Laura Wheeler Waring (1877-1948), signed recto upper right and verso; n.d; oil on canvas, Portrait of James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938). [Inscription verso in gray paint, apparently in the artist's hand: "James Weldon Johnson / (1871-1938) / Writer - Poet -
Teacher /  Painted By /  Laura Wheeler Waring”]  [Provenance: Estate of Mildred Lee Powery, Philadelphia] [Apparently original toned gold and carved frame]  36" h x 30" w =  image; 41 ½” h x 34 ½” w = frame]

Wheeler Waring and her friend Betsy Reyneau were commissioned by the Harmon Foundation in the late 1930s to paint a group of portraits of noteworthy African American leaders of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In a groundbreaking moment for the presentation of African American art in a major national venue, these works were exhibited at the National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington in 1944, and then toured the United States in several significant settings. This body of work now resides in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. The portrait of James Weldon Johnson offered in this sale is a closely related version of the work at the Smithsonian, with mostly minor compositional differences, but clearly the same painterly execution. Johnson’s image and position within the picture plane are virtually identical in both works, but despite similar truncation of the mountain peaks, the perspective of the background landscape and the figures which it contains is broader and more distant in the Smithsonian version. That version lacks the ledge which serves to separate the sitter from the background in this work. The other significant compositional difference is the rendering of a narrow red curtain at the left edge of this painting, behind the sitter, which does not appear in the Smithsonian version. Interestingly, the powerful 1932 photographic portrait of Johnson by Carl Van Vechten incorporates a rather wider curtain behind his left shoulder. It is possible that Waring may have adapted this element as an homage to the Van Vechten portrait. There are other differences in detail, as for example the rendering of reflected light upon the sitter’s suit jacket and upon the mountains, and the somewhat plainer chair back in this example. The dimensions of the two canvases are identical; the Smithsonian work carries a date of 1943 though the version here is not dated. While it would not have been unusual for the artist to have created more than one finished version for a commission of this magnitude, it is not clear whether either Waring or Reyneau did so other than for the Johnson portrait.

James Weldon Johnson was an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance, and as a lawyer, civic leader, political activist, composer, and literary light, an extraordinary Renaissance Man. A key operative of the NAACP from 1917, he became the organization’s first black executive secretary in 1920 and held that position for a decade during the period of NAACP’s first major expansion and series of legal challenges to African American disenfranchisement. Johnson then returned to his early focus as an  educator, and served as a university professor for the rest of his life. He became the first black person to join the faculty of New York University. Throughout his career, Johnson was a prolific author, poet, and trailblazing creator of anthologies within an African American context. His legacy rests largely in that sphere.

CONDITION: Single pinpoint of paint loss within mountains; several scattered small areas of light craquelure. UV analysis reveals no other evident issues.