Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968)

Anonymous photograph of Meta Warrick Fuller, ca. 1911? (pub. 1919). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

This main page has three more that branch off! This one is your starting point for a comparison between Meta Fuller and Edmonia Lewis, who is in some ways her predecessor and in other ways her complete opposite–as an artist who worked in a completely different style. The other pages will give you a sketch of Fuller’s life, a list of resources, and, COMING SOON, an essay about three of her artworks and how they compare (or “talk back”) to three works by Edmonia Lewis.

Like Edmonia Lewis, Meta Warrick Fuller was an African-American female sculptor who, after generating some excitement about her work during her lifetime, was largely forgotten. Like Lewis, she was also “recovered” starting in the 1990s–in fact, the book-length study of Lewis by Kirsten Buick and of Fuller by Renée Ater came out in the same year, in 2011. I came across her name for the first time in one of the very first sources I read to find out more about Lewis, Lisa Farrington’s Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists from 2005. To Farrington, she is one of just two successors to Lewis that belong to the next generation of Black women sculptors (the other is May Howard Jackson; the more famous Augusta Savage is of the next generation).

As two Black female sculptors, Edmonia Lewis and Meta Fuller are in many ways a study in contrasts, even as there are important similarities:

  • Although both grew up in the North (New York and Ohio for Lewis; Pennsylvania for Fuller), their relationship to questions of race and racism, and especially to the South and to the legacy of slavery was very different. While Lewis stressed, perhaps based on partial knowledge, that she was exclusively descended from free Black people and Native Americans, Fuller’s paternal grandfather had come to Philadelphia, a city where many African-Americans were prospering, from Virginia with his wife and eight children just before the Civil War; the family was listed as mixed race (mulatto) in the census of 1860, so at least one of her grandparents had white ancestry. Fuller’s father was a popular barber and her mother a wigmaker and hairdresser; the family lived in an affluent part of town.
  • Although Lewis and Fuller were both educated women from the middle class, Fuller’s life was much more stable in terms of social status and financial support, both as a child and after her marriage to a prominent Boston doctor and psychiatrist. But that stability also came at a price: unlike Edmonia Lewis, who–as far as we know–was single all her life and lived independent of any immediate family, Fuller seems to have struggled continually between making art and her obligations to her family–her mother and sister, her husband, her three children and the niece she adopted–and also to her community of middle-class Black activists invested in “uplift.” Often, these obligations had the upper hand, and her career as an artist lost out.
  • Although both artists got much of their training in Europe, the shift from Lewis going to Rome in the 1860s to Fuller going to Paris around 1900 actually reflects a major change in the art world in general. Rome was getting old-fashioned; Paris became more than ever the hub of the art world. By the mid-1890s, even Lewis had moved to Paris–although we will probably never know what she thought about these new developments, and whether she participated in the radical changes and diversification of art styles that was beginning to affect sculpture as well as painting. Meta Fuller definitely did—she was heavily influenced by Rodin (of the famous Thinker) who was defying the conventions of neoclassicism. Fuller’s bronzes and painted plaster sculptures often show a deliberate roughness they owe to Rodin’s impact on her, as well as modernist touches later on; Lewis’s neoclassical marbles often look tame and old-fashioned in comparison. And they were met with some interest in Paris around 1900, when she was studying there.
  • But if Edmonia Lewis was fading from view in the 1890s just as Fuller was rising in Paris’ new art scene, Fuller struggled and never quite succeeded to build on this budding fame, while Lewis had been internationally renowned for at least two decades–in the 1870s and 1880s, she was visited by many tourists in her studio in Rome, her Cleopatra was seen by tens of thousands of people at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876, and she sold quite a number of both commissioned works and the portrait busts and popular figurines she created throughout this time period. Meta Fuller’s (then still Meta Vaux Warrick’s) early career held much promise for a similar or even more stellar career–while studying in Paris (from late 1899 to 1902) she was beginning to make a name for herself and showed her work at the famous gallery of the art dealer Siegfried Bing, L’Art Nouveau, that gave the going style of the 1890s and early 1900s its name. But that promise remained basically unfulfilled. Although Fuller lived a long life (dying at the age of 91 in 1968), she only got a very few commissions in the years after her return to the US in 1902, and the few works she produced after the 1930s were mostly seen by friends and family. The big commissions were few and far between (there were only three high-profile pieces that became somewhat well-known in as many decades: 1907, 1913, 1921) and the fame that she had hoped and worked hard for as a student did not come. Fuller was clearly aware of the factors that played a role here. A family friend, writing a profile a decade after Fuller’s death for the Negro History Bulletin, said that Fuller, looking back, “believed she would have been easily successful here [in the US] if she had been white” (Hoover 679); but gender pressures were also intense, since she was clearly trying to do it all—she wanted be an artist, be married with children, and also be active for social-justice causes, including pacifism, suffrage, and voting rights.
  • Lewis and Fuller’s most directly political and “activist” works–like Lewis’ Forever Free and Fuller’s Emancipation sculpture, which both make emancipation from slavery their them–are often most interesting to 21st-century art historians and cultural historians. Just as Edmonia Lewis’s work has a complicated relationship to what we would think of as anti-racist or social-justice activism–in her case, to the (mostly white) abolitionists she met before and during the Civil War, and who continued to support her and purchase her work during the Reconstruction era–Fuller’s work does, too. But while Lewis began her career with works that addressed racial politics directly, while her later sculptures are sometimes at first glance “apolitical,” Fuller was initially reluctant to make race her theme and worked to be “universal.” But she later took on several commissions that participated in public displays of “racial uplift,” pursued by W.E.B. Du Bois and other Black activists who hoped to fight racism and segregation in American society, partly by highlighting the achievements of Black people in a time of horrific lynchings and “race riots” incited by whites who felt threatened by those achievements. In my discussion of three of Fuller’s best-known works in comparison to three sculptures by Lewis (coming soon!), I will try to do justice to the differences in their approach that go beyond the obvious differences in style and material.

Resources on Meta Fuller

These are again subdivided into (1) scholarly sources, (2) popular / general-interest sources, and (3) primary sources. This is not a complete list, but longer pieces on Meta Fuller are here. (2) includes sites with images of Fuller’s sculpture, since there is no separate image gallery for her. Let me know if you see any crucial resources that are missing.

(1) Scholarly Sources

Armstrong, Julie Bucknor. “‘The People… Took Exception to Her Remarks’: Meta Warrick Fuller, Angelina Weld Grimké, and the Lynching of Mary Turner.” The Mississippi Quarterly 61, no. 1/2 (2008): 113–141.

Ater, Renée. Remaking Race and History: The Sculpture of Meta Warrick Fuller. Berkeley etc.: University of California Press, 2011.

This is the only art-historical book-length study on Fuller. An initial biographical chapter is followed by chapters built around the three public sculpture projects for three different expositions: The Warrick Tableaux, Emancipation, and Ethiopia. The expositions as cultural context for the works is really crucial and had not been covered in detail like this anywhere in the scholarly literature.

Beach, Caitlin. “Meta Warrick Fuller’s Mary Turner and the Memory of Mob Violence.” NKA (Brooklyn, N.Y.) 2015, no. 36 (2015): 16–27.

Brundage, W. Fitzhugh. “Meta Warrick’s 1907 ‘Negro Tableaux’ and (Re)Presenting African American Historical Memory.” The Journal of American History 89, no. 4 (2003): 1368–1400.

Copeland, Huey. “Making Black Feminist Art Histories.” American Art 31, no.2 (2017), 27-29.

This is a short but thought-provoking response to Ater’s interpretation of Ethiopia and also the importance of discussing and teaching Mary Turner (which is not prominent in her monograph, but was discussed in more detail in her dissertation. Copeland points to the tricky position of female Black artists in creating “protest art” and the ways they have to negotiate between different kinds of pressure.

Driskell, David. “The Flowering of the Harlem Renaissance: The Art of Aaron Douglas, Meta Warrick Fuller, Palmer Hayden, and William H. Johnson.” The Harlem Renaissance: Art of  Black America. Ed. David Driskell, David L. Lewis, Deborah Willlis Ryan. New York: Harry N. Abrams/Studio Museum, 1987. 105-154.

Pp. 105-109 are about Fuller, and the brief account is beholden to Alain Locke’s view of Fuller from 1925. For Driskell, Fuller is a forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance despite the somewhat tenuous connections (duBois only, and no NYC residence) because she picks up African themes early and used them in Ethiopia. He uses Locke’s incorrect date for the sculpture (1914), emphasizes the Pan-African context, and does not discuss the exhibition framework of the commission.

Hammond, Leslie King, and Tritobia Hayes Benjamin. Eds. Three Generations of African American Women Sculptors: A Study in Paradox. Philadelphia: Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum, 1996.

This is an exhibition catalogue accompanying a traveling exhibition shown in 1996 and 1997 that puts Fuller in the context of earlier sculptural work (including ancestral African sculpture and Edmonia Lewis’ work) and those of the Black female sculptors that came afterward, like Augusta Savage and Elizabeth Catlett (who died in 2012 at almost 100 years old). The chapter on Fuller and May Howard Jackson is short (18-25, consisting mostly of images), but this traveling exhibit was crucial as the first that pulled together these artists across time.

Hoover, Velma J. “Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller: Her Life and Her Art.”  Negro History Bulletin 40, No.2 (March-April 1977), 678-81.

This is a short, opinionated biographical sketch by a personal friend of Fuller’s later years (written by the director of the Multidisciplinary Program for Minorities at the Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center). Various stories about Fuller’s life go back to this source, including the claim that she said later that she “would have been easily successful if she had been white” but that she did not stress that (680).

Kennedy, Harriet Forte. An Independent Woman: The Life and Art of Meta Warrick Fuller (1877-1968). Framingham, Mass: Danforth Museum of Art, 1984.

This very short exhibition catalog /brochure for a small exhibit of Fuller’s work at the Danforth Museum of Art in December of 1984 is only 12 pages long; it includes a brief bio and a brief overview of her work. Most useful for a detailed list of her work, but many of these are undated, and the principle behind the order in which they are listed is not quite clear to me. Danforth now has a number of the works from the exhibition on permanent display. See the link below.

Leininger-Miller, Theresa. New Negro Painters and Sculptors in Paris: African-American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Light, 1922-1934. New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Only Chapter 1 (pp. 1-15) are relevant, because most of the book is about a later generation of artists. This provides a good general context for the African-American artists in Paris in Henry Ossawa Tanner’s circle at the time around 1900 when Fuller was there, but some of the dates about Fuller are slightly off and were corrected in Ater’s book.  Several scholars, among them Emily Burns, are currently working on a more detailed account of the life and work of artists of color in Paris around the turn of the century.

Perkins, Kathy A. “The Genius of Meta Warrick Fuller.” Black American Literature Forum 24, No.1 (Spring 1990), 65-72.

This is about Fuller’s involvement in amateur theater production (writing scripts but also making backdrops and masks), but it is partly based on interviews with people who knew her, and includes the story about Dr. Fuller’s negative attitude toward the studio in the backyard of their house.

(2) Popular / General Sources

Mangin, Charlotte (dir.) “Meta Warrick Fuller: Trailblazing African-American Sculptor and Poet.” American Masters. Unladylike2020: The Changemakers. PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/she-was-trailblazing-african-american-sculptor-s2wd1i/14031/

An 11-minute digital short film that provides a biography with punchy quotations by Fuller and important contributions from Renée Ater and Allison Saar, a 21sth-century sculptor who created a Harriet Tubman sculpture. Uses interesting visualizations and many photographs of Fuller and of the various exhibitions to provide visual context. Also has a link to a teaching guide with discussion questions and handouts.

Davidson, Benjamin and Pippa Biddle. “The Sculpture of Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller.” Antiques. September / October 2020. 34-40. 

This is a sketch of Fuller’s life and key works beholden to Ater’s book (they do credit her!). But it includes beautiful photographs of works that are not often seen on line, many from the Danforth Museum of Art. They point out that Fuller’s sculptures are still mostly in private hands and often sell for under $ 10,000.  Currently, the issue is available at the Danforth Art Museum website at https://danforth.framingham.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/TMA.SeptOct20-REV.pdf .

The Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller Collection. Danforth Art Museum Website. https://danforth.framingham.edu/exhibition/meta-fuller/

This is the largest unified collection of Fuller’s works, and conveys a good sense of the smaller and less ambitious sculptures she made, but it also includes a painted-plaster maquette of her Ethiopia. The website shows about a dozen of these works and provides a brief overview.

In Memory of Mary Turner: As A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence. Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller. Google Arts & Culture. https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/in-memory-of-mary-turner-as-a-silent-protest-against-mob-violence/6AGtTaPw-CH_Bg

The documentation on this Google Arts and Culture page is very limited, but the high-resolution images provide an opportunity to see the sculpture close up from four different angles. Since the Museum of African American History in Boston and Nantucket does not have a readily available image collection, this is helpful if you cannot visit the museum.

Licenziato, Vincent. “Personal Power and Commitment.” The Emancipation Trail. Website. http://vincent-licenziato.squarespace.com/new-page-99

This Bostonian who describes himself as a “Beacon Hill Scholar,” seeking to “research, interpret, and help to preserve the history associated with Beacon Hill’s 19th-century community of free African Americans,” has created a guided tour of the Beacon Hill neighborhood that puts Fuller’s Emancipation (stop # 17 on his vritual itinerary) in the context of the nearby Harriet Tubman Memorial and other public monuments and historical markers in this area.

“Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller.” Notable Alumni. University of the Arts, Philadelphia. https://library.uarts.edu/archives/alumni/warrickfuller.html.

A modest page with the basic dates on Fuller as an alum of the University, the former Pennsylvania Museum School of the Arts, which Fuller attended from 1896-1899. Also includes a resource list.

(3) Primary Sources

Brawley, Benjamin Griffith. The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States. New York: Duffield, 1918.

Brawley features quite a long chapter on Fuller (the only other artist he devotes a chapter to is Henry Ossawa Tanner) that lists many of her works from various exhibitions, and it seems like this was based on an interview with her.

Murray, Freeman Henry Morris. Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: A study in Interpretation. Washington D.C.: Murray Brothers, 1916.  Esp. 51-66.

See my note about this book in the Edmonia Lewis resource section. Murray devotes ca. 15 pages and two photographs to the sculpture, including quotations from a letter by Fuller that are really useful if intention plays any role in the interpretation. Murray and Fuller were friends and had a lengthy correspondence that Renée Ater discusses at length.

The Crisis. 1910-1922. Modernist Journals Project. modjourn.org/journal/crisis

All issues of the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races, from November 1910 to December 1922, founded and edited by W.E.B. du Bois, are available through this fantastic digitization project as downloadable PDFs in high resolution with excellent OCR and a great, serviceable search function. This means you can consult the issues that feature the National Emancipation Exposition of 1913, where Fuller’s Emancipation was displayed, including the calendar of events and a script for Du Bois’ pageant (November and December of 2013), as well as the issue that discusses the 1918 lynchings in Georgia that led to Fuller’s creation of her Mary Turner statuette (September 1918, p. 221-223). Also, I hope someone has already written a book about the cover art of the Crisis over these 12 years because it is amazingly diverse in terms of style, and at the same time clearly sticks to the idea of art by, about, and for Black people on the cover.