Posted by: Shatyra Jones
Born in 1877 and raised in an affluent African-American family that was able to maintain its status by being afforded the opportunity to conduct business with wealthy, white clients in their home of Philadelphia for most of the year and from an outpost in Atlantic City, a popular getaway destination for their clientele, during the summer months, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller spent her childhood enjoying such privileged activities as museum and theater visits, horseback riding lessons, dance classes, and having her artistic sensibilities nurtured and supported by her family from a young age. She achieved an illustrious list of impressive accomplishments from the beginnings of her academic career through earning a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Museum and School of the Industrial Arts (now University of the Arts), from which she graduated with honors in 1899.
Making her arrival in Paris in the fall of that same year, she attended classes at Académie Colarossi and the École des Beaux-Arts, became somewhat of a darling of the Parisian art community, was invited to present her works in several esteemed salons, gained well-known patrons that ensured her ability to create free from the stress of financial worries, and was personally invited by none other than François Auguste René Rodin himself to study as his apprentice during her last year abroad after he beheld some of her works and deemed that she was worthy of his mentorship. In Paris, Fuller also met and befriended W.E.B. DuBois, who suggested that she use her talent and voice to make a “specialty of Negro types” of art, a proposal she initially did not give too much consideration.
Upon returning to her home of America and seeing that she was still shunned because of her race and gender, however, she began to feel differently about his recommendation. While she was able to continue her studies and was still being commissioned for high-profile happenings, she was not valued as highly as she should have been based on her achievements, accolades, and stature in the international art community, and thereby suffered the misfortune so many great African-American female artists before and after her have shared of desiring and being worthy of successes that are denied because of prejudices held by society. This undoubtedly influenced Fuller’s decision to begin to deal with the complexities of African-American identity in her work.
Known by some as the ‘Sculptress of Horrors’, dark themes, present from the beginning of her artistic career, appear to give light to Meta Fuller’s complete, enduring humanity; despite the privileges of an affluent, supportive upbringing, she seems to have always been a conscious, cognizant witness to the depths of which humanity is capable of feeling suffering. This suffering is fully embodied by the wealth of intricate emotions felt by African-Americans under the cruel weight of racial discrimination, and it was a natural progression that she, in keeping with the deeply personal tone her art had taken from early in her career, began creating pieces so deeply rooted in and profoundly representative of the struggle of the African-American identity. All her life, Meta Fuller had been fortunate enough to have seen the economical heights of what African-Americans could be afforded, from the successes her parents had been able to share with her, to growing able to have made a name for herself in her chosen profession, and as a woman had been shown the full weight of what facing racial discrimination could cause. Meta Fuller was a brilliant talent whose works would have held their own against many of the famed sculptors’ of her day, if only they had been given the consideration they deserved.
Meta Fuller married sometime between 1907 and 1909, and she and her husband made their home in Framingham, Massachusetts. She gave birth to three sons in six years and found herself a stunted homemaker, whose husband expected her to fill the traditionally assigned high-society housewife role, while being blatantly opposed to the artistic expression and evolution of the brilliant artist he had married. In an unfortunate turn of events, a 1910 Philadelphia warehouse fire that was by all surviving accounts ‘mysteriously ambiguous’ destroyed sixteen years’ worth of her art, which included all that she had created in Paris, and she became depressed under this and household stresses. It is often gently implied that for a time she became somewhat of a shell of herself, stifled, unable to freely create, devastated by the loss of her works, struggling to meet the demands of a housewife role she did not fit the mold of and maintaining a life in which she raised three boys with a husband who did not properly respect or value her as an equal.
An invitation from DuBois to produce a piece for a commemorative event for the Emancipation Proclamation’s fiftieth anniversary in 1913 seems to have been the spark she needed to reignite her desire for substantial artistic expression. She made a return to creating (in a studio she had built as a secret from her disapproving husband), and did so with pieces centered on the story of the African-American. This appears to have been a relatively prolific period for Fuller, and lasted until she abandoned her art to care for her ailing husband beginning some time in the 1940s. After his 1953 passing, Fuller took a two-year hiatus at a medical facility to recover from a bout of tuberculosis. It was during this time that she discovered a love for writing poetry, one which would stay with her for the rest of her life.
In Framingham, Meta Fuller was involved in civil and women’s rights, world peace efforts, the theater community, the church, her son’s schools, and numerous other causes until her passing in 1968. Fuller was an “active participant in the town’s many cultural and religious activities for more than fifty years,” and because of the affectionate relationship her legacy shares with some townspeople who happen to be alive and well enough to fondly recount anecdotal tales of her days as such, some of Fuller’s works have been on display at the Danforth Museum of Art, and several commissioned public works of hers can still be seen about the town.
While internet searches for her name make it apparent that there has been some niche academic interest in Meta Fuller’s legacy, most literature that exists about her is not available to the general public and is difficult to find. Unfortunately, there is a significant lack of availability of varied information about Fuller, and there are dismally few of her works that have survived the fire or the years. Fuller’s story is lamentably not much one of the glory there is in a life lived successfully evading boundaries, but rather how the boundaries have managed to all but break her legacy in the years since she made such significant strides as an African-American female artist. The passion, depth, force, and power of the works she created and her sheer undeniable talent made her an artist ahead of her time, and despite the lack of credit she receives, she was making significant strides as a bastion of the brilliance the African-American is as capable as any other race of achieving before the Harlem Renaissance that was to begin not long after the height of her success, which she had to achieve on foreign land; independent of a movement, she suffered the consequences imposed upon her for daring to be a black female genius alone, and as such, the evidence that survives of Meta Fuller’s life is remarkably befitting of her legacy.
1. ‘Women of Achievement,’ Documenting the American South, accessed December 1st, 2015, http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/brawley/brawley.html.
2. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, New York, NY.
The Awakening of Ethiopia, by Meta Warrick Fuller, c. 1921.
MooreWomenArtists welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy