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  • Writer's pictureValerie Harris

Found! A Long-lost Painting By Laura Wheeler Waring

Updated: May 7

Valerie Harris ponders Waring self-portrait
Is it your painting, Laura?

“Dear Ms. Harris,

My mother moved to a senior facility prior to passing away in 2016. In downsizing, some of her pictures were moved into a storage space, then to an empty room in my house following her passing. Now retired, I am finally going through the rest of my mother’s things. I believe this painting to be a Wheeler Waring. On the back of the frame was a taped “tag” that is so old that it fell off as I tried to view it.

 Any guidance you can provide would be greatly appreciated!”

This email message was both provocative and timely....


After her experiences abroad, Laura felt less like a student and more than ever like a professional artist. Although her trip had turned into a different type of adventure than she’d hoped for, receiving the Cresson Traveling Scholarship brought additional benefits. The following year, in November 1915, Laura showed for the first time at the Academy as a professional artist, in the fourteenth annual exhibition of the Philadelphia Water Color Club, an organization that had close ties to the Academy’s artist faculty and used its prestigious facility.


Founded in 1900, the Philadelphia Water Color Club was instrumental in not only promoting the medium of water color as serious art, but in raising the visibility of its member artists, particularly the women members. Among the exhibiting artists in the Club’s very first show in 1901 were such noted artists as Cecilia Beaux, and the painter-illustrators, Jessie Wilcox Smith, Violet Oakley and Elizabeth Shippen Green. Fourteen years later, in 1915 these same women were again amply represented, along with the impressionist painter, Mary Cassatt.

Relegated to tiny “Gallery A,” Laura was happy to have three paintings in tempera and watercolor exhibited in the hallowed halls of the Academy, thanks to the Club’s partnership with the school. All three of the paintings featured figures who were ethnically neutral – that is, they were not identifiably Black. This was likely Laura’s way of trying to "fit in" and to have her paintings viewed and accepted without any bias attached. She showed In the Park, a piece reminiscent of her time spent in the Luxembourg Gardens and Afternoon Tea.   

painting of women buying silk in department store
"Silks" by Laura Wheeler Waring c 1914-15, tempera and water color

Documentation shows that the third painting that Laura Wheeler exhibited in her first professional show was Silks—the recently recovered painting that I was queried about.  Congratulations to the owner!

Artist tag on back of found painting
Artist tag on back of found painting


painted figures trying on heirloom lace and jewelry
"Heirlooms" by Laura Wheeler Waring, watercolor, reproduced in 1916 catalog

In November 2016, much of the Philadelphia Water Color Club show travelled to New York after an earlier run that spring at the Art Institute of Chicago. By then Laura had added two more paintings, including one entitled Heirlooms—a pleasant depiction of three female figures examining and trying on pieces of jewelry in a highly decorative bedsitting room. Unfortunately, we don’t have a color reproduction. The vibrant scene demonstrated the influence of her Academy instructor, Henry McCarter, who also showed a penchant for colorful interiors. In February 2017, The Crisis touted the representation of “Miss Laura Wheeler, a colored woman” in the exhibition of the New York Water Color Club, which had reproduced Heirlooms in its catalog. Throughout this exhibition swing, Laura listed her address as Brinton Cottage, Cheyney, Pennsylvania, which was the single women’s residence in which she lived on Cheyney’s campus. 

1916 artists listing showing Laura Wheeler Waring paintings
List of paintings in 1915-17 Philadelphia Water Color Club show

Her acceptance in the Philadelphia Water Color Club exhibitions culminated Laura Wheeler’s experience as a student of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Her tenure there had been a meaningful success. She had, first of all, gained admittance to the prestigious school and, like her hero, Henry O. Tanner, had persevered and held her own as a talented outsider. She had garnered accolades and had her drawing reproduced in the Academy brochure as a sample of exemplary student work. While at the Academy she had placed her first published illustration with The Crisis, an important professional magazine. And she had been awarded the grandest prize of all—the Cresson Travelling Scholarship—so meaningful for both the honor and the pivotal experience of her first trip to Europe. The curtailment of her sojourn caused by the outbreak of World War I only heightened its transformative nature. Returning home unscathed and more confident than ever, she had found even more affirmation by her participation in exhibitions alongside respected Academy faculty and trending alumni. She was one of them—an Academy-trained and affiliated, award-winning artist, with all the cachet the association implied.


Now where could she go from here? How could she parlay these illustrious experiences into greater name recognition and the next level of career success?

© 2023-2026 Valerie Harris. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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