June 9th in (Feminist) History

meta-vaux-warrick-fullerOn this day in 1877 was the birth of Meta Vaux Warrick (Fuller), an African-American artist known for her art which explored Afrocentric themes and social commentary. A forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance, she has been described as “one of the most imaginative Black artists of her generation”. She was born in Philadelphia to a beautician and a barber, and named after one of her mother’s customers: Meta Vaux, the daughter of Senator Richard Vaux. In the intellectually active black community she grew up in, living in a family that encouraged education and enrichment, Meta Vaux was trained in horseback riding, dance, art, and music. She was also one of the few students from Philadelphia public schools selected to attend J. Liberty Tadd’s art school. It was her home life especially that encouraged her later art careers; she had a father interested in art and sculpture, a sister who liked to model clay, and a brother and grandfather with a love of horror stories, the combination of which influenced the woman who would one day be known as “the sculptor of horrors”.

Her art career was started after a high-school project of hers was selected for the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition, following which she received a scholarship to attend the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art. At the time, there was a certain feminine style expected of female artists, but Meta Vaux refused to fit that mold. She broke out of it in a rare act of independence (at that time) by dipping into the more horrific and gruesome ideas from the “fin de siecle Symbolist art and literature”. After graduating in 1899 she went to Paris, where she studied individually with Raphael Collin, as well as sculpture at the Academie Colarossi and drawing at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In Paris she faced discrimination and was refused housing, and eventually found lodging with the painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, who introduced her to his group of friends. In Paris she also became first influenced by, and then a protege of, Auguste Rodin, and her careful depictions of “the spirituality of human suffering” lead to the French press calling her “the delicate sculptor of horrors”.

Meta Vaux was seen as one of the first African-American female sculptors “of importance”. In Paris, she was influenced by W.E.B DuBois, who encouraged her to let the African and African-American themes flourish in her work. She was well-known in Paris, but when she returned to Philadelphia in 1903 she was shunned because of her race and the fact that she was what they called “domestic”. But Meta Vaux didn’t let that stop her. She was the first African-American woman to be commissioned by the U.S. Government; the exhibition involved a request to create several dioramas depicting African-American historical events. Shown at the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition, and later at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the display included scenes of slaves arriving in Virginia in 1617, and other depictions of the home lives of black people. It included fourteen dioramas and 130 plaster figures.

In 1907 she married Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, born in Liberia, and one of the first black psychiatrists in the U.S. Eventually they moved to Framingham, Massachusetts, where they had three sons. Resented and pressured to leave by white neighbors who isolated them from social events, Meta Vaux eventually left the church she attended in the area. Despite this, she continued working on her sculptures, including making several with traditional religious scenes within the privacy of her home studio. One of Meta Vaux’s most famous sculptures was created in that time. Called Ethiopia, she sculpted it for for the America’s Making Exhibition in 1921, and it was meant to represent pride in African and black identity and heritage. It was featured in the exhibition’s “colored section”. However, despite the fact that she kept working during these years, Meta Vaux was never as appreciated in America as she was in Paris; in fact she was isolated, detached from her African-American contacts, and feeling depressed and desolate about her career. She continued to work, however, and did not died until 1968, at the age of 90.

Some of Meta Vaux’s sculptures: Ethiopia Awakening, Emancipation, and Self Portait.

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