Introduction to William A. Harper

(Last updated July 15, 2020)

William A. Harper. Frontpiece with title “Mr. William A. Harper, The Rising Negro Artist of the West” in The Voice of the Negro, February 1906.


William A. Harper (1873-1910) was a Canadian-born artist best known for his landscape paintings.  He was born in the village of Canfield, near Cayuga, in Ontario, Canada, the grandson of escaped slaves.  Harper’s mother died when he was just 2 years old, and he was brought up in part by his maternal grandmother, a formidable woman who escaped her owners in West Virginia with three children under the ages of 5, and walked most of the way to Ontario, Canada, arriving sometime before 1840.

Harper immigrated to Illinois in about 1885 to join his father, and eventually attended a year of secondary school in Jacksonville, Illinois.  He enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago (“AIC”) in 1895, where he served as a janitor to put himself through school.  Harper spent summers working and painting at the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony near Oregon, Illinois where he was the protégé of two members of the Colony, Charles Francis Browne and William Wendt.  Harper graduated from the AIC with second honors in 1901.

Following his graduation from the AIC in 1901, Harper accepted a job in Houston, Texas as drawing instructor for the “colored schools” in the Houston public school system.  He taught in Houston for two years, while exhibiting paintings annually in the juried Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, an event jointly managed by the AIC and the Municipal Art League of Chicago.  An article in the Brush and Pencil, Vol. 9, No. 6 (March 1902), an international art magazine published in Chicago, reproduced Harper’s painting entitled “First Show of Autumn”, a rare honor for a young painter. 

In the summer of 1903, Harper traveled to Cornwall, England, painting with one of his mentors William Wendt.  In the fall of 1903, Harper studied at the Académie Julian in Paris, France, a venue favored by many AIC graduates.  While in Paris, he took the opportunity to copy well-known paintings at the Louvre, and to explore and sketch the French countryside.  In the spring of 1904, Harper and Charles Francis Browne, one of his instructors from the AIC and another of his mentors, travelled south of Paris to the area of Barbizon to paint.  Harper’s paintings continued to be regularly accepted in the annual juried Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, and the exhibition catalogues from those years contain numerous paintings of scenes in Cornwall and the environs of Paris (including Montigny).

By 1905, Harper was back in Chicago, once again working at the AIC to support his painting career, this time as a night watchman.  He continued to paint and exhibit annually in the juried Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists and in the exhibitions of the Society of Western Artists.  He won the Municipal Art League prize in 1905 and the Young Fortnightly Club award in 1908.   Such was the esteem in which Harper was held by his fellow artists that he was elected to one of the Juries of Selection for the Eighteenth Annual Exhibition of the Paintings and Sculpture of American Artists in 1905, and again for the Twenty-First Annual Exhibition of the Paintings and Sculpture of American Artists in 1908.

Harper made a second trip to France in 1907, this time reportedly studying informally with Henry Ossawa Tanner, the respected American expatriate artist, who had homes in both Paris and the north of France.  Harper continued to paint in the French countryside, and during this time his work began to take on a somewhat lighter palette and more impressionistic style.

By 1908, Harper’s health was failing, and he moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico.  He nevertheless continued to paint until his death in early 1910 from consumption (tuberculosis). Following his death, the AIC featured a one-man exhibition of sixty of Harper’s paintings, probably the first major museum show for a black artist in the United States.

For more detail on Harper’s life, including source references, see the chapters below by clicking on the title in each box:

Family History and Early Years- Last updated July 13, 2020.

Education -Last updated July 15, 2020

Teaching in Houston, Texas – Last updated July 15, 2020

First Trip to Europe – Last updated July 23, 2020

Interim Years – Last updated July 29, 2020

Final Years – Last updated August 3, 2020

Memorial Exhibition at the AIC

  • Epilogue, or The Rest of the Story