Welcome back to Black History Fun Fact Friday.
Today I introduce to you Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, the first black woman to receive a federal commission for her art. Fuller’s artwork became the precursor to the resurgence of African themes in art seen during the Harlem Renaissance Movement. Not only a time of Jazz, Literature, and Flapper women, this explosion of black artistic culture also included artwork which is not discussed as much as let’s say the literature and the music.
Born in Philadelphia in 1877, Fuller was the youngest of three children born to William and Emma Warrick. Prominent hair stylists who owned a flourishing Philadelphia store, Fuller’s father was a prosperous barber and the owner of several shops. Her mother was a hairdresser with wealthy white clients who were served in the family’s shop. The family also took vacations to the same places as did their upper-class white Philadelphian clients and lived in a three-story house. Why is it then that Fuller’s name is different from her parents?
Meta was named after one of these clients, Meta Vaux, the daughter of a Senator Richard Vaux. It makes me think about many blacks during the time and whether or not we felt we needed to assimilate into white society in order to fit into the culture of America. For instance, both W.E.B. Dubois and Meta (who was close with Dubois) felt that blacks were capable of the highest achievements but also that this meant to be educated as whites were educated. In addition, despite eventually producing “African” themed art, Meta rejected DuBois initial suggestion that she concentrate on African-American themes when they first met in Europe.
While Meta was successful and is highlighted here as an unfamiliar face, a precursor if you will to The Harlem Renaissance, the movement itself was not all rainbows and whistles. While the artistic explosion is something I love (being a poet and all) I hate that some blacks (as talented as we are) felt at the time that they needed to fit in with White America in order to make it, a truth not everyone is willing to acknowledge but this is Black History Fun Fact Friday so we must keep it real. As Carl Van Vechten titled his book, for many blacks Harlem was, at the time, “Nigger Heaven”.
Nonetheless, in October of 1889, Fuller arrived in Paris where for the next three years she would study with prominent French sculptors which would have a major impact on her work. While in Europe this is where she would encounter Dubois for the second time and it was the beginning of a friendship that continued for many years. Dubois and Thomas Calloway was organizing a Negro exhibit for the Paris Exposition and visited Meta’s studio to her surprise.
When Meta returned to the States, she established a studio in Philadelphia where art organizations flourished and in the early 1900s through the twenties she continued to do well. In 1928, she was selected to show her work at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
In 1909 she did a 15-piece work for The Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition illustrating black’s progress in America since the Jamestown settlement. Fuller also received a gold medal for “The Jamestown Tableau,” and this established her reputation as an artist and began a long and committed career. Despite my personal feelings, it is refreshing to study the faces of some of the unknown artists of this most important time in history.