Laura Wheeler Waring Biography

Illustrator, Painter, Educator (1887–1948)
An African-American artist and painter, Laura Wheeler Waring created portraits of many well-known figures from the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement.


Born on May 16, 1887, in Hartford, Connecticut, Laura Wheeler Waring was an African-American teacher and artist who became known for her portraits; the subjects she painted include W.E.B. Du Bois and Marian Anderson. A member of the NAACP, Wheeler also contributed many illustrations to its magazine, The Crisis. She died at age 60 on February 3, 1948, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Early Life and Career

Laura Wheeler Waring was born Laura Wheeler on May 16, 1887, in Hartford, Connecticut. Her father was the pastor at a historic African-American church while her mother was a teacher and amateur artist; Wheeler herself began drawing and painting at a young age. Bolstered by her parents' encouragement, she left home in order to pursue her interest in art.

In Pennsylvania, Wheeler became a part-time instructor in art and music at the Cheyney Training School for Teachers (now known as Cheyney University). She also studied at Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1914, she received a scholarship to continue her art studies in Europe. She managed to visit museums in England and France, but had to cut her tour short when World War I erupted.

After returning to the United States, Wheeler resumed working at Cheyney, where she would eventually head the department of art and music. To learn how to best instruct her students in drawing, she took summer classes at Harvard and Columbia universities. In addition to teaching, she also traveled overseas again; on one trip, she was able to study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris.

Harlem Renaissance

Outside of painting, Wheeler—who was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—created illustrations, usually pen-and-ink drawings, for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's magazine, The Crisis, and for its children's publication, the Brownies' Book, throughout the 1920s. Though she enjoyed working with African-American activists like W.E.B. Du Bois, her teaching commitments in Pennsylvania kept her from deeper participation in the Harlem Renaissance.

Artistic Success

Wheeler's paintings included landscapes and still lifes, but she is best known for her work in portraiture, in which she captured both unknown and famous figures. In 1927, the Harmon Foundation—an organization created to acknowledge the achievements of African Americans in the United States—honored her with a gold medal for the portrait Anne Washington Derry (1926). That same year, she became Laura Wheeler Waring upon her marriage to Walter Waring, a fellow teacher.

In the late 1920s, several of Waring's paintings were part of a Harmon Foundation exhibit that featured the work of African-American artists. She was singled out by the foundation once more when eight of her portraits were shown in a 1944 exhibit entitled "Portraits of Outstanding American Citizens of Negro Origin." The well-known figures she painted for this display included Marian Anderson, Jessie Fauset and James Weldon Johnson.


After an extended illness, Waring died at age 60 in Philadelphia on February 3, 1948. Her work, which often fought stereotypes and portrayed accomplished African Americans, was another step on the road toward civil rights. In her lifetime, she had her paintings shown at institutions such as the Brooklyn Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. Today, many of the portraits that make up part of her artistic legacy are in the National Portrait Gallery's permanent collection.

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