Education – Last updated May 13, 2020

Early Years

In 1885, at the age of 11, Harper moved from Cayuga to Petersburg, Illinois, attending school there[1].  All indications are that he joined his father on a farm at that time.[2]  From boyhood Harper is reported to have shown a talent for art.[3]  According to Florence Lewis Bentley, who appears to have met Harper in 1905 and wrote a lengthy article about him, “It is to these early days in the country that the artist owes his deep understanding of Nature’s moods, and it is there where he formed the determination to follow the elusive Mistress Art; leaving all others to cleave only unto her.” [4] 

By 1894, Harper was attending school in Jacksonville, Illinois, about 40 miles from Petersburg.  Some secondary sources have reported that he attended college in Jacksonville, but in fact he attended a secondary, or college preparatory, school there.  In the Catalogue of Illinois College and Whipple Academy of Jacksonville, Illinois for the school calendar year 1894 to 1895, William Harper of Petersburg is listed on page 100 as a junior in the Whipple Academy.  The Whipple Academy was essentially a college preparatory school described in the Catalogue as follows:

“Whipple Academy, the Preparatory Department of Illinois College, is a secondary school of high grade.  In addition to fitting its graduates for admission to Illinois College or to any college or university in the country, it affords special advantages for the pursuit of English and business courses of study and for young teachers who wish to qualify themselves for higher grades of work.”[5]

“Under the direction and management of the trustees of the Illinois College, but was maintained as a separate and distinct institution, Whipple Academy offers superior advantages in preparation for college…”[6]

The instruction was given by the regular college professors, and the Academy students had the benefit of the college library, laboratories and apparatus.  Tuition charges were as follows:

Fall Term                    $18.00

Winter Term                $15.00

Spring Term                $12.00

Given the distance from Petersburg to Jacksonville, Harper must have boarded in Jacksonville, but whether at the college or in town is unknown.  According to the regulations in the Catalogue, Academy students were required to attend morning prayers, and “to yield a cheerful obedience to the regulations of the institution”.[7]  Students who were not residents of Jacksonville, which would have included Harper, were not allowed to leave the city at any time without the prior permission of the Principal.  According to the Program of Study for juniors, Harper would have studied, among other things, rhetoric, Latin, algebra, literature, and botany.[8]  Notably, there were no classes in art.  Harper must have been there only one year since he does not appear in the prior year catalogue (1893-1894) or the subsequent year catalogue (1895-96).

Unfortunately, U.S. Census records for 1890 no longer exist for most of Illinois, having been destroyed in 1921 by a fire in the Commerce Department Building in Washington, D.C.  Accordingly, other than the above referenced Illinois College catalogue, magazine and newspaper articles written later in Harper’s life are our only source of information as to his whereabouts between 1881 and 1895 when he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago (“AIC”).

It is not known whether Harper and his brother John Harper immigrated at the same time, but an article from Decatur, Illinois Daily Republican indicates that by January of 1889, John was living in Decatur.[9]  The paper reported that:

“Last night there was a pleasant holiday social surprise party at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Mauzee on South Franklin street, at which there was music, dancing and a fin supper at 12 o’clock.  The company included…Eliza Kinney…John Harper….”

The relationship between Eliza and John blossomed, and on March 15, 1893, the Decatur Herald announced that “The cards are out announcing the approaching nuptials of John W. Harper and Miss Eliza Kenney, well known young people in colored society.”[10]  The paper subsequently reported that

“At the home of Mrs. Hannah Kinney on West Marietta street, at 8 o’clock on Tuesday evening, March 21, her daughter, Eliza, was married to John W. Harper…The bride wore a prettily made costume of white china silk, her ornaments being natural flowers.  A large number of guests were present, and after the ceremony a splendid supper was served.  The young couple received a number of handsome presents, and will commence housekeeping on West Decatur street.  The groom is an employe[sic] of the Shellaburger Mill and Elevator company, and is a worthy young man.”[11]

The wedding appears to have taken place in Macon, Illinois.[12] 

John was active in the “Pride Tabernacle No. 36, a benevolent colored organization”[13], the “Decatur Lodge, No. 17, colored Masons” [14], and the Antioch Baptist Church, often as a soloist.[15]  Various Decatur newspaper articles indicate that John Harper, Sr. (Harper’s father) was also present in Decatur at least by 1902, and was also active in the Antioch Baptist Church.[16]

No further record after the 1881 Canadian census, either in Canada or the U.S., has been found as to the whereabouts of Harper’s older sister Frances and his youngest brother George.  They have simply vanished. 

Art Institute of Chicago

Sometime after his year in Jacksonville at the Whipple Adademy, Harper moved to Chicago.  He enrolled at the AIC in [1895].  According to a later article from the Chicago News,

“Harper came to Chicago some years ago without money.  He dreamed of art and soon found a friend in George B. Carper[17]secretary of the AIC.  He was made janitor of the building and between his duties in that capacity studied art, drawing and painting.”[18] 

In the words of another newspaper article, “When he was not scrubbing floors and washing windows he was studying pictures and drawing.”[19] 

The Circular of Instruction of the School of Drawing, Painting, Modelling, Decorative Designing and Architecture for the AIC (“Circular”) of that time states that the school year was made up of three terms of twelve weeks each, beginning in October and ending in June.  The tuition for one term was $25.00, making tuition for the full year $75.00.  Pupils could enter the school without examination.  They were not assigned to special classes until the first monthly examination after their entrance, when their work was considered by the board of teachers.  They were then classified “in accordance with their attainments”.  The school of drawing and painting was divided into four classes through which the student was expected to pass in succession.  The classes were:  1.  Elementary, 2.  Intermediate, 3. Antique, and 4. Life.  Promotion from class to class was made through examinations held every four weeks.  The Diploma of the school was conferred upon students who held the rank of Life Students for two years and who passed certain final examinations. 

Records as to Harper’s classes in his first year of 1895-96 are not available.  He must have progressed through the Elementary, Intermediate, and Antique classes fairly rapidly, however, because by 1996 he had already been promoted to the Life Class.  AIC records[20] show that Harper’s classes for the balance of his time at the AIC were as follows:

1896-97:          Life Class – Home:  Jacksonville, Ill.

1897-98:          Life Class – Home:  Petersburg, Ill.

1898-99:          Life Class – Home:  Jacksonville, Ill.

                        Saturday Normal Class

1899-1900       Advanced Life Class:  Petersburg, Ill.

1900-01           Saturday Normal Class

The Saturday Normal Class was a class designed for those students who intended to be “teachers of drawing in public schools”. 

The students of the Art Institute held an Annual Exhibition of Art Students’ League of Chicago.  This was a juried exhibition.  For the December 19 – December 31,1899 exhibition, four landscapes and one black and white by Harper were accepted.  The landscapes are listed in the catalogue for that exhibition as numbers 40-43, being priced from $5.00 to $25.00.  The black and white is listed as number 218, and is entitled “Charlie”, priced at $2.50.  The Chicago Tribune reported that three items were sold from the exhibition, including one landscape in oil by Harper.[21]  For the January 31 – February 24, 1901 exhibition, three landscapes by Harper were accepted.  They are listed in the exhibition catalogue as follows:

            32.       Midday.  Oil

            33.       August.  Oil

            34.       The meadow.  Oil.

No prices were given in that catalogue.

The Circular for the year 1900-01, which included a Catalogue of Students for 1899-1900, reproduced one of Harper’s oil paintings on p. 87 which was a nude labeled “Oil from Life.  William Harper”.  This same painting was also reproduced in 1901 in The Brush and Pencil, Vol. 7, No. 6 (Mar., 1901) p. 369, an international art magazine published in Chicago, certainly an honor for a student.

During his time at the AIC Harper developed friendships of a number of instructors, artists, and fellow students with whom he would continue to associate over the years.  Charles Francis Browne taught “Antique and History of Art” and Lorado Taft, the sculptor, taught modeling at the AIC.  The two instructors were founding members of the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony (“Eagle’s Nest”), a retreat dedicated to the arts established in 1898 in Oregon, Illinois,[22] and took an interest in Harper inviting him to both work and paint in the summers at the Eagle’s Nest.  A fellow artist William Wendt was also a member of the Eagle’s Nest.  Both Browne and Wendt are described as mentors of Harper during his AIC days and thereafter.[23] 

Albert Krehbiel, who was in Harper’s Advance Life Class in his final year, seems to have formed a close friendship with Harper, and is the source of most of the information that is available regarding Harper’s time in Paris in 1903-04.  Dulah Evans, who would become the finance of Albert Krehbiel, was in Harper’s Saturday Normal Class and Advance Life Class.  Other AIC students with whom Harper would associate with later in Paris include Worthington E. Hagerman, Willliam E. Cook, Leon Lorado Merton Gruenhagen, and Henry Salem.

One other fellow student should also be mentioned.  Blanche Williams was a student from Eureka Springs, Arkansas, who went on to teach in the public school system in Houston, Texas, preceding Harper there by one year.  AIC records show that in 1897-98 she was in the Life Class with Harper. 

The only other information available about Harper during this time frame comes from the 1900 United States Federal Census, and may show where he spent at least one summer.  On June 1, 1900, William Harper (single, birthdate December 1873 in Canada) is listed as an artist living with Steaphen (sp?) (barber) and Margrett Egbert (music teacher) in Armada Village, Armada Township, Michigan.  His relationship to the head of family is “bro-in-law”, which is curious since records to not show that he had a sister named Margrett, and Margrett cannot be Francis by another name since her birthdate is four years earlier than that of Francis.  Like Harper, however, Margrett is listed as having been born in Canada.  Her date of citizenship in the U.S. is noted as 1873, while Harper’s is listed as 1881.  This U.S. census record is inconsistent with Harper’s Obituary which states that he came to the U.S. in 1885 at the age of 11.  Moreover, the Canadian census records show him in Canada in 1881.

[Summers:  Eagles Nest – Exactly when?  Also after school?  Need further research.]

[1] Obituary, op. cit.

[2] There is a reference in a 1910 article in the Decatur Herald to William’s “parents”, which suggests that his father may have remarried sometime following the death of William’s mother.

[3] “Colored Artist Dies in Mexico”, Decatur Herald, March 30, 1910, p. 12

[4] “William A. Harper” by Bentley, Florence L. (January 1906) in The Voice of the Negro; Obituary, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 4, No. 1 (July 1910), p. 11.

[5] Catalogue of Illinois College and Whipple Academy of Jacksonville, Illinois for the school calendar year 1894 to 1895, p. 10.

[6] Ibid., p. 69.

[7] Ibid., p. 87.

[8] Ibid., p. 90-91

[9] See Decatur Daily Republican (Decatur, Illinois), January 3, 1889, p. 3;.

[10] Decatur Herald, “A Wedding Announced”, March 15, 1893, p. 8

[11] Decatur Herald, “Wedding in Colored Society”, March 23, 1893, p 5.

[12] Illinois, Marriage Index, 1860-1920.

[13] “Officers Elected”, The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), April 9, 1890, p. 3

[14]“Twenty-Sixth Anniversary”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), January 26, 1897. p. 7.

[15] The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), May 3, 1899, p. 7.

[16] The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), December 28, 1902, p. 8

[17] This name is probably incorrect if intended to refer to the Secretary of the AIC.  The actual name of the Secretary at that time was Newton H. Carpenter.

[18] Chicago News, “Colored Man Wins Position”, February 6, 1905.

[19] Decatur Daily Review, “Negro Janitor, A Prize Artist”, February 3, 1905, p. 3.  See also, Jamestown N.Y. Journal, February 4, 1905 –  From AIC Scrapbook.

[20] Catalogue of Students and their classes published with the Art Institute’s annual Circular..

[21] “The Field of Art”, Chicago Tribune, December 24, 1899, p 36.

[22] “The Eagle’s Nest”, Brush and Pencil, Vol. 2, No. 6 (Sep., 1898), pp. 269-275.

[23]  “Paintings of Note in Art Collection, Opening of Exhibit on Fourth”, Ogle County Reporter, Vol. LXVII, No. 38, July 10, 1918, reproduced in The Art of Oregon, by Beth Baker Simeone, 2015.