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  • Writer's pictureValerie Harris

A "New Woman" at PAFA

Collage, Laura Wheeler Waring at still life class, PA Academy of Fine Art,
Woman's still life class at PAFA

The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts was founded in 1805 in Philadelphia at a time when the city was considered a cultural and intellectual center. In the ensuing years, the Academy maintained a faculty that was considered one of the most impressive of all American art schools. The artists who taught at the Academy, had studied there, or had exhibited there, were among the most esteemed and highly remunerated on both sides of the Atlantic. They were the ones who most often received substantial commissions, and whose works were bought by wealthy patrons and respected institutions.

For Laura Wheeler, the prestige of the Academy affiliation—the implied cultivation, elegance, and correctness—along with the potential for financial success—aligned with the ideal career she envisioned for herself. If Laura was going to invest in furthering her education as an artist—as her parents had declined to do so—it only made sense that she would do so at the finest art school in the country.

She was quite prepared to be self-supporting, since her ambitions leaned more toward becoming a professional artist than in finding a husband. She had come of age at the turn of the 20th century, a time when empathy for the professional working woman—the “New Woman”—was on the rise, prompting writings on the topic in books, magazines and newspapers.

“Comparatively few artists, men or women, realise (sic) large sums from the sale of easel pictures. There is always a demand for good portraits. Illustrating for magazines and advertisements pays well. Teaching pays best of all……” 

  What Women Can Earn,  E.M. Scott, 1899

Not oblivious to the challenges and slights she might encounter in pursuit of her goal, Laura was hedging her bets by taking the position at Cheyney and vowing to gain teaching credentials during the summer. Determined, however, to follow her dream, Laura submitted her application to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and was accepted as a student in the fall of 1907. She became then and forever more an “Academy-trained artist,” a characterization that she would proudly carry throughout her career, though at times it may have worked against her.

Robert Douglass Jr. portrait, NYPL collection
Robert Douglass Jr., Artist

The lineage of American artists affiliated with the Pennsylvania Academy—having served on its Board, taught or exhibited there or whose work had been acquired for its collection—was a long and distinguished one by the time Laura Wheeler entered those hallowed halls. But there was also a continuum of African American artists—going back three generations--who preceded Laura in seeking professional training at the Academy.  Philadelphia-born painter Robert Douglass, Jr. (1809 -1887) and the eminent Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), as well as the sculptors, May Howard Jackson 1877-1931 and the celebrated Meta Warwick Fuller (1877-1968) all persisted, with varying success, in becoming Academy-trained artists.

May Howard Jackson, featured in Follette's Weekly Magazine, 1912
May Howard Jackson, featured in Follette's Weekly Magazine

Douglass— from a respected, entrepreneurial family among Philadelphia’s colored community—and Tanner each found a measure of support from a white male, well-positioned,   Academy-affiliated artist who took an interest in them. May Howard Jackson, who enrolled in the Academy right out of a Philadelphia public high school, passed through her studies there virtually unnoticed, while Meta Warwick Fuller attended only one brief but successful semester, after already attaining critical success nationally and abroad.

Meta Warrick Fuller, Schomberg Center and her sculpture, Ethiopia, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Meta Warrick Fuller beside her sculpture, Ethiopia

With the exception of Douglass, Laura Wheeler would come to know all of these artists and admire them for their professional achievements. The contrasts and commonalities of their backgrounds notwithstanding, all were influenced by their association with the Academy in two ways specifically: first, an appreciation for traditional portraiture and figurative art, and secondly, the ideal of the worldly, professional artist and the privileged, representative role in society he or she could attain.


Race was also an undeniably influencing factor. Outside of the institution, among their own people especially, the Academy affiliation bestowed the aura of being exceptional and exceptionally well-trained as an artist. Inside PAFA, however, these four artists experienced a degree or marginalization, even hostility, because of their race that had to be withstood along with any professional connections they made that would benefit their careers. 

Upon Laura Wheeler’s arrival, the Academy was experiencing the bustle of creative energy that regularly proclaimed the start of a new artistic season. The annual exhibition was set to open, along with exhibitions by the Society of Miniature Painters and the Philadelphia Water Color Club. The Academy announced that applications for admissions for the fall of 1907 had been twice that of the previous year, the ranks swelled by an increasing number of women. Among these were a certain element of “American girl”— white, mostly affluent, ambitious, young women—who were bent on getting an education and making a success of their lives, which was at least one characteristic shared by Laura Wheeler.  Within months of Laura’s arrival a cadre of outspoken female students, representative of the "New Woman" wrested from the Academy Board the rights to a private chamber to be designated as the girls’ smoking room, where they could take a break from work at their easels and relax with a cigarette.

Laura Wheeler would have never been found smoking cigarettes with her female classmates at the Academy, even if the social standards of the day had permitted it. Managing time off from her duties at Cheyney to accommodate the course schedule, the inconvenience of travelling 44 miles round trip into the city and back before the hour grew too late, was likely enough to make her time at the Academy a strictly business affair. 

Besides which, the emotional distance she would have travelled was even greater than the physical one. When Laura enrolled at PAFA, segregation held sway in Philadelphiain jobs, public education, housing and social services, as well as in most restaurants, hotels, theaters and professional organizations—and she was accustomed to that.

But every day of study among artistic types at the Academy meant leaving behind the sheltered, conservative but nurturing Negro community at Cheyney and entering a competitive, isolating, and complex social structure that was indifferent to her cultural perspective and creative potential.

Unlike her educated sister-colleagues at Cheyney, the black women with whom Laura’s Academy classmates and instructors were familiar, if they were familiar with any at all, were overwhelmingly cooks, house maids, or laundresses—a solution to the perennial “servant problem” bemoaned by mid-to-upper class white households. And here, copying alongside of them from plaster casts of the exalted white physique was Laura Wheeler, a colored girl,

about whom the Academy women were only remotely curious.

Admission card for Laura Wheeler, PAFA Archives
Laura Wheeler's PAFA admission card

Laura would have met the deadpan expressions of her classmates with her usual public demeanor of respectability and reserve, choosing to disregard, as she had been raised to, whatever unpleasantness or slights were projected her way. It was perhaps years later that an Academy administrator would scrawl in red ink and boldly underline on Laura Wheeler’s student admittance card the word: colored –a fact important enough at the time to be forever noted in the annals of the Academy.




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