Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968)

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

This main page on the Black female sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller 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 sculptures and how they “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 not “recovered” by art historians 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, born the same year as Fuller; the more famous Augusta Savage is of the generation after that).

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. The Rodin-like quality of Fuller’s works created in Paris around 1900, when she was studying there, attracted quite a bit of interest at the time. Even though some of her work after 1920 is more conventional, Fuller’s later bronzes and painted plaster sculptures often show a deliberate roughness they owe to Rodin’s impact on her; Lewis’s neoclassical marbles often look tame and old-fashioned in comparison.
  • But if Edmonia Lewis was fading from view around 1900 (by which time she had settled in England and had been all but forgotten) 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. By contrast, even though Meta Fuller’s (then still Meta Vaux Warrick’s) early career held much promise for a similar or even more stellar career–in Paris, she showed her work at the famous gallery of the art dealer Siegfried Bing, La Maison de l’Art Nouveau, that gave the going style of the 1890s and early 1900s its name–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 works she produced after the 1930s were mostly seen (and in some cases purchased) 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 theme–are often most interesting to 21st-century art historians and cultural historians. But Fuller and Lewis have a complicated relationship to what we would think of as anti-racist or social-justice activism. In Lewis’ case, that relationship has to do with the (mostly, but not exclusively, white) abolitionists she met before and during the Civil War, and who continued to support her and purchase her work during the Reconstruction Era to some extent. As you can see elsewhere on this website, Lewis began her career with works that addressed racial politics directly, while her later sculptures are sometimes at first glance “apolitical.” By contrast, Fuller was initially reluctant to make race her theme and worked to be “universal.” But after meeting famous Black Activists (including W.E.B. du Bois) in Paris, she took on several commissions that participated in public displays of what we might now call Black excellence and Black pride–most importantly, her Emancipation (1913) and Ethiopia Awakening (1921). This use of art as “racial uplift” promoted by many Black activists at the time was one strategy to fight racism and segregation in American society. But highlighting the achievements of Black people in a time of horrific lynchings and “race riots” incited by whites who felt threatened by those achievements had its limits, and Fuller’s “protest sculpture” Mary Turner: A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence (1919) addresses these to a certain extent. In my discussion of these three sculptures, Fuller’s best-known works, in comparison to three sculptures by Lewis (coming soon!), I will try to do justice to the differences in Lewis’ and Fuller’s approach to addressing race and racism in sculpture that go beyond the visible differences in style and material (neoclassical vs. Rodinesque; marble vs. bronze and plaster) that have to do more with the generational shift in taste and artist training than with the goals they had for their art.

Fuller and Lewis: Three Sculptural Comparisons [Work in Progress]

The works by Meta Warrick Fuller that are best known today (and that is not saying much, because even those are not that well-known) are Emancipation (1913), Mary Turner: A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence (1919) and Ethiopia Awakening (1921). I have spent quite some time researching these, especially the first two, and I have much too much to say about them. But I do not want you, dear reader, to lose patience, or myself lose focus on the fact that this is a website dedicated to Edmonia Lewis. So I want to stick to my original goal and suggest some comparisons for each of these three to three of Lewis’ works that I see as related as anti-racist, pro-Black art. The overarching connection I see here is that both sculptors produce art that is, to use a paradoxical term, quietly protesting–its push for social, political and also art-historical change cloaked and veiled, only cautiously peeking through layers of restraint and caution in addressing questions of race and racism.

To be clear: I am not trying to making a case that Lewis directly influenced Fuller (although she clearly knew of her predecessor, and commented directly on Forever Free, as you can read below). Despite the similarities that I see between the two, it is important to stress the what divides them: Geographically, Fuller, unlike Lewis, returned to the US permanently after her European training and had much more of a connection to the African-American community of her time than Lewis who lived in Rome, then Paris, and eventually London, and does not seem to have traveled back to the US after the . Stylistically, Fuller, under the influence of Rodin, moved far beyond the neoclassicism that marks Lewis’ work from beginning to end (as far as we know, since we know so little about her work beyond the 1880s). And historically speaking, anti-racist activism (including through art) responds with different strategies to very different challenges that separate Lewis’ abolitionist art in the 1860s and 1870s from Fuller’s investment in Progressive “uplift suasion” and the work of the early NAACP against white violence, lynching, and the third resurgence of the Klan in the 1910s and 1920s. But by drawing connections between these works, I hope to show some of the through lines in terms of their activist art and also in terms of the limitations that both artists experienced in creating this kind of art as Black women–through lines that became clearer to me as I looked at, and thought about, these works in conjunction.

Forever Free (1867) and Emancipation (1913)

When it comes to Lewis’ Forever Free and Fuller’s Emancipation, the thematic link is obvious, even as material (marble vs. bronze) and size (41 1/2 inches/105 cm vs. 84 inches/213 cm) are quite different. Both explicitly celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863–Lewis immediately after the Civil War, and Fuller on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1913, celebrated with many expositions, parades, and other commemorative activities, especially in Black communities in the Northern states. Fuller’s work was, in fact, commissioned (by none other than W.E.B. Du Bois, whom Fuller knew personally) for the Emancipation Exposition in New York City, and prominently displayed, in painted plaster, in the “Temple of Beauty in the Great Court of Freedom” at the center of the exposition.*

It’s important to understand that both of these sculptures were unusual for their time in terms of how they depicted the newly emancipated–even as Fuller breaks with more conventions than Lewis. In the Forever Free post on this site, you can read in more detail about how Lewis’ decision to represent the Black freedman standing upright made her work stand apart from the usual depiction of the freed enslaved person kneeling in gratitude (for example, in Thomas Ball’s Emancipation Memorial from 1876). The man, shown with ethnically “African” features, standing erect, semi-nude, and with his arm raised in a gesture that is both triumphant and grateful, is clearly a predecessor of Fuller’s Black male figure. But (as I also discuss in more detail) Lewis’ female figure is kneeling, clothed, and seemingly under the protection of the freedman; she has the conventional “white” features of neoclassical females, and unlike the man, she is also still shackled.**

Fuller clearly understood the conventional gendering in Lewis’ work, although it is not clear that she objected–she told a friend that in Forever Free, “The man accepts [freedom] as a glorious victory, while the woman looks upon it as a precious gift.”*** But in her own Emancipation sculpture, she did not follow that precedent of emphasizing gender difference, and instead presented the male and female figures as equals, both standing tall against an enormous tree trunk, as if they were about to step away from it. Fuller herself described what the sculpture was supposed to represent: “Humanity weeping over her suddenly freed children, who, beneath the gnarled fingers of Fate, step forth into the world, unafraid”*** (Murray p. 56-57). The two young people are not looking at each other or in the same direction, since they stand at a right angle to each other, and, unlike Lewis’ pair, they are not touching. While they are about to leave behind the tree (which I interpret allegorically as slavery, firmly rooted in the society from which it sprang), they might not be going into the same direction if they follow their gaze–nothing indicates that they are bound together any more than they are bound to the tree. If anything, the female figures is a bit ahead of the male in “stepping forth into the world” because her right foot is forward, while his feet are both firmly planted as if still part of the root system that connects him to the tree).

In addition, Fuller also treats the two figures as equals in giving both ethnically Black figures (Fuller herself actually described these two figures as of a “mixed race” but did not specify further what she meant) and by representing them both as semi-nudes. Representing the woman with a bare upper torso and with Black features was doubly daring, even as this sculpture looks so tame to our 21st-century eyes: Combining female nudity and Blackness meant running the risk of triggering horrid racist and sexist stereotyping on, since Black women were so often represented as hypersexualized, animal-like, and seductive (something often referred to as the Jezebel stereotype). That in turn meant that it could also come under criticism from Black activists that wanted to make sure these stereotypes were not triggered, and who wanted their art to be non-controversial, if not conventional, to demonstrate, in the name of “Black uplift,” that Blacks were just as talented and capable as artists (and writers and musicians and scholars and politicians etc.) as the whites that held on to these racist stereotypes.

Fuller likely tried to steer against these risks by giving her figures their stern expressions and the near-hieratic stance (though not the body styles) of Egyptian, Babylonian or pre-classical Greek figures (like the archaic Greek kouroi and korai). And yet, the organizers of the Emancipation Exposition–or at least Du Bois himself, who had commissioned the piece–were apparently somewhat disappointed with the piece, as Fuller recalled later in personal correspondence and in interviews (you can read more about this in Ater’s book, where the sculpture and the commission are discussed in detail on pp.73-100). But even if they did think the semi-nude figures were scandalous or inappropriate, the sculpture was still prominently displayed at the Exposition (with an image later included in The Crisis).

Unlike Lewis, Fuller presents the two freed formerly enslaved people in a larger context–provided by both the tree, and the allegorical “Humanity,” the third figure, a woman standing sideways to the right of the young man, with her head turned away from us toward the tree, shielding her eyes with her lower arm. Humanity does not appear the emancipated man and woman’s liberator, or an agent in their liberation, but as an anxious bystander whose touch of the man’s shoulder might signale support or even a blessing as they move forward, but whose sorrow and averted face bespeak her worry for them and for the troubles lying ahead.

And if the tree behind around which the three figures are grouped represents the “fate” of slavery, as I would argue, it is a pivotal part of the allegorical representation of emancipation. Its massive, gnarled roots, on which the two figures are still standing, go deep and represent much more than the slavery of the past—they represent the far reaches o its legacy. As Fuller told Murray for his essay on her sculpture, the “The Negro has been emancipated from slavery, but not from the curse of race hatred and prejudice”*** from which Black people, in Fuller’s and many other Black activists’ view, had not been freed by 1913 (and from which “Humanity” seems to be unwilling to free itself, even as it hides its head in shame and fear). To Fuller, its branches were “the fingers of Fate grasping at them to draw them back into the fateful clutches of hatred.”*** The youth of the two figures implies that slavery is their point of origin, and emancipation their true beginning as fully acknowledged human beings. Even as they may not be younger than Lewis’ couple, they seem to have a lot of growing to do. Their stern, unsmiling faces convey not triumph, like Lewis’ male, or gratitude, like her female, but the courage and stoicism it takes to face what is coming (and in 1913, is already known to have come) after Emancipation, in terms of racist oppression and white supremacist backlash decade after decade, during and especially after Reconstruction.  

Stylistically, this sculpture is very hard to categorize. As the representation of an idea, it partly still evokes 19th-century allegorical sculpture, and the physical features of the two figures are classically sculpted. In that respect, it has only deviated part way from Lewis’ Neoclassicism, but given the emotional weight of the ideas that are expressed here, it also owes much to the Symbolist and Expressionist sculptures of Rodin, who was an enormous influence on Fuller’s early figures and made their mark on the way she represents the tree. Not only does its rough bark show the hallmark traces of carving and shaping tools; the gnarls and fantastic twists and turns, the chopped of branches and the almost torso-like quality of the tree’s “backside” (where there is no figure) evoke Rodin. His imprint is also visible in the next sculpture I want to compare to a work of Lewis’, but in which Fuller withdraws from the idea of representing a Black female in the nude (as far as I know, she never again created a nude or semi-nude female sculpture for public display), but explores once more how she can address plight of Black people in America in her own time.

* The Exposition was held from October 22 to 31, 1913, at the Twelfth Regiment Armory on 62nd St., and the organizers reported in the Crisis (the NAACP’s widely-circulated magazine) that about 30,000 people attended, most of them Black. The sculpture was not cast in bronze until 1998, by the National Center of Afro-American Artists and the Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket, for display at Harriet Tubman Square in Boston.

** I have not been able to inspect the sculpture at Howard University to see this detail, but according to a video lecture Kirsten Buick gave at for the UK’s Public Statues and Sculpture Association (18 May 2021), the woman’s ankles are not only in shackles, but these are represented as still chained to the base of the sculpture, whereas the shackles on the man’s wrist are broken and the ball and chain under his foot no longer tethered. Whether this is a sly protofeminist dig at the lack of freedom of freedwomen with respect to their husbands is very hard to say.

*** The quotations in this segment are all from Freeman Henry Morris Murray’s Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: A Study in Interpretation (Washington DC: Murray Brothers, 1916). Murray became a personal friend of Fuller’s, and one of his chapters in the book focuses exclusively on her Emancipation. For Fuller on Lewis, see p. 225. The passages about her own work are from pp.56-57, and two of them (“Humanity…” and “The Negro…”) are engraved on the pedestal of the bronze cast at Harriet Tubman Square.

Hagar and Mary Turner: A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence

~ In the Works! ~

Media alternatives:

(1) A video I made for a class about the 1913 Emancipation. Again, disclaimer: I am NOT a pro at videography, and this is just a Power Point lecture, with “ums” and stumbles.

Meta Fuller’s Emancipation