Hans Meyer-Kassel, a classically trained artist from Germany, arrived in Nevada in 1937. From his studios in Reno, Carson City, and finally, Genoa, flowed a steady stream of landscapes, still lifes, nautical scenes, and the paintings for which he was most noted–portraits. He received commissions for portraits of Clarence Mackay, James Edward Church, for whom the fine arts building on the UNR campus is named, and representations of four Nevada governors that hang in the old Nevada State Capitol in Carson City.
Below is reprinted with permission from the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly.
Nevada Historical Society Quarterly
Volume 33, Summer 1990, Number 2
HANS MEYER-KASSEL (1872-1952)
Prior to coming to Nevada in 1936, Hans Meyer-Kassel had enjoyed success and honors both in his native Germany and in the eastern United States. He produced an admirable body of Nevada work in his final fifteen years, and a full appreciation of that work requires a thorough understanding of his pre-Nevada years. Indeed, when this man, known to us as a Nevada artist, arrived here at the age of sixty-five, he was a mature artist, classically trained in Europe, confident in style and technique, and at ease with the many triumphs and tributes paid him, as well as the hardships endured. When he opened his first Nevada studio on North Virginia Street in Reno, it might be said that his many influences were brought to bear on Nevada more than Nevada was to influence him. He was probably the last one to admit any sense of retirement at this point in his life, and his work certainly was still full of vigor; but Reno, Carson City, and Genoa were clearly worlds away from the German society that he had known, where he had been a distinguished professor and the honors and accolades had been accorded him.
It is important to note that, while many Nevadans may remember him for his landscapes of this area, he was primarily and most notably a portrait painter. At the height of his career he painted a daughter of the Kaiser Wilhelm II, and was much in demand to portray other prominent European dignitaries and their families. Born Hans Meyer, the son of a banker in Kassel in 1872, he resisted early fatherly pressures to enter the law, and enrolled as an art student at the University of Munich, choosing portraiture as his field. At the age of nineteen he was already welcoming clients to his first professional studio, and later, as a professor of Germany's Royal Academy of Art and a founding member of the International Art Society of Munich, he exhibited throughout Europe. In recognition of his early achievements, his native city, following longstanding tradition, bestowed upon him the high honor of adding its name, Kassel, to his.
Meyer-Kassel painted mostly in oils, but his pastels were also highly regarded, and he often worked in tempera as well. He was captivated by a wide variety of subjects: Landscapes, florals, nautical scenes, and still lifes flowed from his brush wherever he lived or traveled, but he seems to have understood early on that it was the portraiture that would pave the way for these other pursuits. That was the business for which he was academically trained, and to his credit he was very good at it. With a quick eye and the confident strokes of academic assurance he was able to capture the strong characteristics of a sitter in a matter of a few hours. His masculine style in no way hindered a deft delicacy in dealing with the female form, and he seemed equally at home with light, airy palettes as with those of deep somber hues. How much he enjoyed these commissions in relation to his other work is hard to ascertain, but he seems to have been as challenged by the complexities of a sitter as by those of a scene or still life. 1
During World War I Meyer-Kassel was commissioned as an artist/officer to do pictorial reporting at the front. A freak accident involving a truck, however, resulted in an early discharge with a hip injury that would plague him the rest of his life. He tried to pick up the pieces of his career, but Germany was soon devastated and the ravages of war seemed to have taken their toll on him as well. In 1921, while visiting a prominent family regarding a portrait commission, he fell in love with the young house nurse who was in charge of the children. They were married soon after, and, at the urging of his brother, they then sailed for New York and a new life.
Maria Meyer-Kassel deserves more than casual mention here, for she was to prove the perfect match for her husband. She devoted herself to his art and the perceived genius in him, and it became her lifelong duty not only to handle his business affairs efficiently, but to provide a comfortable, dignified atmosphere in which he could always paint. Her outgoing nature and gracious manner attracted friends easily, and she championed her husband's talents wherever she went. Although Meyer-Kassel was a gentle and sincere man, he bore a stoic veneer not easily penetrated, and was for the most part uneasy in social situations. Typical of many artists, he was apolitical, but in all other ways highly conservative. A bastion of the old school, if his viewpoints were solicited, his reticence often gave way to the expression of strong opinions about the purpose of art and one's duty to uphold classical ideals and strong academic foundations in any pursuit. To this end he was the quiet, retiring, thoughtful, and devoted artist, and Maria was the perfect counterbalance, keeping the Meyer-Kassel home full of light, gaiety, and comings and goings. It is said that people flocked around her, and in this way she opened many doors for them and became an integral part of his painting career.
For all his stature as a practicing artist and professor in Germany, Meyer-Kassel arrived in New York with little to show for it. If there was any period that he would have deemed the hardest, it would undoubtedly be those first few years in New York, before he reforged his reputation. As a member of the Central Studio House in Manhattan, he set up shop in company with many other artists; and for a brief time, with uncharacteristic abandon, he painted some very interesting views of New York City–the bustle of harbor activity, caricatures of speakeasy patrons lining alleyways, and street scenes, cold and desolate in winter. An earlier commentary notes that "as a struggling newcomer the artist created works which, had his reputation preceded him in full, might never have left his easel."2 His reputation soon caught up with him, however, and it appears that after a few introductions he was soon busy painting portraits of prominent easterners. A large commission from the old North German Lloyd Steamship Line to paint thirty German scenes further secured his immediate future, while affording him the opportunity to return to Germany several times. Actually, that one commission was to influence the course of his life for many years. He took advantage of free passage on the steamship line to travel from Germany to the arctic, to Reykjavik and the islands of Spitzbergen, on three separate occasions, beginning in 1926. His exquisite paintings of this ice-bound region, not previously artistically explored, were to form the nucleus of a Brooklyn museum exhibition in his honor in 1932. He later described these trips as "the most interesting experiences in my life as an artist." 3 On his return from Europe he had the good fortune to meet President Baker of Amherst College. A commission to paint portraits of the president and his wife soon followed, and Maria became good friends with Mrs. Baker. Largely through Maria's efforts, Meyer-Kassel became a guest artist and lecturer at the college, a position he occupied for three years.
In 1935 he was invited to exhibit in Pasadena, California, and while visiting there he became, like many artists before him, enamored with the American West. Without returning home, he instructed a rather reluctant Maria to pack their belongings and come to meet him. Within a year they settled in Reno, drawn by what is unknown. Beyond the obvious attraction of the arid climate and natural beauty, however, it appears there was also the prospect of several portrait commissions. His painting of the late Clarence Mackay, which hangs in Mackay Science Hall at the University of Nevada, Reno, is dated 1938, two years after his arrival. Evidence suggests, however, that this painting was actually commissioned by the Mackay family while Meyer-Kassel was still in New York.4 This work led to commissions from the university to paint five of its past presidents.5 Another possibility, but one for which no hard evidence can be found, is that of an early relationship and correspondence with James E. Church, the Nevada snow-survey pioneer and long-time professor at the university. Though Church's tenure began in 1892, he was in Germany at the turn of the century, and received a degree from the University of Munich in 1901. Meyer-Kassel was also a Munich graduate and was regularly exhibiting in that city as early as 1896. Because of their mutual interest in classical literature and philosophy, art, and antiquity, it is not unlikely that they could have traveled in the same Munich circles. In any event, their friendship in Reno is well remembered, and the Meyer-Kassel portrait of James Church was presented to the university at a 1942 convocation in honor of Church's fifty years of service.6
Reno was a welcome change for this dedicated artist who had survived the war in Europe and spent the Depression years in the eastern United States. He and Maria found friends among Reno's established German-American families, and they were enthusiastically welcomed into the small but active cultural community. They still had no money to speak of, but it probably mattered less than at any time in their lives. Meyer-Kassel had known fame, but little fortune, and at his age, he doubtless held no illusions of finding it in Nevada. They were happy even so: The pace of life was slower, and he found great excitement in painting the natural beauty of his adopted state. He had the security of the university portrait commissions ahead of him, and a few other sales soon followed, including the purchase by Fred Herz of three large Spitzbergen paintings. Herz, whose family were prominent jewelry merchants in Reno, was well acquainted with the far reaches of the north, having accompanied Church on a 1927 scientific expedition to Greenland, and for this reason he was taken with these frozen scenes.7 Another early acquaintance in Reno was Carl Watson, who remembers that the Meyer-Kassels' first studio/apartment was located directly above the Nevada Club in downtown Reno. Watson had recently opened his first chiropractic office nearby, and he incurred Meyer-Kassel's eternal gratitude for relief at long last from the pain and limp associated with the wartime hip injury. 8
In 1942 the Meyer-Kassels moved to Carson City to complete portraits of four of Nevada's past governors.9 Three years later they settled permanently in the little town of Genoa, Nevada's oldest community, nestled against the eastern slope of the Sierra, just south of Carson City. The Old Gray house, abandoned for more than thirty years, was considered the area's haunted house by local children. It was owned by the mother of a friend of Maria's, and it became the Meyer-Kassels' first home for the sum of $500 and a painting. 10 Maria is said to have single-handedly turned this derelict into a home, and made the out-building in back into a comfortable studio for her husband. By Meyer-Kassel standards, they were prospering, a measure of which was the purchase of their first automobile in 1948.
Official portrait work ceased after 1945, but in his last years Meyer-Kassel continued to produce numerous landscapes of Genoa and the Carson Valley and many florals; occasionally he followed flights of fancy in which he painted allegorical scenes, complete with nymphs and other figures from ancient mythologies. In his conservative approach, he never envisioned himself as a mover or shaker in the art world. He decried the onslaught of "modernists" who seemed to lack respect for fundamentals of classical art. 11 Art was supposed to be beautiful and founded upon strong academic principles.
All his life he remained the dignified continental artist–a necktie was customary at breakfast, and each day's painting began with a clean white smock. Maria kept the fires stoked, a fresh bouquet on the table, and a Meyer-Kassel painting in as many homes around the valley as possible. Baked goods were always on hand for those who might come to call, and the artist is remembered by friends as kind and gracious, often volunteering a portrait or sitting a visitor's child down for a quick rendition. It was all the Meyer-Kassels had ever wanted–a place just like this. Unfortunately, only seven more years remained before his death, in 1952, at the age of eighty. He maintained his vigorous painting schedule until the last day, when he simply laid down his brushes for an afternoon nap and never awoke.
Maria lived another thirty-two years and remained steadfast in her devotion, giving talks in her husband's memory and exhibiting his paintings wherever possible. Through her efforts in the Bay Area, he was honored with a retrospective exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco in July of 1961. Maria was left with hundreds of paintings and, having no direct descendants, she worried constantly over their final disposition. Unsuccessful in her efforts to establish a permanent Meyer-Kassel collection in Nevada, she was forced to sell many paintings.12 Today many Meyer-Kassel portraits of Nevada dignitaries are on public display, but most of his Nevada work, while still in the state, is in private collections.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance, insights, and remembrances of H. William Brooks, nephew of Maria Meyer-Kassel; Sonia Dehart of Genoa; Carl Watson of Reno; Nancy Bowers of Carson City and Velda Morby of Reno, former students of Meyer-Kassel portrait workshops; Phillip Earl, Nevada Historical Society; and Karen Gash, University of Nevada, Reno, Archives.
1. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, New York, 20 January 1932.
2. Nancy Miluck, "Hans Meyer Kassel," Nevada Magazine 32 (Summer 1972): 32-37.
3. Interview in Amherst College Newspaper, "The Collegian" from 1932. Collection of Mr. H. William Brooks.
4. Newspaper article, date and city [Eastern United States] unknown. Collection of Mr. H. William Brooks.
5. These portraits are in the alumni museum in Morrill Hall at the University of Nevada, Reno.
6. File on James E. Church, Nevada Historical Society, Reno.
7. Interview with Maria Jones, January 1990, R. Herz & Bros., Reno, Nevada.
8. Interview with Carl Watson, January 1990, Reno, Nevada.
9. These portraits hang in the State Capitol Building, Carson City.
10. Telephone interview with Mrs. Sonia Dehart, Genoa.
11. Letter from Hans Meyer-Kassel to "Arts & Artists," by Lillian Borghi, Reno Gazette-Journal, 15 October 1938.
12.Nevada State Journal, 14 February 1954; Personal recollections from brief acquaintance with Maria Meyer-Kassel, 1981-82.
None at this time.