Revising the canon: making a case for Laura Wheeler Waring


For many, Kamala Harris’ glass ceiling-shattering election to Vice President has signalled the diversification of the American political sphere. Finally, it seems as though the voices of BAME women are being heard by the masses. However, whilst we continue to fight against racial prejudice, we should also observe the racial prejudices of the past. The art canon is finally recognising women artists that were side-lined, such as Lee Krasner, wife of Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, however, BAME female artists fall under the radar to this day.

Over a century before Kamala Harris became Vice President-elect, Laura Wheeler Waring, an African American woman, defeated racial barriers to become an award-winning artist in the 1920s. 

Laura Wheeler Waring, born in the late-1880s to a wealthy African American family, studied for six years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1906-1912) before graduating at the top of her class with the Cresson Traveling Scholarship. She was the first African American woman to win this prestigious prize, which led her to tour the capitals of Western Europe in the Summer of 1914. Exposure to famous works by the Old Masters, the Impressionists and the contemporary Fauvist art group furthered her understanding of naturalistic pictorial space and the Western art historical canon. 

Waring’s work incorporates a multitude of creative inspirations. The timing of her birth coincided with the height of Impressionism in Europe. During her travels to European capitals in the 1910s and 1920s, she encountered works by Edouard Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec and Claude Monet, among others. Following this exposure, she imbued the canvas with intense colour, combining the Impressionist fervour for capturing experience and motion with more conservative notions of figurative painting. A great example of this is Miss Evangeline R. Hall.

Due to the racial and gender prejudices of Waring’s time, the extraordinary nature of her success tends to slip under the radar. Just as Harris emerged into a predominantly male and white political climate, Laura Wheeler-Waring survived an isolated education among almost entirely white peers. At the dawn of the 20th century, non-Western cultures were a subject of fascination amongst the European avant-garde. Objects brought back from European colonies were displayed at Ethnographic museums across Europe and became a primary source of inspiration for the most celebrated artists of the time, such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. These male artists were fascinated by non-Western women, depicting them as uncivilised ‘savages’, emphasizing their presumed ‘otherness’, particularly their darker skin tone and more curvaceous figures. This preceded a cultural epoch in America where African Americans reclaimed their narratives and gained control over their cultural representation. 

This movement, known as The Harlem Renaissance, marked the first major flowering of creative activity from the first generation of African Americans that had access to money and education in America. Young black writers and painters converged on the Harlem district of Upper Manhattan in the mid-1920s, connected by their racial pride and strong self-reliance.

Anticipating Harris, Waring used her artistic talent to insert a black, female voice into American political discourse. Through The Harmon Foundation, Waring met and painted significant African American leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, such as civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois and acclaimed singer Marian Anderson. 

Waring’s allegiance with the Harlem Renaissance is most evident in her famous portrait, Anna Washington Derry (1926), which marked a watershed moment in her career. The sitter was a rural washerwoman who had been freed from slavery as a teenager. Waring utilised her painting prowess to express Derry’s freedom and independence, handing dignity back to the forgotten African American lower classes. Waring gives Derry, who wears a distant wandering look, increased agency over her self-representation. 

Waring was the first recipient of the prestigious Harmon Gold Award (1927) and remains the only female winner to this day. William E. Harmon, a white philanthropist, was set on raising public awareness of the artistic achievements of the African Americans affiliated with the Harlem Renaissance. However, the full title of the award explains that it is ‘for Distinguished Achievement among Negroes’, reflecting that Laura Wheeler Waring’s talent would never have been considered on par to that of her white contemporaries. 

Despite the astounding number of achievements made in her lifetime, African American artist Laura Wheeler Waring has been side-lined in the art historical canon. Notably, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. included her on their list of ‘Black Women Artists History has Overlooked.’ This brilliant, boundary-breaking African American artist always looked beyond her social class, strove for improved education in the arts, and defied the conventions of portraiture in the process. Not to mention how Waring successfully balanced her artistry with a teaching career and her marriage. 

Hopefully, Kamala Harris’ diversification of American politics will mean that the artworks, writings, and voices of black American women will finally gain the recognition that they deserve.

Image:Black Past

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