An art historian of the late medieval and early Renaissance periods, Meiss first studied architecture at Princeton and was graduated in 1926. He spent the next several years as a construction supervisor in New York because his father would not agree to pay for graduate studies in art history. His father eventually relented, and Meiss began attending Harvard in 1928. He soon transferred to New York University to study under Richard Offner, an esteemed scholar of Florentine Renaissance painting. Meiss completed his master’s thesis in 1931, and his doctoral dissertation in 1933. During his graduate work, he studied under many of the recently exiled German art historians, and also taught at NYU. Upon graduating, he began lecturing at Columbia, where he remained until 1953. During this time he was named a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and was editor of the Art Bulletin from 1940 to 1942.
Following World War II, Meiss chaired the American Committee for the Restoration of Italian Monuments, a program aimed at repairing historical sites damaged by the previous years of fighting. For his work in Italy, he received the Star of Italian Solidarity in 1949, and was named grande ufficiale in 1968. In 1951, he published Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death, avant-garde in his incorporation of the social and political effects on painting at that time into a traditional, methodology-based art historical work. Two years later, he was awarded the Haskins Medal, annually given for a “distinguished book in the field of medieval studies.” In 1953, Meiss began working at Harvard as both a professor and curator of painting at the Fogg Art Museum. However he left a mere five years later to accept a position as Professor of Art at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, which was left vacant by the retirement of his former teacher Erwin Panofsky. In 1962 he co-authored with Leonetto Tintori The Painting of The Life of St. Francis of Assisi, innovative in its use of technical evidence.
Meiss was a member of the American Academy of Arts, the American Philosphical Society, the British Academy, and several French and Italian scholarly societies. The College Art Association named its book illustration grant in honor of Meiss. His papers can be found at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.