African American Print & Visual Media at the Nat'l Archives, no. 2

Article # 2 in a Series

John Welch

Laura Wheeler Waring, Portrait of a Child (Frankie), 1937. National Archives Collection The collections at the National Archives include a trove of documents, photographs and film related to African American artists. We invited art historian John Welch to survey these materials and comment on what he finds in an occasional column.

Born Laura Wheeler on May 16, 1887, in Hartford, CT; died on February 3, 1948, in Philadelphia, PA; daughter of Robert Foster Wheeler (a minister) and Mary Christiana Freeman Wheeler (an educator); married Walter E. Waring (a professor), June 23, 1927. EDUCATION: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, graduated 1914; L’Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris, France, 1924-25. PROFESSION: Art Instructor, Cheyney State Teachers College/State Normal School at Cheyney (later Cheyney University of Pennsylvania), 1906-25; Director of Art Department, 1925-48.

SELECT EXHIBITIONS:  Harmon Foundation, New York, 1927; Galerie du Luxembourg, Paris, 1929; Howard University, Washington, D.C., 1940, 1949; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1944, 1997; Brooklyn Museum, New York, 1945; New York Public Library, 1967; Newark Museum, New Jersey, 1989.1

In this sensitive rendering of a young African-American boy Laura Wheeler Waring (1887-1948) exhibits her mastery of realistic portraiture accompanied by expressionist flourishes in the treatment of both hair and jacket here.  Samella Lewis notes “…The realistic style Waring exhibited in her portraits included aspects of Expressionism, but unrestrained in regard to structure and treatment of forms, it was most closely related to the work of the rebellious Romantics who painted in France during the 1920s.  Yet, while her lyrical approach can be classified as Romantic, it did not include the ‘prettiness’ common to the Romantic school. Her soft but contrasting portrait style also avoided the surface stillness characteristic of realistic painting of the time…”2

A contemporary of the New Negro Art Movement or the broader Harlem Renaissance3, by all accounts Waring is considered a conservative painter when set against fellow artists such as Aaron Douglas or William H. Johnson.  Laura Wheeler Waring, Anna Washington Derry, 1927.  National Archives Collection from the Harmon FoundationA comparison of the works   ‘Anna Washington Derry, c. 1927 and ‘Self-Portrait, 1929 provide a stark contrast in the methods these artists employed during the jazz age.4 While Douglas, Johnson and other Harlem Renaissance artists often drew heavily upon the visual vocabulary of European modern art movements to capture the essence of the ‘New Negro’ and his environs, “…Waring cared little for contemporary art. After a visit to the Salon d’Automme,[c.1925] she declared, ‘The pictures are all very modern and many not beautiful.’ When her widower was asked whether Waring liked Surrealism or any of the modern art movements, he emphatically answered, ‘Downright no’…”. 5   Nevertheless, her “…exposure to European culture…did prompt her to work in a looser, bolder vein  ...”6 evident in this work beyond her formative influences.

Waring’s reliance on academic ideals and realism continue with her (Portraits of Outstanding Americans of Negro Origin, 1944) commissioned by the Harmon Foundation7. These works depict professional, affluent blacks largely in opposition to representative racial types that were demeaning prior to the 1920s, and often consciously Primitivist during and beyond it.8Figures such as Alain Locke and Charles S. Johnson promoted ennobling treatments of black subjects to support their social and political aims for the race and Ms. Waring appears to subscribe to that aspect of racial representation through much of her oeuvre. Though consistently conservative in her portrayal of the ‘New Negro’ throughout her career,Waring also brought to her project the “…ability to capture the nuances of the African-American psyche on canvas, through the use of discursive brushwork and carefully selected, often sumptuous color…”9


John Welch, Ph.D., is an art historian who lives in Philadelphia.

1 Lane, Mark. “Laura Wheeler Waring.” Contemporary Black Biography. Ed. Margaret Mazurkiewicz. Vol. 99. Detroit: Gale, 2012.

2 Samella Lewis. African American Art and Artists (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), p.56.

3 Richard Powell explores the broader geographic impact on American Negro art by Harmon Foundation exhibitions and support (1922-33) arguing for interpretations of the Harlem Renaissance that include cities and regions removed from uptown Manhattan creating a more inclusive metaphoric racial landscape). See, Richard J. Powell, Black Art: A Cultural History. (London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 1997 and 2002), pp. 50-54.

4 Ibid, pp.48-49.

5 Theresa Leininger-Miller, “A Constant Stimulus and Inspiration”: Laura Wheeler Waring in Paris in the 1910s and 1920s”, Source: Notes in the History of Art, Vol. 24, No. 4, Special Issue on African American Art (Summer 2005), pp. 13-23.

6 Ibid, p. 21.

7 The Harmon Foundation (1922-67, New York) was set up by William E. Harmon (1862-1928), a real estate investor from Iowa who wanted to encourage excellence in a variety of professional endeavors through the William E. Harmon Awards for Distinguished Achievement Among Negroes.. . .The Foundation, under the administration of Mary Beattie Brady, is best known for its awards in the visual arts, and for its juried exhibitions (1926-31, 1933) in New York City, under the direction of the Commission on Race Relations of the Federal Council of the Church of Christ in America. . .”.

Sharon F. Patton. African-American Art (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 119.

8 See discussions by Richard Powell and Lisa Farrington focused on racial typologies, socio-cultural reception of the jazz age, the political and contextual aspects of foundation-individual philanthropy, and artists’ struggles to realize genuine aesthetic expression within these contexts.

Powell, pp.41-65.

Lisa Farrington. Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2005), PP. 77-115.

9 Farrington, p.82.