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  • Writer's pictureValerie Harris

"I did it! I've won!"

A young Laura Wheeler, artist.
Miss Laura Wheeler, artist

A major benefit of attending the Academy was the opportunity to compete for cash prizes and scholarships. There were several awards for which students were eligible but the one that Laura Wheeler coveted, as did a great many students, was the Cresson Travelling Scholarship. While the other prizes offered cash awards ranging from $300 for a first-place painting and $100 for a winning sculpture, the Cresson Travelling Scholarship was a whopping $500 to cover the expenses of four months –from June through September—visiting the important galleries and art schools of Europe. One needed to have studied at the Academy for at least two years to be eligible for the Cresson. The recommendation of your instructor was also required, based on the quality of work submitted each month as assigned.

 The Cresson was also unique in that students enrolled in every area of instruction—painting, sculpture, and illustration—were eligible to compete. Particularly meritorious students might receive the award multiple times. While there were many Academy students who could spend a summer or even longer touring and working in Europe without benefit of a scholarship, there were certainly more for whom financial sponsorship was a necessity. Competition was keen.


As most at the Academy were enrolled in the Department of Drawing and Painting, there was always a larger number of painters, proportionately, awarded the Cresson. Between 1910 and 1914, never fewer than 13 Cressons went to painters each year, never more than six to illustrators, and most often only two went to sculptors.

Laura Wheeler in illustration class collage at
PAFA Illustration Class

In the fall of 1909, Laura took her first class in the Department of Illustration, the stated purpose of which was to prepare students to enter the professional field of magazine, book, and newspaper illustration.

The Academy’s attitude toward illustration was complicated. While works on paper were no longer included in the annual exhibitions, the field of illustration had not yet been relegated to minor-league status, subservient to fine art. Popular magazines proudly focused  on the illustrations to be found among their pages. Charles Dana Gibson, originator of the widely publicized and iconic “Gibson Girl,” had studied painting but was hugely successful as an illustrator, commanding an annual salary in the early 1900s of $75,000. The training of illustrators varied little from that of easel painters, and the Academy claimed several notable graduates recognized for their paintings and etchings who boasted significant professional success as illustrators of popular books and periodicals. In the recent and controversial exhibition of modernist art shown by “The Eight”, four of the painters had worked first as newspaper illustrators. It was a field that could prove financially lucrative while claiming cross-over potential to the fine art of painting.

The director of the Illustration Department was Mr. Henry Bainbridge McCarter, who had himself studied at the Academy and was during Laura’s time still actively working as an illustrator of books, and of stories and poems appearing in Harper’s, Scribner’s, and other popular magazines.


Henry McCarter was a short, chubby, bespectacled man, meticulously dressed, hair slicked, mustache and beard closely trimmed, flamboyant in his own way. Of Irish descent, he loved folklore and made a specialty of illustrating scenes of a fantastic Celtic past. A perennial bachelor, McCarter was very social and likely to regale his students with the details of a delightful dinner party he’d attended the night before—the menu, the table setting, what the ladies wore—before imparting some bit of artistic wisdom. It was McCarter's opinion that “To draw well, you must have much repose—and indifference to your neighbor.”

He was probably one of the instructors with whom Laura Wheeler felt most comfortable.

Laura Wheeler illustration, 1912, PA Academy of Fine Art

By May 1912 she was well established in the Illustration Department, and just missed being awarded the Cresson Travelling Scholarship that year. However, she did receive a special commendation. A sample of her work was even reproduced in that fall’s 1912-13 school circular, along with those of the actual winners. Laura’s drawing, of two impoverished, old people, with curved shoulders and gnarled hands with long, tapering fingers remarkably rendered, strikes a distinctly Celtic note. It is an illustration fit for an old English fairy tale, one that Professor McCarter would relate to.

To have her drawing reproduced in the school circular was an honor, but in January 1913 Laura had even greater cause for celebration. One of her illustrations was published on the cover of The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The cover image was of an African American who did not appear as a tattered-clothed destitute, nor a buck-eyed, grinning stereotype. Rather, the gracious, elderly black gentleman  is well-dressed, in a coat, white shirt and a matching cravat, stylishly adorned with a large decorative pin. Under the magazine’s banner and issue title, “The Emancipation Number” the gentleman’s head is slightly bowed, his eyes downcast in an expression of solemnity. 

Laura Wheeler's first cover for The Crisis, 1913

The Crisis cover depicts a man who might have been a parishioner in the church pastored by Laura’s father, or a contemporary of her noted abolitionist grandfather. Here was no European fairy tale, but rather Laura Wheeler’s own reality, a colored man of quiet dignity, one rarely presented in widespread, general audience periodicals of the past or in present day 1912. African Americans in mainstream magazines were unabashedly caricatured and routinely referred to as “niggers” and “darkies.” Even Laura’s favorite professor, Henry McCarter, referred to his Negro chauffeur as “my darkey driver.” If “modern” had anything to do with breaking away from an outmoded tradition of depicting a demeaning and one-dimensional image of African Americans, then Laura’s 1913 cover for The Crisis was her own nod toward “modernism” in illustrative art.


The following year, in May 1914, the coveted Cresson Travelling Scholarship for work in illustration was hers! The Crisis proudly announced the achievement:

“Miss Laura Wheeler, a colored girl of Hartford, Conn., has been awarded a European Traveling Scholarship by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for her work in the Illustration Department.”


What a pivotal time! Not only would she travel to Europe for the first time, but her career as an illustrator was launched. It was the start of a decades-long relationship with The Crisis.




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