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Laura Wheeling Waring: Portrait artist of prominent African Americans

Laura Wheeler was an African-American artist and educator, best known for her paintings of prominent African Americans including W.E.B. Du Bois and Marian Anderson. A member of the NAACP, Wheeler also contributed many illustrations to its magazine, The Crisis.

Laura Wheeling Waringoil on canvas, 
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Walter Waring in memory of his wife, Laura Wheeler Waring, through the Harmon FoundationOil on canvas, 1944
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Harmon Foundation

Wheeler was born in Hartford, Connecticut 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.

Waring’s most remembered work was her portraiture, which was largely of upper class Black people and whytes including James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary White Ovington and Leslie Pinckney Hill. The focus of her painting promoted charges of her being elitist; this is unfair since few people who were not of the upper classes could afford having their portraits done by professional artists. Also, Waring’s other work such as The Co-Ed, Mother and Daughter and The Magician all pursue themes that challenge the elitist label.

Little Brown GirlGirl in Green Capoil on canvas, 1945
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Harmon Foundation

Waring also painted murals and landscapes of both America and Europe, which gained her wide acclaim. She is distinguished from other American painters of the period not only for her talent but also for the unusual amount of formal training she underwent. On her first trip abroad in 1914, she spent much time in the Louvre where she studied the works of several master painters. She also traveled to Luxembourg to study the paintings of Claude Monet. Her second trip in 1924 took her to London (UK), Dublin (Ireland), Rome (Italy), Paris (France), and North Africa.

Laura Wheeler married Walter E. Waring, who was a professor at Lincoln University, in 1927. They had no children. On February 3, 1948, Laura Wheeler Waring died after a long illness in her home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


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