In 1922, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, the Harmon Foundation was founded in New York City with the mission to honor African American artists and encourage awareness of their accomplishments. Six years later, the foundation hosted the first exhibit in history to showcase only African American artists, and Laura Wheeler Waring was among the artists whose work was included in this landmark exhibition. Years later, her work would find itself on the walls of galleries in Europe and across America. One of the major women artists of the Harlem Renaissance, today Waring is best known for her portraits of prominent African Americans and is celebrated as an artist of consummate skill and imagination. She is also remembered as a champion for arts education.
Laura Wheeler was born in Hartford, Conn., on May 16, 1887 to Robert and Mary Wheeler. Her father was pastor of the Talcott Street Congregational Church, the first all-black church in Connecticut, and her mother was a teacher and amateur artist. Though not much is known of her early life, the future artist saw firsthand the value of art and education and was encouraged to pursue her artistic abilities. While a student at Hartford Public High School, she demonstrated her emerging painting talent and went on to attend the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, becoming the sixth generation of college graduates in her family. When she graduated from college in 1914, she was awarded the A. William Emlen Cresson Memorial Travel Scholarship and traveled to Paris where she studied art at the Louvre, remaining in Europe until the outbreak of World War I.
After returning from Europe, she became a teacher at the all-black Cheyney Training School for Teachers in Philadelphia, where she founded and developed the art and music departments. She would chair both departments for 30 years. While continuing to teach, she continued to work on her own art and arranged several trips to Europe for further study. In Europe, she learned the techniques of romanticism and impressionism, but her own work tended toward realism. During one European trip in 1924, she exhibited her paintings for the first time in Parisian art galleries. Houses at Semur, a work she painted while in France, received acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic and ensured that her work remained in demand both in the U.S. and in Europe.
In 1927, Laura Wheeler married Walter E. Waring, a professor at Lincoln University. After becoming acquainted with several leading figures active in the Harlem Renaissance, in 1928, her work was included in the Harmon Foundation’s exhibit. Though she was certainly known for her many beautiful landscape paintings of North Africa, France, and elsewhere, Waring soon became even more famous for her portraiture. Following the 1928 exhibition, the Harmon Foundation asked her to paint portraits of influential African Americans and included eight of her portraits in its 1944 traveling exhibit Portraits of Outstanding Americans of Negro Origin. Some of her subjects included W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Mary White Ovington, and CWHF Inductee Marian Anderson. These portraits showcased the undeniable accomplishments of African Americans and are viewed by many as Waring’s quiet way of participating in the early Civil Rights Movement. She was also a member of the NAACP and a contributing artist to the organization’s monthly publication, The Crisis.
Laura Wheeler Waring shunned publicity and, as a result, little is known about her personal life. Many of her works have not been properly preserved, but several of her best-known portraits are on display at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Waring died after a long illness in her Philadelphia home on February 3, 1948.
During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War
Industrial growth, economic expansion, and plenty of consumer goods gave women more purchasing power and pleasure in the 1920s. Women gained political office, but after achieving the right to vote the Women’s Movement fractured over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The percentage of married women in the workforce doubled, though in menial jobs, while women of color had few opportunities. The media’s message about the home was ambivalent. For daughters, the young flapper was glamorized in movies starring Clara Bow who had It (sex appeal). But the modern mother, equipped with widely-advertised appliances, was expected to keep house and raise children with new efficiency.
The prosperity of the twenties contrasted with the hardships of the 1930s following the 1929 stock market crash. Farm families in the Dust Bowl, suffering from drought and crop failures, fled to California where they worked as migratory laborers. As impoverished families across America struggled, desertion rose (but not divorce, which was expensive), and family size grew smaller. Women’s jobs were largely confined to low-paying domestic labor, garment factories, and food-processing plants, all further segregated by race and ethnicity.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, helped by wife Eleanor, brought strong leadership toward recovery with the New Deal. Professional women were included in federal projects, and work relief programs gave help to poor women. The Social Security Act of 1935 owed much to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. African-American Mary McLeod Bethune, using her executive position in the National Youth Administration, pressured the administration to provide equal pay for blacks in all programs.
World War II deeply influenced women’s lives. Sex-segregated labor diminished, as symbolized in the poster of “Rosie the Riveter.” Women were accepted into the military, though the public was concerned about the loss of femininity. Defense industries were reluctant to admit women, but as men were drafted, the resistance eroded. Older, married women provided the largest number of new workers. Black, Mexican, and Chinese women had new opportunities, but Japanese women suffered internment in camps. With demobilization, women were laid off, but many were soon back on the job. Their role still was defined in the home, but the war had increased women’s activities in the workplace.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.