The Colorful Ways of Hilaire Hiler

Hilaire Hiler was an artist.  No, he was a jazz musician.  No, he was a psychologist.  No,  he was a color theoretician.   In fact, he was all of these things.

Hilaire Hiler was born in Minnesota and died in Paris.  He has a Philadelphia connection having studied at the University of Pennsylvania and briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. After living and studying in various cities around the United States, he left for Europe around 1919 and made a living playing jazz in the Montmartre district of Paris.

The old order of the 19th Century had started to crumble by the end of World War I. Life seemed all the more precious for those who had experienced the horrors of the war first hand. People were questioning  the wisdom of old values with their rigid rules of conformity.  World War I had exposed a generation of young people to places and cultures they would never have otherwise seen and it opened them to new possibilities.  What if everything they had learned was wrong?

Paris was a Mecca for creative people in search of nurturing and support for their art.  They  could not find it at home, but the bohemian and eccentric could find community and acceptance in Paris.  African American artists of the time  could live and work in  Paris  without the constant onus of the historically ingrained racism they experienced in America. Many of the expatriates  settled in Montmartre.  Press here to watch a short video of Paris at that time.   Press here to get some idea of what Montmartre was like when Hiler arrived.  Press here for an article.

Hiler had reportedly attended the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania to make his father happy before he clarified what was important to him, embraced his artistic side and left for Paris.   I have read varying accounts of Hiler’s time in Paris:  That he played the piano with a monkey on his shoulder.  That he owned or managed a club.  That he played the saxophone.  Our guides in San Francisco told us and several web sites confirm that he painted a number of murals on the walls of nightclubs in the district.  But none of them remain today because when Hitler invaded Paris in 1940, the Nazis embarked on a program to eradicate what they termed “degenerate” art.  Hiler’s murals were among the many works they destroyed. 

Which means that the only place left to see Hiler’s  murals (recently restored) is the lobby of the  Maritime Museum in San Francisco.   It is reported that when Henry Miller first walked into the lobby and saw the murals, he asked Hiler to teach him how to paint.

Here are some pictures.



In his later years, Hiler’s art became more abstract as you can see from his work on this site but his exploration of color and the infinite possibilities for its expression was always a central focus in his work.

As a jazz musician, Hiler used musical such as tone and harmony to describe color.    “The harmonious relations of structure and order presented in a new way, in the nature of a continuum. Relations of degree, and those of geometric progression of color-form, replace relations of simple analogy—or in turn of contrast, by opposition. As the sequential relations of Structuralism design resemble those of natural growth, it may be termed organic. In this sense, it is like certain kinds of music.” (Hiler, Structuralism, London, Heal & Son, 1955).  From Hiler, Hilaire Biography, download here.

The Prismataruim


 This blog post only scratches the surface of  Hiler, his art and his fascinating life.  If anyone has additional information and would like to share, I invite you to leave a comment.

Serendipidy in San Francisco

I discovered the work of Hilare Hiler and Sargent Johnson by pure serendipity.


I was in San Francisco with my husband. We decided to do the tourist thing and take a tour of Fisherman’s Wharf.  Only I thought the tour started an hour later than it actually did. In a different spot.  So we went to the wrong meeting point an hour after the tour left.  This didn’t seem like a good beginning to our day at the time.

We wandered by  San Francisco Maritime National Park and I saw a Park Ranger who told me was a tour starting soon. National Park tours are free so what did we have to lose?  We got tickets and found we would be the only people on the tour.

Our Ranger  guide was soft spoken,  knowledgeable, and wore rain hat and two pairs of glasses.  San Francisco eccentricity?   She led us through a museum, a art gallery and by the shore  while telling us about the indigenous people of the area, the early settlers and   the history and geography of the waterfront.   We learned that building materials were in short supply in the early days, so some sailors beached their ships and used the wood to build houses.  As a matter of fact, the  Maritime Museum located in the nearby Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building. housed the remains of a hull of a wooden ship what was almost  200 years old.   Would we like to see it?  Why not? We followed her into the building and our adventure began.

The National Park web site mentions that the building was built in 1939 as a WPA project, but it did not prepare us for what the colorful, surreal murals that covered the walls and ceiling of the cavernous lobby. We were not expecting to walk into an undersea dreamland.  We gaped  in astonishment. And that was only the beginning because for the next few hours we spent there, our guide and a fellow ranger for whom the murals were clearly a passion,  engaged us in conversation about Hilaire Hiler’s murals and his Prismatarium in the next room and the tile installations by Sargent Johnson  on the promenade deck.


My next posts will be about Hiler, Johnson and their work in the Bathhouse Building, which deserves much more attention than the US Park Service is giving it.


P.S. We forgot about the ship

What I Saw in San Francisco






Trees on Lombard Street


Near Chinatown


Transamerica Building


Coit Tower




A giant machine looming over a downtown construction site


Giant Redwoods in the Muir Woods


And last but not least. . .