Meta W. FullerSep 6th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Painting & Sculpture
1877-1968 Meta Fuller was one of America’s first prominent women sculptors. Her artwork portrays the black experience with deep emotion through the use of figures experiencing both profound suffering and radiant joy.
An Apprenticeship in Paris
Fuller was born in a middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 9, 1877. Her parents, William and Emma Warrick, owned a barbershop and also made wigs. From a young age, it was apparent that Fuller was artistically talented, and as the youngest child—she was a full 10 years younger than her brother and sister—she was given a great deal of encouragement. She attended the prestigious J. Liberty Tadd Art School as a teenager, then continued her education at the Pennsylvania Museum and School for Industrial Art on a full scholarship.
In 1899, Fuller was presented with the unique opportunity to travel to Europe. She arrived in Paris only to find that the American Girls Club, where she had intended to stay, did not rent rooms to black women. Undaunted, Fuller quickly found other lodgings and went to work. Her skill and determination brought her to the attention of the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens who took her under his wing. In 1901, Fuller was invited to visit the studio of Auguste Rodin. She brought along a recent piece of her own work in the hopes that Rodin would accept her as one of his students. Although she was never formally apprenticed under the French master, he became a close friend and vital advocate for Fuller, introducing her to many of the most influential members of the Parisian art community.
It was also in Paris that Fuller met activist W.E.B. Du Bois for the first time. Du Bois became a lifelong champion of Fuller’s work, and suggested on their initial meeting that she use her African American roots as subject matter for her work. At first, Fuller resisted this suggestion, feeling that it would limit the scope of her sculpture. But as she became more interested in Rodin’s expressive use of human emotion, Fuller returned again and again to impassioned depictions of black figures in harsh and difficult situations. Her sculpture, Laughing Man, which was included in the 1902 Victor Hugo Centennial exhibition, explored white stereotypes of Blacks. The figure’s features were distorted and exaggerated until he seemed monstrous and grotesque.
Art and Family
Fuller’s residency in Paris culminated with a solo exhibition at the prestigious L’Art Nouveau gallery. However, on her return to Philadelphia in 1902, she was discouraged by the lack of interest in her work by American galleries and dealers. Fuller was convinced that this indifference was due to the fact that she was black, and as a result, she began to explore racism more prominently in her work. She drew inspiration from African American spirituals and folk songs, incorporating into her work both the hardships of slavery and the joy and spiritual richness that these songs describe.
By holding exhibitions in her studio, Fuller slowly began to overcome the prejudices of the art world. In 1907, she completed a project for the Negro Pavilion at the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition that depicted several scenes of African American life since the first black slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619. Fuller won a gold medal for this sculpture, and more importantly, became the first black woman to receive a federal art commission.
In 1909, Fuller married Dr. Solomon Fuller, a prominent neurologist who had been born in Liberia. The couple moved to Framingham, Massachusetts, where they built the house in which they would live for the rest of their lives. A year after their marriage, a fire in a Philadelphia warehouse destroyed the majority of Fuller’s work. The fire devastated her, and for the next few years, she turned away from art entirely to concentrate on her role as wife and mother.
In an attempt to inspire his friend to return to sculpture, W.E.B. Du Bois asked Fuller to create a work for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1913. The final piece, Spirit of Emancipation, marked a subtle but vital shift in Fuller’s work. Instead of employing literal images of slavery, this piece focused on more universal ideas of freedom and liberty. Other works that Fuller completed at this time tackled the humanitarian issues of atrocity in World War I, famine and civil wars in Africa, and lynchings in the American south.
During the decades that followed this rebirth of her art career, Fuller created works that were aimed at inspiring the African American community. She was particularly concerned with issues of colonialism in Africa and chose subjects that reflected the proud heritage of her black ancestors. To further support the black community, Fuller completed many public commissions for organizations such as Atlanta’s YMCA, and she became a juror for the Harmon Foundation, which gave financial support to emerging African American artists.
In 1950, Fuller closed her studio to care for her invalid husband. After his death, she found herself exhausted and weak with tuberculosis. She did not return to her work until 1956 when she was almost 80. However, this proved to be one of the most prolific decades of Fuller’s lifetime. She completed a memorial for her husband at Framingham Union Hospital portraying black doctors and nurses at work. Fuller also continued to exhibit and sell smaller works, donating the proceeds to the Civil Rights Movement. Political events of this time inspired some of her most moving and expressive works. In the late 1960s, Fuller completed The Crucifixion to commemorate the death of four girls in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Fuller continued to create sculptures until her death, at age 90, on March 18, 1968.