Education –Last updated July 15, 2020

Early Years

According to Harper’s obituary, Harper moved from Cayuga to Petersburg, Illinois, in 1885, at the age of 11, where he attended school[1].  Conflicting information as to the timing of Harper’s immigration to the U.S. is found, however, in the 1900 US Federal Census which indicates that one William Harper, “artist”, born in Canada in December of 1873, immigrated to the US in 1881.  Regardless of his immigration date, all indications are that he joined his father on a farm in Illinois sometime in the 1880’s.[2]  According to the 1914 obituary of Harper’ brother John William Harper, John came to the U.S. in 1888.[3]  It is curious that the two brothers would not have arrived at the same time, but these are the only references that we have at this time as to their immigration dates. 

From boyhood Harper is reported to have shown a talent for art.[4]  According to Florence Lewis Bentley, who appears to have met Harper and wrote a lengthy article about him in 1905, “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.” [5] 

Harper’s obituary further states that in 1891 he moved to Jacksonville, Illinois, a town about 40 miles from Petersburg.  The next reference to Harper is found 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.  It is curious that he would have been listed as from Petersburg if he had in fact moved to Jacksonville in 1891 as indicated in his obituary.  Nevertheless, by 1894, Harper was clearly attending school in Jacksonville. 

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.”[6]

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…”[7]

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

If Harper’s father still lived in Petersburg at this time (and there is not information one way or the other), Harper would 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”.[8]  Students who were not residents of Jacksonville, which would probably 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.[9]  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).  Some secondary sources have erroneously reported that Harper attended college in Jacksonville, when in fact the Whipple Academy was actually a secondary, or college preparatory, school. 

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 Whipple Academy catalogue, our only source of information as to his whereabouts between 1881 and 1895 when he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago (“AIC”) comes from magazine and newspaper articles written later in Harper’s life.

Although it is not known whether Harper and his brother John immigrated at the same time, an article from Decatur, Illinois Daily Republican indicates that by January of 1889, John was living in Decatur.[10]  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.”[11]  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.”[12]

The wedding is recorded in the Illinois, Marriage Index, 1860-1920.  Curiously, there is a listing of a “Harper George (col’d), lab 467 W. Main” in the Decatur, Illinois city directory of 1893, the year of John’s marriage, but no further information as to whether this is the missing younger brother.  George’s name does not appear in any of the Decatur newspaper articles reporting on John’s marriage, but then neither does William’s or his father’s.

A sad note two years later in the Decatur Daily Republican announced the death of John and Eliza’s two week old son:

“John, the two weeks old son of Mr. and Mrs. John Harper, died this morning at the family residence, 1179 East Condit street. The funeral will be held tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 o’clock from the residence.”[13]

In the 1890s John was active in the “Pride Tabernacle No. 36, a benevolent colored organization”[14], the “Decatur Lodge, No. 17, colored Masons” [15], and the Antioch Baptist Church, often as a soloist.[16]  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.[17]  One article entitled “Progressive Colored People in Decatur” from 1902 discussed various residents of Decatur, and noted that:

“John Harper is a truck farmer and has a ten-acre place near the city which is in as fine state of cultivation as any truck farm in this vicinity.”[18]

The article does not indicate whether the reference is to John Harper, Jr. or John Harper. Sr., but it was likely the former since the 1903 Decatur City Directory lists John, Jr.’s address as “res ¾ mile n of city”[19], and his father’s address as being in the city at ”429 E. Cerro Gordo”.

Art Institute of Chicago

Sometime after his year in Jacksonville at the Whipple Academy, Harper moved to Chicago and enrolled at the AIC .  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[20]secretary of the AIC.  He was made janitor of the building and between his duties in that capacity studied art, drawing and painting.”[21] 

In the words of another newspaper article, “When he was not scrubbing floors and washing windows he was studying pictures and drawing.”[22] 

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[23] 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”.  Note the ambiguity as to Harper’s home town.

The students of the Art Institute annually held an “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.[24]  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, and there is no indication as to whether any sold.

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. This recognition was certainly an honor for a student.

During his time at the AIC Harper developed friendships with 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,[25] 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.[26] 

Albert Krehbiel, who was in Harper’s Advance Life Class in his final year, seems to have formed a particularly close friendship with Harper, and is the source of most of the information that is available regarding Harper during his time in Paris from the fall of 1903 through the spring of 1904.  Dulah Evans, who would become the finance of Albert Krehbiel, was in Harper’s Saturday Normal Class (1900-01) and Advance Life Class (1899-1900).  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. 

Returning to the subject of the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony, the founding members were educators, some teaching at the AIC.[27]  Taft started a mentoring program at Eagle’s Nest whereby students known as “camp boys” were invited to the camp to assist the artists in their studios, and thereby gain invaluable on-site instruction.[28]  Elizabeth Dickerson Palmer, the daughter of James Spencer Dickerson, one of the founders of Eagle’s Nest, wrote “An account of the Eagle’s Nest Camp” in 1958, in which she described the camp: 

“The first summers were exciting.  The artists were young, their reputations lay ahead of them; they were poor, but there was work to be done – they were eager and gay and confident….There were students spending the summer, there were teachers and musicians, there were writers and social workers and business men; in fact, anyone interested in or connected with the arts who happened to be in or near Chicago sooner or later turned up for a week-end, often for several week-ends.” 

Palmer specifically remembered Harper:

“Harper, a gifted student of Mr. Browne’s belongs to those early days, too.  He waited on the table when it stood outdoors under a tent-fly, and painted in his spare time.  When that was it’s a mystery, but I remember one exhibition of his oil paintings that showed real talent.”

In 1905, an article in the Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), February 9, 1905, p. 5, reporting on an exhibition opening at the AIC which included paintings by Harper, addressed the Eagle’s Nest:

“Harper, incidentally, is a great favorite at the Eagle’s Nest in summer, where he goes each summer as ‘assistant’ in a general work sense.  ‘He is so handsome and well mannered,’ said one of the artists to me yesterday as we talked over the exhibit, ‘that we scarcely have the face to ask him for service; though, for that matter, he is perfect in manner, and never intrudes his admirable personality.  His self-effacement is a part of his personal charm.  But it is his work that has commanded our genuine admiration and respect.’ “

Harper would not have been at the Eagle’s Nest during the summers of 1903 and 1904 since he was in Europe, so the discussion must have related to his work at the camp during the earlier summers, either during his school days or his later teaching years.

The only other information available about Harper during this time frame comes from the 1900 United States Federal Census, and may show that he spent at least one summer (or a part thereof) in Michigan.  On June 1, 1900, William Harper (per the census single, birthdate December 1873 in Canada) is listed as an artist living with Stephen (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 Frances by another name since Margrett’s birthdate is four years earlier than that of Frances.  In any event, the 1880 marriage records for Margrett and Stephen indicate that her maiden name was “Leop”[29].  Like Harper, however, Margrett is listed as having been born in Canada.  In the 1900 census, Margrett’s date of entry into 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.  More significantly, however, the Canadian census records show him in Canada in 1881.

The same 1900 US Federal Census shows Harper’s brother, John W. Harper (laborer) and his wife Eliza as living in Decatur, Illinois, which information is consistent with the Decatur, Illinois newspaper articles.

Harper graduated from the AIC “with the second honors” in 1901[30], presumably meaning that he placed second in his graduating class.

[1] Obituary, op. cit.

[2] There is a reference in a 1910 article in the Decatur Herald to William’s “parents”, but since his biological mother died in 1876 must have been referring to either the woman that his father married in 1877 or a later wife.

[3] “Deaths”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), May 23, 1914, p. 8.

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

[5] “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.

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

[7] Ibid., p. 69.

[8] Ibid., p. 87.

[9] Ibid., p. 90-91

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

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

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

[13] “Death of An Infant”, Decatur Daily Republican (Decatur, Illinois), November 2, 1895, p. 8.  John W. Harper “(col’d), packer Shellabarger Mill Co” was the only John Harper listed in the 1895 Decatur City Directory.

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

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

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

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

[18] “Progressive Colored People in Decatur”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), January 12, 1902, p. 15.

[19] The 1907 Decatur City Directory more specifically lists that address as “rural route No. 3.”

[20] 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.

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

[22] 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.

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

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

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

[26]  “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.

[27] Art and Beauty in the Heartland, by Jan Stilson, AuthorHouse, 2006, p. 113.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Michigan, County Marriage Records, 1822-40.  No Leop of Margrett’s age appears in the Canadian census records.

[30]  Catalogue for the memorial “Exhibition of Paintings of William A. Harper” held at the AIC from July 26 to August 28, 1910.