PWAP, Mechau answered that question in a letter to PWAP assistant director Edward Rowan, as quoted in Frank Mechau - Artist of Colorado by Cile M. Bach, in which he said, "I have wanted for some time to express my feelings about the PWAP. The project's immediate monetary benefits have made it possible for me and my wife and two children to live normally for the first time since our return from abroad, one and one-half years ago. I speak in the first person although my case undoubtedly coincides with many a creative worker who has felt himself impotent to live or function as an artist these last hard years."
Mechau's glowing description of the PWAP was just about on par with the description of Horses at Night that the PWAP and plenty of critics used.
Praise for Horses
Horse at Night is a unique piece that spans a solid 62 x 144 inches. Despite its size, the painting is a muted effort that Cuba aptly describes as, "Painted in unmodulated colors and with a minimum of detail, the galloping eye-less horses celebrate line and movement in a semi-abstract composition." It was also incredibly well received.
While Mechau profusely thanked the PWAP, director Edward Bruce was just one of the many early viewers of Horses at Night who were blown away by the Colorado artist's mastery of subject and technique. Cuba points out in Art in America that Bruce was so moved by Mechau's work that he said it alone justified the million plus dollars spent on the program.
Horses at Night's accolades helped propel Mechau onto a new level of professional success. Once the mural was out in the world, Mechau became a sought after muralist who completed works for the Post Office and other institutions. He also became the first Coloradan to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, and even worked for a time at the art department at Columbia University.
All this success allowed Mechau to spread his wings artistically and experiment with new styles.
Sadly, Mechau's life ended at the age of 42, leaving behind a large family and a staggering artistic legacy.
Horses at Night and Denver Public Library
Horses at Night is one of the most significant pieces in the WHG's art collection, but its arrival at DPL was not particularly heralded at the time. The painting warranted a short mention in the library's internal newsletter, The Staff Lookout, where it was noted that the painting only hung for a few days before being sent off to Washington D.C.
Once it returned to Denver, Horses at Night hung in the Fine Arts Department until 1955 when the, then new, Central Library opened at its current location. Because there wasn't an appropriate public space for the work, it hung in a staff area until 1981 when it was put in storage to await a badly needed restoration. That restoration wouldn't come until 1985 when the DPL Friends Foundation and the Colorado Council on the Arts and Humanities appointed $6,680 (about $15,000 in today's dollars) to give the work a thorough cleaning and repair.
At the time, DPL's curator of Western art, Bonnie Hardwick, commented to the Rocky Mountain News on the importance of the work, saying, "In Mechau's body of work, the painting is an important piece because of its size and because it's one of his first major horse paintings. Actually, because he died so young, everything is an important piece."
Indeed, the limited body of Mechau's work help elevate the painting's importance to the library's collection.
Horses at Night was the centerpiece of an exhibition called Shooting Star: The Artwork of Frank Mechau, an exhibition of Mechau's work hosted by Denver Public Library in 2005 and curated by DPL Art Specialist, Kay Wisnia. Given that many of his works are large scale murals that can't be moved, the exhibit was an unusual gathering of the Colorado master's works.
Since the Central Library was remodeled in 1995, Horses at Night has been on display on Floor 5 in the Western History and Genealogy Department. Visitors are welcome to view the piece, and other works by Mechau, in the department during regular business hours.