Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) pronounced her a born artist, and in the dazzling cultural circles of Paris her works of art garnered breathless praise. Yet, in her own country, African American sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1962) of Philadelphia lived and worked unknown to many, until at last she emerged from the stultifying shadows of racial intolerance and domestic responsibilities to claim the recognition she so rightly deserved as a vital force in the art world.

Although not nearly as well known as other African American female sculptors – Selma Burke, Elizabeth Catlett, or Augusta Savage – Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller was a genius who was able to explore black themes within the prevailing Beaux Arts style of her day. Active during the Harlem Renaissance period, her work explored such social issues as women’s rights and racism. Her life is the saga of a courageous struggle of an African American, a woman, and an artist.

Like many African American Pennsylvanians, Fuller’s ancestors had migrated to Pennsylvania from the South. Dorothy Warrick Taylor, a niece of the artist, told a Philadelphia Tribune reporter that Fuller’s great-grandfather “was a white man, William Warwick Sr. He came here and legitimately married a mulatto. His family was of English nobility, carrying the name Warwick, but when he married a racially mixed woman, his family disowned him and forced him to change the spelling of his name from Warwick to Warrick.” His son William Henry Warrick Jr. was born in Virginia in 1808.

Warrick Jr.’s free papers in 1837 described him as a twenty­-seven-year-old American seaman, five foot nine inches, with mulatto complexion, woolly hair, hazel eyes, and a scar over his left lip. He was living in the Norfolk-Portsmouth area of Virginia. Shortly before the Civil War, he moved north to Philadelphia where he became a barber. With fellow barber George R. Hart, Warrick operated a barbershop known as Warrick and Hart on Chestnut Street in center-city Philadelphia. “He had twelve chairs in that shop, a very successful operation,” Taylor recalled. “Not many people had that kind of business. My grandmother [Meta’s mother, the former Emma Jones] was a hair stylist and she took care of the women.” Emma Jones Warrick was a descendant of Absalom Jones, the country’s first African American ordained an Episcopal priest and the founder, in 1794, of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, where the family worshipped. Historians believe that Emma’s father, Henry Jones, was the society caterer who catered a banquet given for the Prince of Wales in 1860 at the Academy of Music.

The youngest of the three Warrick children, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller was born on June 9, 1877, in Philadelphia. Since meta is a Greek word meaning “to change or transform,” it proved to be an appropriate – and prophetic – name for a young girl who was to become a sculptor. She was named Vaux after one of Emma Warrick’s customers, the daughter of former Philadelphia mayor Richard Vaux. In 1877, the Warricks resided at 250 South Twelfth Street, an urban neigh­borhood where the “better class” of Philadelphia’s African Americans lived in the nineteenth century. Members of the Warrick family were active in the black community. William Warrick Jr. served on the board of Philadelphia’s Home for Aged and Infirmed Colored Persons (now the Stephen SmIth Home).

Ironically, it was not Meta but her sister Blanche who initially received art training. “I used to imitate her and save pieces of paper to draw or sketch on,” Fuller once told a biographer. The sisters and their brother William Henry grew up in a family that emphasized the importance of beauty. Watching her father and mother stylize the coiffures or haircuts of their customers, Meta visualized transform­ing clay into sculpted busts. From her father, she not only inherited her fair complexion and sandy-brown hair, but also a love of art. Visits to art museums with him left a lasting impression on her.

“He would take me out as a child and spend many hours with me walking in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, and visiting the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He loved art enough to be able to explain the paintings and sculptures to me, and I can remember that was my intro­duction to art,” she recalled. Grammar school teachers realized that Meta was gifted, and she was allowed to attend a special art course once a week at J. Liberty Tadd, an industrial art school.

Meta Vaux Warrick was seventeen years old in 1894 when she won a three-year scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts in Philadelphia). By 1894, the Warrick family had moved several doors to 254 South Twelfth Street, not far from the Pennsylvania Museum School at Broad and Pine Streets. One of Meta’s classmates was May Howard Jackson, who also became a sculptor and a member of a pioneer group of black Pennsylvania women artists that included Selma Burke, Laura Waring, and Fuller.

At the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art, Meta studied a contemporary sculptural style: the Beaux Arts style of France. While neoclassical sculpture emphasized calm, smooth, ideal physiques, Beaux Arts sculpture stressed raw emotion and the tension of muscles, and to Meta it seemed suitable for themes dealing with human suffering and evil. One of her metal sculptures, Crucifixion of Christ in Anguish, sparked controversy because many viewers objected to depicting Jesus Christ in pain. Its creator’s retort – couched in a rhetorical question – was brief and brilliant. “If the Savior did not suffer, then wherein lay the sacrifice?” To fulfill a scholarship require­ment, she created, in 1897, a bas-relief frieze, The Procession of Arts and Crafts, comprising thirty-seven medieval figures. The piece won the school’s George K. Crozer Prize as the best sculpture of the year. At the school’s graduation ceremony the following year, she received not only a diploma but the metalwork prize for the sculpture Crucifixion of Christ in Agony, an honorable mention for her art modeling, and a postgraduate scholarship for another year of study at the Museum School.

It was during a summer vacation in 1899 that she met one of the most influential individuals of her life. When Warrick and her friends traveled to Sea Isle, New Jersey, to visit a black family, they found W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) sitting on the front porch. An African American civil rights leader, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and pioneer sociologist, Du Bois was one of the most important African Americans of this century. Warrick and her friends expected Du Bois – an Atlanta University professor who had just completed his monumental sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro – to greet them pleasantly. Instead, as biographer Judith Kerr reports, “Meta remembered how shocked she had been that, when the group was introduced, ‘he barely lowered his book, bowed stiffly, and looked bored.’ There was nothing for them to do but ‘move on,’ feeling like ‘little children who were in the way.’ Moreover, Fuller remem­bered that the way he treated her and the others did not improve later on; he was equally distant at supper.” Future encounters between the sculptor and the scholar, however, would grow increasingly cordial.

In autumn 1899, with her teachers’ enthusiastic support, Warrick prepared to continue her art studies in Paris. Her mother allowed her to travel but only under the supervision of a guardian. Meta’s guardian was a family friend and artist who lived in Paris, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). Born in Pittsburgh, Tanner grew up in Philadelphia where he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1891, he moved to Paris, where he felt more comfortable, and where he became an important painter noted for his paintings of African American and religious subjects (see “The Resurrection of Henry Ossawa Tanner” by Stephen May in the winter 1992 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage). Tanner promised to look after Meta, and he agreed to meet her on her arrival in Paris on October 29, 1899. Her train arrived early, and she patiently waited for Tanner.

Meta had made reservations at the American Girls Club of Paris, a residence for American students. When Tanner failed to appear, she decided to find the club by herself. Upon finding it, she entered the director’s office, sat down, and began to take off her coat and heavy veiled hat. When the director saw Meta’s face, she shouted: “You didn’t tell me that you were not a white girl! Why didn’t you tell me that you were not a white girl?” Meta replied, “I felt that I, as an American girl, was entitled to come here.” The director claimed she had no misgivings about Meta staying but believed white Southern students might object. And for that reason alone, Meta could not reside at the American Girls Club.

Meta was about to write a letter of protest to the American Consul in Paris when Henry Ossawa Tanner finally appeared. She told Tanner what had happened and he replied: “Well, I wouldn’t insist on staying here; it’s a cliquey place. You can easily find a place to stay and study.” He helped her find suitable lodging in a neighborhood where other art students lived. According to art historian Charlotte Rubinstein, “The episode was ironic; one of the reasons the family had allowed Meta to go to Europe was the generally held belief in the black middle-class community that European society was more racially tolerant and that she was less likely to have such experiences there. Her mistake had been to arrange for an American hotel.”

One positive outcome of this disturbing experience, howev­er, was that the director of the American Girls Club felt obliged to introduce Meta to potential art teachers. Through such introductions she met sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848- 1907). Born in Ireland but raised in New York, Saint-Gaudens was regarded as one of the pivotal sculptors of the Beaux Arts movement. Through him, Warrick met sculptors Raphael Collin and Jean-Antonin Carles. After studying with Collin and Carles for a year, she enrolled in one of Paris’ many art academies, the Academie Colarossi, to advance her art education. In an academic art world plagued by male chauvinism, the Academie Colarossi was one of the few top academies that opened its doors to women.

In 1900, the Paris Exposition featured an African American exhibition organized by Americans W. E. B. Du Bois and Thomas J. Calloway, president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College, a black college in Mississippi. Meta had not planned to visit the exhibition but Calloway and Du Bois changed her mind. Her recollections of the episode remained sharp.

During the Exposition one evening a knock came on my studio door. I opened and there stood Mr. Calloway and Dr. Du Bois. I greeted him I think as any lady would who has previously been snubbed. Mr. Calloway explained that his errand was to let me know of a dinner to be given in the banquet hall of the U.S. pavilion – a subscription affair for the American Negroes visiting the Exposition. I asked him what the subscription was to be, but Dr. [Du Bois] spoke up for really the first time: “I have come Miss Warrick to offer you my escort so that for you there will be no subscription.” I could not believe my ears of course. I accepted. … He was toastmaster and you probably know what a good one he can be. Altogether I had a most pleasant time … Calloway, Du Bois and I were much together at the Exposition about every day. … A word of advice from Dr. Du Bois before leaving was to the effect that I should make a specialty of Negro types [in sculpture]. I told him that I did not believe I could specialize but I considered the advice well meant.

Soon afterward, Warrick enjoyed another fortuitous meet­ing. In summer 1901, Clara Westhoff Rilke, wife of Austrian lyric poet and writer Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) and a student of Rodin, arranged for the aspiring sculptor to meet the great teacher. Meta took with her a portfolio of photographs of completed works of art and a small sculpture she called The Man Eating His Heart. Rodin’s private show in May 1900 of more than one hundred and fifty sculptures, including The Gates of Hell, and his exhibition of works such as The Age of Bronze, The Head of John the Baptist, and The Creation of Man at the 1900 Centennial Exhibition of French Sculpture brought him international recognition. Even his competitors had to concede Rodin’s genius in creating a “neo-Renaissance style.” Claude Monet, in a preface to Rodin’s 1900 exhibition catalogue, lauded him as “great among the greatest.” It is no wonder that Meta grew nervous as the stocky and bearded Rodin silently scrutinized her photographs. Upon examining the little sculpture, something moved Rodin and, turning to her, he exclaimed, “My child, you are a sculptor, you have the sense of form!”

Rodin and Warrick discussed her art training. Since he had too many students, he could not take her on as a regular pupil, but only as a protégé. She made occasional trips from Paris to suburban Meudon to seek his advice. Rodin sponsored Meta for her first art show, a private exhibition in Paris in which she exhibited several sculptures. A one-woman show mounted by renowned art dealer Samuel Bing at his famous L’Art Nouveau Gallery, however, was even more significant because Bing had many wealthy customers and had shown works of some of the world’s most admired modern masters, including Camille Pissarro, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mary Cassatt, and Rodin. “As a result of the attention Meta began receiving in French art circles,” Judith Kerr contends, “the Americans also took notice of her. The American Woman’s Art Association of Paris invited her to participate in its annual exhibition …. Ironically, the Woman’s Art Association held its exhibit at the American Girls Club, the same hostel that had denied Meta lodging when she first arrived in Paris. But now, she had made such a strong showing as an artist that she could no longer be ignored. She was the only sculptor represent­ed and a photograph of her sculpture John the Baptist was printed in the New York Herald‘s Paris edition.”

When she returned to the United States in 1902, after three years in France, Warrick believed Philadelphians would appreciate her art just as Parisians did. She made the rounds of the city’s art dealers proudly showing them sculptures she had made during her stay in Paris. To her great surprise, no one was interested. She shared with biographer Sylvia Dannett the explanation that Philadelphia dealers lamely offered her.

“Oh, no, we don’t buy domestic [art]” That was not domestic work. That was work I had done in Paris. But no, they couldn’t see that. That’s where the racial issue came in again. It was a racial issue, I think. If I had been a white girl, I would have gotten along. Ten years later, Malvina Hoffman [a white American female sculptor noted for her naturalistic works] went to Rodin, did the same things that I did. He took an interest in her too. She came back to America and was given the commission to make the Hall of Man [sculpture].

Meta Vaux Warrick resumed her training, taking classes again at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. By 1906, with the help of her aunt, she had opened an art studio on South Twelfth Street.

She became the first black woman to receive a government art commission when she was asked to create a tableau depicting African American historical events for the 1907 Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition in Virginia. Exposition judges awarded Meta a gold medal and she felt she was beginning to blossom as an artist. It was about this time, though, that destiny pulled her not only far from Philadelphia but from her career as well. Meta met a Liberian doctor, Solomon Fuller, who had studied at Boston University School of Medicine and who was practicing as a neurologist at Massachusetts State Hospital. The two ultimately fell in love, but when Fuller proposed, Meta had to wrestle with conflicting goals and desires. She wanted her own life as an artist away from her family, but she also wanted to be a wife and mother. “My aunt was pulling me one way; my mother was pulling me another way and then I was helping her in the hairdressing parlor,” she recalled. “I was a disappointment to them because I wasn’t making money hand-over fist. I was eager to get out of that rut, away from that contest between my aunt and my mother.”

Fuller wanted a wife who would be a homemaker, not a breadwinner. Warrick acquiesced, convincing herself that “marriage was part of life.” They married on February 9, 1909, and moved into a house in Framingham, Massachusetts. She stored the works of art created during her Paris sojourn and her tools in a Philadelphia warehouse until she could arrange to ship them to Boston . She never found the time, however, because she became pregnant, giving birth to her first child in March 1910. Later that year, a fire swept through the ware­house where her works were stored. Although several pieces were saved, most were destroyed, and Fuller was emotionally traumatized by the loss. “I lost the efforts of sixteen years’ work,” she said. It was several years before she even attempted anything remotely resembling artistic work.

In 1913, Du Bois wrote to the sculptor, asking her to con­tribute work to New York’s celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the emancipation Proclamation. He suggested that she enlarge the original sculpture Man Eating His Heart, which she had shown to Rodin, but unfortunately, it had been lost in the warehouse fire. Instead, Fuller offered to create a sculpture symbolizing Emancipation and she purchased new sculpting tools and set herself to the task. Emancipation Group demonstrated the influence of Rodin in that Fuller’s realistically sculpted figures displayed intense emotion and were moving rather than stationary. She once explained the sculpture to a friend. “I represented the race by a male and a female figure standing under a tree the branches of which are the fingers of Fate grasping at them to draw them back into the fateful clutches of hatred. [A third figure depicted] humanity weeping over her suddenly freed children who, beneath the gnarled fingers of Fate, step forth into the world unafraid.”

Emancipation Group marked Fuller’s re-entry into the art world. In 1914 in Boston, she held her first public exhibition in more than five years, showing new works. One of these, a bust entitled John the Baptist, may have been inspired by Auguste Rodin’s sculpture by the same title. Both works capture the prophet’s fervor.

Concerned about the emancipation of women, she joined the Massachusetts branch of the Equal Suffrage League which, in its crusade for a constitutional amendment, was involved in fund-raising. Fuller was asked to design an “Equal Suffrage Medallion” to raise money. The medallion depicted a man, woman, and child in profile above the motto “Each unto each the rounded compliment.” She then entered a competition sponsored by the Massachusetts Branch of the Women’s Peace Party (although it is not known if she was a member of the organization). The Women’s Peace Party invited individuals to enter works which their creators felt best represented the “constructive peace movement.” Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller won second prize in the 1915 contest for Peace Halting the Ruthlessness of War, which critics had applauded as one of her best sculptures.

One of Fuller’s most forceful works expressing social protest is Mary Turner: A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence. Mary Turner was an African American woman from Georgia lynched by a mob in 1918. The mob slashed her pregnant body and crushed her unborn infant as it fell to the ground. Fuller depicted Turner holding her infant to her bosom as flames surround her. Few artists – no matter their color – have captured the horror of lynching as graphically as Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller.

Ethiopia Awakening, a bronze of a heavily draped and hooded female figure resembling an ancient Egyptian funerary statue, remains the artist’s most famous sculp­ture. By her choice of title, she was calling attention to the sub-Saharan African’s influence on Egypt. With this work, she became one of the artists who anticipated the “New Negro” theme of the Harlem Renaissance, with its emphasis upon African roots. Today, Ethiopia Awakening may be seen at New York’s Schomberg Center for Black Research and Culture.

Proficient as a sculptor, Fuller yearned for her own studio, outside of her house, where she could work undisturbed. When she received an inheritance, she had the means to build her own studio but because her husband had mixed feelings about her being an artist, she did not tell him about the project. He ultimately learned about the studio and angrily confronted her. “Eventually, Solomon forgave Meta,” Kerr writes. “Her ability to buy land, hire a builder, and acquire the proper permits ultimately impressed him.”

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller was active during the Harlem Renaissance period. Although she did not work in the artistic circle of Harlem, she was aware of its activities. Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures was but one of a number of popular plays by white playwrights that offered a perspective on black life. The leading role of “De Lawd” was played by now-forgotten black actor Richard B. Harrison. The Canadian actor was noted for his great declamatory voice and “De Lawd” became his signature role. Fuller’s bronze of Harrison, now part of the collections of the Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., brilliantly captures the stage character.

Drawing upon her African ancestry, she based her work, Waterboy, on an old black work song by the same title. The piece, imbued with both emotional and physical tension, depicts an African American youth struggling with a heavy jug of water. In selecting to capture such an “awkward” moment in life, Fuller once again recalled the genius of Auguste Rodin. One of her greatest works, The Talking Skull, is also deeply rooted in African culture. Now owned by the Museum of Afro­American History in Boston, the bronze was inspired by an African folktale she used to tell her children in her own words.

In the heat of Africa, a young tribesman wandered out upon the desert waste. Stumbling upon what at first seemed to be a large stone, he later discovered it to be a human skull and speaking aloud, he exclaimed, “I wonder how you came here.” To his amazement, the skull answered, “Tongue brought me here and if you are not careful, Tongue will bring you here. ” Meta would describe how the young tribesman ran back to his village, and eager to astonish everyone including the chief, told of his adventure. The villagers went with the boy to see this “talking skull,” but hating liars, warned him that if it did not talk, he would lose his head. No matter how the boy pleaded, not one word would the skull utter. Angered at the thought of having been deceived, the chief beheaded the boy with a single stroke of his blade. Finally, when everyone was gone, the skull cried out in a loud voice: “Tongue brought me here and I told you that if you were not careful, Tongue would bring you here.”

Despite the sculptor’s growing competence and confidence, the 1940s proved to be a difficult decade for Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller. She was invited to exhibit at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago, but the box containing her sculpture The Talking Skull was returned­ – unopened. No one had bothered to open the shipping container so that the piece could be exhibited. She felt that she was being overlooked in favor of other women sculptors such as Augusta Savage. More than ever she became preoccupied with her family and her community. When her husband fell ill, she cared for him – but at the cost of closing her studio. When Solomon Fuller died in 1953, Meta discovered that she had tuberculosis; it would be three years before she was well again. Until the end of her life, she continued to create original works of art, but it was obvious that her most brilliant period had passed. Nevertheless, she finally did reap recognition as a pioneer African American artist. The town of Framingham, Massachusetts, honored her by requesting several artworks for public buildings. In 1961, Howard University formally honored her as one of three outstanding black artists. Three years later, the NAACP awarded Fuller a citation of merit.

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller died at the age of ninety-one on March 18, 1968. Even today, most of her work remains in Framingham, and not in major art museums-an indication that her talent has been overlooked by the American art community and the public. Her works of art such as Waterboy, Ethiopia Awakening, Emancipation Group, and The Talking Skull are poignant, tangible examples of the vision she possessed in expressing herself through form – a talent Auguste Rodin recognized early in her career. A state historical marker, erected in 1992 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, stands before her former residence at 254 South Twelfth Street in Philadelphia to commemorate her as an African American Philadelphia-born artist. But she was more. Whether culling ideas from ethnic work songs, folk tales, or events of the day, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller imbued in her work a spirit of concern for humanity that reached far beyond her sculptures. She was not only a sculptor, but a visionary who bravely called upon her roots for inspiration. Unflinchingly, she confronted the flaws and frailty of human nature, exposing them through her work, and shaped a legacy of hope for a more idealistic future of peace and equality. The protege had, indeed, become a prophet.

 

Works by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller are featured in an exhibition currently on view at the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia. Continuing through Sunday, September 29, “Three Generations of African American Sculptors: A Study in Paradox” examines not only the artists’ creations as works of art but explores their impact on the art world. In addition to works by Fuller, the exhibit features pieces by May Howard Jackson, Selma Burke, Edmonia Lewis, Augusta Savage, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Elizabeth Catlett, Beulah Woodard, Geraldine McCullough, and Barbara Chase-Riboud. To obtain additional information about “Three Generations of African American Sculptors: A Study in Paradox,” write: Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum, 701 Arch St., Philadelphia, PA 19106; or telephone (215) 574-0380.

 

For Further Reading

Dannett, Sylvia G. L. Profiles of Negro Womanhood. Yonkers, N. Y.: Educational Heritage Inc., 1966.

Dunford, Penny. A Biographical Dictionary of Women Artists in Europe and America since 1850. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.

Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing Inc., 1993.

Lewis, Samella. African American Art and Artists. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Opitz, Glenn B., ed. Dictionary of American Sculptors: Eighteenth Century to the Present. Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Apollo, 1984.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Sculptors. New York: G. K. Hall, 1991.

 

Eric Ledell Smith, an associate historian for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, has published articles focusing on African American women’s history.