Laura Wheeler Waring

Laura Wheeler Waring

Induction Category:
Arts & Humanities

Born: 1887

Died: 1948

Inducted: 1997

 Town: Hartford

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