Epilogue, or The Rest of the Story

Epilogue, or The Rest of the Story

Harper’s untimely death meant a fall from the general public conscience of a promising and upcoming artist. But even though his works no longer appeared in the regular Chicago exhibitions, he was not altogether forgotten. 

Many of Harper’s paintings were clearly sold in Chicago.  A significant number of his works, however, remained in Decatur, Illinois following his death and were purchased by local residents.  In 1922, an exhibit was held at the Decatur Art Institute which contained 34 paintings by Harper.  Those paintings were owned and loaned by five different individuals.[1]  According to the Decatur Herald:

“There are in addition in the north room and hall more than 30 paintings by the late William Harper of Decatur, an artist better known in France than in his home country in his lifetime, but whose works are gaining in value every year.”[2]

Harper would continue to be remembered in Decatur at the Decatur Art Center, and in 1959 the Center would own three of his paintings.[3]  One of those paintings, “Landscape (Brittany)”, appears to be the one acquired by the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia in 2019.[4]  See the “Paintings Gallery” on this website.

Outside of Decatur, Harper’s paintings continued to appear occasionally in exhibitions, mainly of black artists.  In 1927, an exhibition of the works of “modern Negro painters and sculptors” held at the AIC included works by both Harper and Tanner.  The catalogue for the exhibition was entitled “The Negro in Art Week” and listed four paintings by Harper loaned by four different individuals, all paintings helpfully entitled “Landscape”.  Four paintings by Tanner were likewise included in the exhibition.  Fortunately, two of the paintings by Harper were reproduced in the catalog, and those images are posted on this website in the “Paintings Gallery”.  Both of these paintings would later be reproduced in the book The Negro In Art,[5] by Alain Locke, with the names “Provincial Landscape” and “The Sunlit Wall:  Brittany”. 

At the time of the 1927 exhibition, Lorado Taft wrote a brief letter or article in the Chicago Tribune under the column “Voice of the People”.  This letter was discussed earlier in connection with Harper’s time teaching in Houston, but it is worth reviewing in the context of this exhibition:

“Chicago, Nov. 14 – The coming exhibition of art works by colored artists recalls to me many pleasant relations with H.O. Tanner and William A. Harper….

Will Harper was in his time the pride of the Art Institute.  This earnest student, who was obliged to work his way through the school, continually surprised us by the large simplicity of his compositions and the somber richness of his coloring.  Mr. Harper became a superintendent of drawing in the public schools of an important city of the south.  Never shall I forget an evening when I found myself lecturing there.  The great hall was filled below with the beauty and chivalry of the place, while in the dimness of the gallery sat one lone, dark figure – my friend Harper.  The colored teachers had obtained permission to attend, but through some misunderstanding were represented by him alone.  It was a strange feeling that this social exile was perhaps the only one in my audience who completely understood what I was trying to say.

Both of these brave men have been called to another world.  They certainly did their part toward making this one more beautiful.”[6]

Taft clearly had a deep friendship with and respect for Harper, and it is impressive that Taft would take the time to praise him so many years after his death.  It should be remembered that Taft presented one of the eulogies at Harper’s funeral in Chicago.

This Taft letter inspired similar praise for Harper from a former Decatur, Illinois resident, A. F. Wilson.  Wilson was the son of Mrs. Harry Haines (Mary Judy Wilson Haines), a prominent citizen of Decatur, who owned at least 29 of Harper’s works and was one of the lenders for the 1922 exhibition in Decatur discussed above.  The letter likewise appeared in the Chicago Tribune, and was quoted in The Decatur Daily Review as follows: 

“In your column yesterday there was a letter from Lorado Taft berating the nonappreciation of the work of the late William A. Harper, the Negro artist.  Harper was from Decatur, Ill., and at the time of his death his sister was my mother’s maid.  In Decatur he was never able to forget the fact that he was colored and, realizing his handicap, he went to France.  Upon his return from France he brought with him over thirty landscapes, which he stored with his sister.

After a stay in Decatur he realized that, although he had made quite a name for himself of the realm of art in France, where color distinctions are not so finely drawn, he was without honor in his home town.  The then went to Mexico, where he died.  Upon his death a few of his pictures were sent to his sister, but many which he had mentioned in his letters were lost.

For years these paintings were stored in the little frame house of his sister, until one day she casually mentioned it to my mother, who became interested and finally bought the whole lot, for much more than she would have been able to get by selling them herself, but a drop in the bucket compared to their worth from the standpoint of artistry. Two of these pictures I now have in Chicago; the rest are still in my mother’s possession.”[7]

It should be pointed out that unless Harper had a second sister of which we have found no record, the reference to Harper’s “sister” was most likely to his sister in law, Eliza Harper (John’s wife).  There are no records of a Frances Harper in Decatur during this period.

The Chicago Tribune also published a review of the exhibition, and as to Harper wrote:

“Several years ago there came to the Art Institute art school a young colored boy of splendid physique and great ambition.  These attributes coupled and a unique talent won him recognition and Newton H. Carpenter, late secretary of the Art Institute, backed him.  Mr. Carpenter helped him through the art school and later gave him years of instruction in Paris.  There the artist, William Harper, contracted consumption.  He came home, was sent to New Mexico; lived a little span and painted a few pictures, and then died, still a young man.”[8]

It is notable that Harper was selected for special recognition by the article, but the errors in this description are fairly egregious.  First, Harper was over 20 when he arrived at the AIC; second, Carpenter did not give him “years of instruction in Paris”; and third, he did not die in New Mexico.  Such are the problems with newspaper articles reporting on events occurring many years previously.

In 1940, the “Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro (1851 to 1940)” presented in Chicago featured two of Harper’s paintings, “Stairway” and “Interior in a Mexican Courtyard”.  Both of these paintings were lent from the Barnett Collection.[9]  The Barnett’s connection with Harper is addressed in the “Memorial Exhibition at the AIC” chapter.  Unfortunately, neither painting was reproduced in the exhibition catalog.

In 1985, the Evans-Tibbs Collection in Washington, D.C. presented an exhibition entitled “Tanner – Harper – Scott.  A Mentor and his Influence” which postulated that Tanner was Harper’s mentor.  The accompanying catalogue cited a Turner biography in support thereof, but unfortunately that biography provided no supporting documentation for that assumption.  While this may in fact have been the case, and it is most certain that Harper knew Tanner, some missing primary source is needed in order to validate this conclusion.  Fortunately, the exhibition contained two paintings by Harper which were reproduced in the catalog entitled “The Staircase” and “The Patio”.  Both of these paintings are likewise reproduced on this website in the “Paintings Gallery”.  Given the similarity in titles with the two paintings from the 1940 exhibition (“Stairway” and “Interior in a Mexican Courtyard”), one wonders whether these might actually be the same paintings.  

In 1999, an exhibition of “American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities” entitled “Conserve a Legacy” contained a landscape painting from the Collection of Tuskeegee University.  This is the same painting that was reproduced by the Chicago Sunday Record-Herald in its August 7, 1910 article reviewing Harper’s Memorial Exhibition as “August in France”.

Finally, a little over one hundred years after his death, Harper achieved the ultimate recognition for an American artist.  In 2015, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired his painting “The Trees” or “Early Afternoon France” and hung it in Gallery 770 of American Wing.  That honor was closely followed by the installation of an untitled French landscape by Harper in the National Museum of African American History & Culture Smithsonian Institute of in Washington, D.C.

As interest in Harper’s work continues to grow, it can only be hoped that more of his paintings will be located and documented so that they can be shared with the public.  Hopefully, this website can assist with the rediscovery of this intriguing artist.


[1] “Oriental Rugs in Art Exhibition”, The Decatur Review, January 8, 1922, p. 21.

[2] :Art Institute Presents Bazar-like Appearance”, The Decatur Herald, January 8, 1922, p. 9.

[3] “Art Center Gets William Harper Painting from Mueller Estate”, The Decatur Herald, November 22, 1959, p. 9/

[4] The article referred to in the above footnote was found on the back of this painting.  Information courtesy of the Richard Norton Gallery.

[5] The Negro In Art by Alain Locke, Associates in Negro Folk Education, Washington, D.C., 1940.  This book referred to Harper as an “informal pupil” of Tanner, but unfortunately with no supporting documentation. 

[6] Letter from Lorado Taft entitled “The Work of Negro Artists”, Chicago Tribune, November 17, 1927, p. 10.

[7] “Praise Work of Negro Artist From Decatur”, The Decatur Daily Review, November 25, 1927, p. 6.

[8] “Exhibit of Negroes’ Art Opens Tomorrow at Art Institute”, Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), November 15, 1927, p. 36.

[9] Catalog of the “Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro (1851 to 1940), assembled by the American Negro Exhibition, on view July 4 to September 2, 1940, Tanner Art Galleries”.

Memorial Exhibition at the AIC

Memorial Exhibition at the AIC

In honor of Harper, the AIC held a one-man exhibition of Harper’s paintings from July 26 to August 28, 1910.  The catalogue for the “Exhibition of Paintings of William A. Harper” contained a brief biography about Harper and listed fifty-seven paintings and three groups of sketches.  The paintings reflect scenes in France, Illinois, and Mexico, some of which had appeared in earlier exhibitions.

Shortly after the opening of the Memorial Exhibition, Mr. and Mrs. F. L Barnett gave a reception at the AIC which included a viewing of the Harper exhibition.[1]  F. L. Barnett was an African-American journalist, lawyer, and civil rights activist in Chicago, Illinois, and was a founding editor of The Chicago Conservator monthly in 1878.  He was a successful lawyer, being only the third black to be admitted to the Illinois bar.[2]  Mrs. Barnett was Ida B. Wells Barnett, an American investigative journalist, educator, and an early leader in the civil rights movement.  She was also one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).[3]   An article about the reception appeared in The Broad Ax (Salt Lake City, Utah) on August 6, 1910, and  described Harper as “the most promising artist so far produced by the Afro-American race in this country.”[4]  It concluded with “All honor to Mr. and Mrs. Barnett for the part they have played in assisting to bring the paintings of the late William Harper to the notice of the public.”  The Barnetts owned at least two Harper paintings, “The Stairway” and “Interior in a Mexican Courtyard”.[5] 

Other reviews were published regarding the Memorial Exhibition, the most extensive of which appeared in the Chicago Record Herald on August 7, 1910, in the section entitled “Among the Artists”.  That article reproduced two of the paintings from the exhibition  “Midday in August” and “August in France”.

[Need legible copy of article.]

The Los Angeles Herald also reported on the Memorial Exhibition and wrote that:

“It has been predicted by those familiar with Harper’s painting that he would rival the eminence of Tanner [Henry Ossawa Tanner], and he has already made a vital impression on the art life of his home city and attained a enviable standing among the artists of America.”[6]

The article noted that a painting by Harper entitled “Summer in France” had been shown in Los Angeles earlier in the year (and prior to that in Seattle) with an exhibition by Eastern artists, and called the work “one of the finest canvases in that notable collection”.  The article went on to praise the paintings done in Mexico:

“The series of Mexican scenes which have met with especial appreciation were painted during the last days of the painter’s life, while in his vain search for health.  Devoting himself mainly to landscape art, his thoroughly decorative compositions are full of strength and dignity, and the most marked characteristic of deep poetic feeling.”[7]

The Bulletin of the AIC also published a short review, stating that,

“The showing of Harper’s work was interesting for the variety of sketching grounds represented, for the dignity of the point of view, and for a consistently high aim in the conception of his pictures.  Many of the canvases were sketches, and a few were larger works in an unfinished state.  The exhibition made clear the fact that by Harper’s death Chicago art has lost a man of fine and unusual talent.”[8]

The available records then go silent on Harper for a while. 

As to Harper’s family, the 1910 U.S. Federal Census shows Harper’s brother, John W. Harper as a machinist at Iron Works living with his wife Eliza in Decatur, Illinois.  In 1912, John was a “Negro Patron” of the Factory Employees’ Hospital Aid society with the goal of raising money for a new hospital.[9]  He continued active in the Antioch Baptist Church as a deacon.[10]  Like his brother, however, John suffered an early death.  On May 23, 1914, John died in his home at 1838 Walnut Grove Avenue of Bright’s disease, a disease of the kidney.[11]  According to the announcement in the paper, he “leaves a widow, Eliza Harper, and a father, John Harper”.  There was no reference to any children or to his other siblings Frances and George.  The funeral was held at the Antioch Baptist Church under the auspices of the “colored Knights of Pythias”, and he was buried in Greenwood Cemetery.[12] 

Harper’s father John appears in the 1910 U.S. Federal Census as a boarder in Decatur, Illinois whose trade was “Teamster” and whose occupation was “odd jobs”.  Following the death of his sons, John, Sr. continued active in the Antioch Baptist Church.[13]  In the 1920 US Federal Census, John, Sr. is listed as an “inmate” at the Macon County Infirmary.  The source “Find A Grave” calls the infirmary the “Macon County Poor Farm”.[14]  John, Sr. died on February 11, 1921 of heart trouble.  Funeral services for John, Sr. were conducted at the Antioch Baptist Church.[15]  According to the death announcement in the paper, he had been an inmate at the “farm” for several months, and “A daughter-in-law is said to be his nearest known relative.”[16]  He was likewise buried in Greenwood Cemetery.  So, thus, sadly the Harper family appears to end.  William had no known children, and his brother John had no known children.

What became of Francis and George is not known.  That being said, however, no death records for the siblings were found in a search of the Ontario records for the period of approximately 20 years after their last listing in the 1881 census records.  Most importantly, neither are found in the Street family cemetery in Canfiield where their mother Charity is buried.[17]  Perhaps they did in fact emigrate to the U.S. as did William and John.  The research continues.


[1] “Mr. and Mrs. F.L. Barnett Gave a Reception at the Art Institute in Honor of Mrs. James. L Curtis”, The Broad Ax (Salt Lake City, Utah), August 6, 1910.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferdinand_Lee_Barnett_(Chicago).

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ida_B._Wells.

[4] “Mr. and Mrs. F.L. Barnett Gave a Reception at the Art Institute in Honor of Mrs. James. L Curtis”, The Broad Ax (Salt Lake City, Utah), August 6, 1910.

5] “Modern Paintings and Sculpture”, catalogue of AIC exhibition November 16 to December 1, 1927.

[6] “Art Notes”, Los Angeles Herald (Los Angeles, California), August 28, 1910.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “The Past Three Months”, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 4, No. 2 (October 1910).

[9] “Factory Workers Report Success”, The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), September 1, 1912, p. 1.

[10] “Antioch Baptist Annual Meeting”.

[11] “John W. Harper, Jr.”, The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), May 24, 1914, p.3.

[12] “John W. Harper, Jr.” The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), May 26, 1914. P.3.

[13] See, e.g., “Mrs. Sarah Lee”, The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), April 5, 1915, p. 3. 

[14] https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/55149481/john-harper

[15] “John Harper”, The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), February 12, 1921, p. 3.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Information courtesy of Canfield researcher Sylvia Weaver.

Final Years

Final Years – Last updated August 3, 2020 –

1909

Harper spent 1909 in Cuernavaca, Mexico.  Although he was no longer in the U.S., he did exhibit two paintings in the Thirteenth Annual Exhibition of the Society of Western Artists held from January 5 to January 24, 1909 at the AIC:

            54.  October in France

            55.  The mid days of autumn

His address for the catalogue is listed as “Chicago, Illinois”.  Echoing the description of Harper’s painting style in the Decatur Heald of the previous year, The Inter Ocean described the second painting as follows:

“Perhaps the most unusual handling of pigments is found in ‘The Middays of Autumn’ by William A. Harper.  The paint in heaviness and roughness of application suggest the palette knife rather than the brush.  This picture shows a very effective massing of trees to the right of a ruin of wall or monastery.”[1]

[Discuss contrast with earlier painting style?]

Likewise, Harper exhibited in the annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists held at the AIC held from February 2 to February 28, 1909 with three paintings:

            127.  August in France                       $300[2]

            128.  Old houses, Montreuil               $100

            129.  Late afternoon                           $250

In March, the Decatur, Illinois Daily Review announced that the Decatur Public Art League would hold an exhibition at the Y.M.C.A. of about 50 works “secured in Chicago after the annual exhibit of work by artists of Chicago and the vicinity.”[3]  A number of the contributing artists, including Charles Francis Browne, were listed, with a separate paragraph dedicated to Harper entitled “Harper to Send Work” as follows:

“William A. Harper, the colored artist who spent some time in Decatur last summer, will send some of his works.  His pictures are well thought of in Chicago and occupied good positions at the exhibit.”

The review in the same paper after the exhibition opening noted that Harper’s “Autumn in France” was “remarkable in one respect for its ‘thick’ painting’.[4]

Despite his ill health, Harper was clearly quite actively painting while convalescing in Cuernavaca.  Two, and probably all three, of the paintings that he exhibited in the Twenty-Second Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists held from October 19 to November 28, 1909, at the AIC were scenes of Mexico:

            122.  Pueblo Indians

            123.  The steps – Mexican scene

            124.  Among the hills.

The American Art News reported in December that thirteen paintings were sold from this exhibition, including “The steps – Mexican scene”.[5]  Unfortunately, no information is given as to the purchaser or the price paid.  Until this time, none of Harper’s paintings appear to have featured people.  They were strictly landscape works.  The titles of the paintings “Pueblo Indians” from the 1909 exhibition, and “The morning chat” from the 1910 exhibition discussed below suggests that when he was in Mexico he began to incorporate people into his paintings. 

Harper also succeeded in selling paintings in Cuernavaca.  According to an article following his death, several of Harper’s paintings were sold on commission at a “curio store” owned by a Mr. Wood of Mexico City.[6]  Nothing further is known about these paintings.

1910

Harper was still in Cuernavaca at the start of 1910.  Once again, he exhibited at the annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists held at the AIC held from January 4 to January 30, 1910, with the majority of his paintings clearly being scenes in Mexico:

              106.  A Mexican kitchen

              107.  Morning in the market

              108.  A Mexican landscape

              109.  The morning chat

              110.  The patio

Likewise, he exhibited at the Fourteenth, Annual Exhibition of the Society of Western Artists held from February 8 to February 27, 1910 at the AIC with two paintings:

            50.  Autumn, French landscape

            51.  Mexican scene

Note the change in Harper’s approach to painting.  He still seemed to favor landscapes, but in Mexico he started to paint more domestic scenes, and more importantly, people.

Unfortunately, Harper’s trip to Mexico did not result in the health improvement that he had sought.  Around the second week of March in 1910, he was taken to the American hospital in Mexico City.  It was to that address that Wm. M.R. French sent the following letter to Harper dated March 28, 1910:

“I am very sorry to hear that you are sick and in the hospital.  I write to let you know that the sympathy and good wishes of your many friends here are with you.,  I have had so little sickness that I do not know much about it, but I can form some idea of how hard it must be to be laid aside with so many things you might do.

I heartily hope we may get news that you are better.  Meanwhile, if there is anything we can do for you, do not fail to let me know.”[7]

Harper never received that letter.  He died the night before, on Sunday, March 27, 1910. 

A rough translation of the Spanish hand written death record from the “Federal District, Mexico, Civil Registration Deaths, 1861-1987”, p. 306-7[8], states that:

In the City of Mexico at 4:15 in the afternoon, on March 28, 1910, before me, Ricardo Guerrero Garnica, an auxilary for the civil registry, appeared the citizen named Melisio Munive from Mexico, 48 years old, single, employed, and residing on San Diego St. #6, and declared that last night at 11:28 in the American Hospital, William A. Harper died of tuberculosis according to the certificate completed by Dr. R Canedo which is archived under the notations of the law.  The appearing party also added that the deceased was from Decatur, Illinois, from the United States, he was of North American nationality, 37 years old, single, artist, parents names are not known.  He was given a ticket for the Society of the Panteón Americano. Other witnesses by the name of Joaquin Gonzales and Hilario Cunacho, both from Mexico and of 33 and 40 years old respectively, both single, employed, they live in house #8 on the first street of) Florida; and the 2nd house on the La Mariscala St. number 3.

The Panteón Americano is the American cemetery in Mexico City where Harper was buried, and is located in Cuauhtémoc Borough, Distrito Federal, Mexico..

Although the death registry notes the cause of death as tuberculosis, one later article raises a question as to his utimate cause of death is conflicting.  An article in the Decatur Daily Review, which carried numerous articles about Harper’s death and whose author clearly interviewed his brother, states that:

“William Harper did not die of tuberculosis but of dysentery.  He went there [Mexico] on account of lung trouble and the climate was so beneficial to him that in his last letter home he stated that he expected to return to the states in May.  But he was attacked by dysentery nearly a year ago and has been growing weaker since that time.”[9]

The Decatur, Illinois papers carried numerous articles about Harper’s death.  On Tuesday, March 29, 1910, the Decatur Daily Review published an article entitled “Colored Artist Dead in Mexico”:

“William Harper, perhaps the foremost colored painter in America, is dead in the City of Mexico.  At 5:40 Monday afternoon his father, John Harper, received a telegram stating that Willliam Harper had died at 11:28 Sunday night in the American hospital there.”[10]

The newspaper carried almost a full column obituary, and a photograph of Harper showing a distinguished looking man with a mustache and goatee.  A similar article appeared in the Decatur Herald[11].  The day after receiving notice of Harper’s death, his brother John Harper left on the Illinois Central train for Mexico to bring back Harper’s body.[12]   According to the Daily Review, which wrote a lengthy article about John’s trip entitled “How Work of Months Was Done In Few Days”:

“He traveled nearly 5,000 miles, going twenty-four hours out of his way each way because of his eagerness to get started, losing a day in San Antonio on account of missing train connections, and another twelve hours in Mattoon on his way back.”[13]

Unfortunately, by the time that John arrived in Mexico City, Harper had already been buried.[14]  Laws in Mexico required that the body of any person dying of tuberculosis be buried within 24 hours after death.[15]  In a later interview with the Decatur Herald:

“Mr. Harper [John] said it was his intentions to bring the body to this city for burial, but as he did not have the necessary papers it was impossible to do so.  The expense would have been about $2000 to get the body out of Mexico.  Each government officer who handles the papers charges $125 for affixing his seal, and a fee of $125 is charged for every state the body passes through.”[16]

John spent three days in Mexico City, and another two in Cuernevaca.  The Daily Review was high in its praise of John.  According to its article, 

“Without knowing a word of Spanish or having the faintest knowledge of the laws or customs of Mexico, and also without letters of administration or other authority, he settled up his brother’s affairs….”[17]

John was apparently well treated Mexico, the Daily Review saying that he:

“fell among angels in Mexico and few people had suspected that there were any.  When he reached Mexico City he went to the American hospital, where he ascertained further facts as to his death and that he had been recently buried in the American cemetery.”[18]

In Mexico City John also went to see the American consul,

“and presented letters from Judge Johns, Judge Smith, Senator Hanson and others.  These were convincing to the consul as identifying the Bearer, but they did not qualify Harper to settle up the estate of an American in Mexico.”[19]

It is impressive that John could have acquired these letters in Decatur in such short order following Harper’s death and his almost immediate departure for Mexico.  

Lack of letters of administration notwithstanding, John proceeded to Cuernavaca, seventy-five miles south of Mexico City where Harper had leased an apartment and painted for eighteen months.  In Cuernavaca, he met with a Mr. Woods, a resident of Mexico City, who owned a curio store in Cuernavaca where he had sold several paintings for Harper on commission.  At the time, Woods still had eleven other Harper paintings in his possession.  According to the Daily Review article, Woods scrupulously accounted for everything, including some pictures which had been sold but not paid for.  Because he did not have the necessary legal paperwork to take all of the remaining paintings back to the U.S., John sold the remaining paintings to Woods based on prices that Harper had marked on the paintings, less a discount of 1/3 for Woods as the dealer.  John then settled his brothers bills and other outstanding matters in Cuernavaca.

Although he could not take back to Decatur the finished paintings, John did take back an unfinished painting described as a “sketch of a house with a lot of burros in the foreground”, with no customs interference.  Subsequent to his return to Decatur, John received a letter from the woman in whose house Harper had lived advising that a number of additional sketches had been found.  The Decatur Review speculated that the sketches would be sent to Decatur, but their disposition is unknown. 

John’s trip to Mexico was certainly wearing, both emotionally and physically.  The article in the Daily Review concluded with the following:

“As a physical undertaking the trip would have worn out most men, and there are few who could have settled the business more promptly and satisfactorily.  When he reached Mattoon on his return trip, there was no train to Decatur and he had to stay there til morning.  ‘You don’t know how I wanted to get home’, he says, ‘and if it had been only ten miles or even twenty miles I certainly would have walked.”[20]

Upon his return, John was appointed administrator of Harper’s estate, with the bond set at $1,000.[21]  The Petition for Letters of Administration and inventory obtained from the Macon County Probate Court state that Harper died intestate, that is, without a will.  Harper’s survivors are listed as his brother John W. Harper, and his father John Harper.  There is no mention of either his sister Frances or brother George.  His estate as described in the Petition as consisting of “one life insurance policy in Metripolitan [sic?] Life for the face value of Five Hundred Dollars, and some person effects.”  Those personal effects would have been any remaining cash brought back from Mexico from the sale of is paintings, and additional paintings in Chicago and possibly Decatur.  The probate documents were signed by O. Smith, the County Judge, who was one of the Judges whose letters in support of John were presented to the American consul in Mexico City.

John also contacted the AIC regarding Harper’s paintings.  A letter to John[22] from Wm. M. R. French, the Director, dated April 18, 1910[23], reads as follows:

“I have received your letter of April 15.

Mr. N. H. Carpenter, my associate, who is the Secretary of the Art Institute, has managed Mr. William Harper’s business, and he is the proper man for you to see and to communicate with. 

We were all very friendly to your brother and are sorry for is death.”

The Antioch Baptist Church in Decatur held a memorial service on the afternoon of Sunday, May 29, 1910, presided over by Rev. J. A. Crockett of the church and Rev. J. T. Morrow of St Peter’s African Methodist Church.  Both brother and father were in attendance, and “A large number was present.”[24]

The Bulletin of the AIC ran an obituary for Harper in July of 1910, noting that:

“He was a man of the highest principles, of exceptional professional skill, and of great industry; and he united with these qualities good sense, good temper and self control, which were necessary in his difficult circumstances.”

The reference to “difficult circumstance” is an interesting recognition of the undoubted difficulties of being both poor and black in an almost wholly white profession.  The Bulletin reported that a second memorial service was held for Harper in May at the Bethesda Baptist Church of Chicago where Harper was a member.  There is a reference in the obituary to Harper’s father and brother who lived in Decatur, but no mention of any other sibling.  It is an indication of the esteem in which Harper was held at the AIC and in the Chicago art community that both Lorado Taft, the sculptor, and Wm. M.R. French, the AIC Director spoke at his funeral.[25]  It is perhaps a further indication of the esteem in which Harper was held that this obituary appears to the only obituary published in the Bulletin since its inception in 1907.  The Bulletin went on to advise that a memorial exhibition of Harper’s paintings would be held at the AIC, opening July 26.


[1] “Work of Western Artists is Highly Praised at Midwinter Exhibit”, The Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), January 17,  1909, p. 30.

[2] “August in France” was later reproduced in an article in the Chicago Sunday Record-Herald published on August 6, 1910 reviewing Harper’s Memorial Exhibition. [Check date; article almost illegible.]

[3]  “Art League Exhibit Best in Illinois”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), p. 8. 

[4] “Art League Exhibit Best Offered Here”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), p. 8.

[5] “Chicago”, American Art News, Vol. 8, No. 8 (December 4, 1909), p. 1-8.

[6] “How Work of Months Was Done In Few Days”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), April 17, 1990, p. 15.

[7] Letter from Wm. M. R. French, President of AIC, to William A. Harper, dated March 28, 1910, AIC archives.

[8] From Ancestry.com:  https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/60426/004976610_01391/5552589?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/162479921/person/172118536720/facts/citation/642169176701/edit/record

[9] “How Work of Months Was Done In Few Days”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), April 17, 1910, p. 15.

[10] “Colored Artist Dead in Mexico”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), March 29, 1910, p. 7.

[11] A similar article appeared in the Decatur Herald:  “Colored Artist Dies in Mexico”, The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), March 30, 1910, p. 12.

[12] Brief note in The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), March 29, 1910, p. 15.

[13] The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), April 17, 1910, p. 4;

[14] “Harper’s Body is Buried in Mexico” The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), April 12, 1910, p. 4; “Arrived too Late”, The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), April 12, 1910, p. 12.

[15] The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), April 15, 1910, p. 3.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “How Work of Months Was Done In Few Days”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), April 17, 1910, p. 15.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Note in The Daily Review, April 14, 1910, p. 14.  See also Macon County Probate Court records for William A. Harper.

[22] John’s address is listed as [805 Zora] Avenue, Decatur, Illinois.

[23] AIC Archives, letter from Wm. M. R. French to John W. Harper dated April 18, 1910

[24] “Antioch Baptist”, The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), May 30, 1910, p. 4.

[25] “William A. Harper”, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jul., 1910), p. 11.  t

Interim Years

Last updated 8-5-20

Interim Years

1905

When Harper returned to Chicago after his sojourn in Europe, he brought with him paintings from both his time in Cornwall, England and his time in France.  He again submitted paintings to the annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, which ran at the AIC from January 31 to February 26, 1905.  According to the catalogue from that Exhibition, 902 works were submitted for consideration, of which 276 were selected for display.  Harper had nine paintings accepted, of which seven were of scenes in Cornwall and two of scenes in Montigny, France.  According to the Exhibition catalogue, Harper’s paintings were as follows:

100.  Morning, midsummer, Cornwall, Eng.               $150

  101.  Early afternoon, Montigny, France                    $150

102.  The hedgerow, Cornwall, Eng.                          $100

  103.  Eventide, Cornwall, Eng.                                   $50

  104.  Banks of the Loing, Montigny, France              $100

105.  The potato field, Cornwall, Eng.                        $35

106.  Lobbs house, Cornwall, Eng.                            $35

107.  Grey day, Cornwall, Eng.                                  $35

108.  Quiet morning, Cornwall, Eng.                          $35

This time, Harper listed his address in the catalogue as “Art Institute, Chicago”.  Of the nine above canvasses, six sold, including “Early afternoon, Montigny, France” and “Eventide, Cornwall, Eng.”.[1]  Given his past financial straits, this must have provided considerable relief to Harper.

Browne likewise exhibited, and of his seven paintings at least four were scenes in France, with three containing a Montigny, France designation.  Harper’s and Browne’s paintings of Montigny were clearly the result of their spring 1904 travel in that area.  Wendt exhibited five paintings, although their names as listed in the Exhibition catalogue give no clue as to whether they might have been painted in Cornwall or elsewhere.[2]

Harper’s work received much acclaim, and the Chicago Municipal Art League awarded him a prize of $30.  The Chicago Tribune reported that this award was for a “group of pictures”[3].  The Inter-Ocean, however, reported that this award was for the painting “Early Afternoon, Montigny”.[4]   Browne would win the same award from the Municipal Art League for a “group of pictures” in 1906.[5]  The Municipal Art League was composed of various independent organizations in Chicago which worked together for the purpose of encouraging art in the city of Chicago.[6]

In 1906, the illustrated monthly magazine The Voice of the Negro  would run a full page portrait of Harper in a white shirt and tie, wearing an artist’s smock and holding a palette and paint brushes as the front piece for the magazine with the title “Mr. William A. Harper, The Rising Negro Artist of the West”.[7]  In that same magazine, Florence Lewis Bentley wrote a lengthy article about Harper entitled “William A. Harper”,[8] which reproduced three of Harpers paintings from the 1905 Exhibition, “Early afternoon, Montigny, France” [9], “Eventide, Cornwall, Eng.”, and “The Banks of the Laing[10], Montigny, France”.  Bentley wrote that Harper’s painting “Early afternoon, Montigny, France” was “especially distinguished for beauty of color and atmospheric qualities” and richly deserving of the central position that it held in the gallery.  She went on to report that a “well known critic” had said that “It has no superior in the Exhibition, and will ever be a source of delight to the fortunate possessor.”[11]  That “fortunate possessor” would turn out to be Mr. T. E. Donnelley, of the firm of Donnelley & Sons, Chicago[12].  This painting is currently in the collection of Howard University, in Washington, D. C.[13]  Of the painting “Eventide”, Bentley wrote that it was “a beautiful English landscape rich in mellow browns and greens and bathed in the dreamy light of ending day.”[14]  Bentley went on to state that Harper’s “noticeable group of pictures was one of the sensations of last year’s exhibit and claimed as much attention as the work of men of international repute.”  Bentley clearly knew Harper, because in her article she wrote:

“It has been the privilege of the writer to see some new work, which Mr. Harper is preparing for the annual exhibition of Chicago artists, which will be in progress about the time that this paper sees the light of print.”[15]

Florence Lewis Bentley was a black author and literary editor described by The Crisis, a monthly magazine published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (“NAACP”), as “a strong social force in the city” of Chicago.[16]  She was married to Dr. Charles E. Bentley, a prominent dentist in Chicago, and one of the directors of the NAACP.  In addition to the article on Harper, Bentley also wrote in November of 1906, an article on “Henry O. Tanner” for Voice of the Negro, Vol. 3, November 1906, p. 480. 

Following the award from the Municipal Art League in 1905, the Decatur Review, a paper in Decatur, Illinois, where Harper’s father and brother lived, ran an article about Harper entitled “Negro Janitor, A Prize Artist”[17]  The article stated that:

“By awarding a prize to William A. Harper, a negro janitor of the Art Institute, the Chicago Municipal Art league has put itself on record against class and color distinctions when it comes to distributing honors for excellent work with the brush.”

The article described Harper’s ambitious work schedule at the AIC as follows:

“Several years ago, Harper was appointed janitor at the institute.  When he was not scrubbing floors and washing windows, he was studying pictures and drawing.  He saved money, became a student, received a diploma in 1900, went abroad and devoted every spare minute assiduously to the canvas.  He is night watchman now from 2 o’clock til 7 in the morning.  He paints all day, goes to sleep at 6 in the evening and rises for work at 2 in the morning.”

The reference to a diploma in “1900” appears to be an error because the AIC Circular for 1900-1901 lists Harper as still a student in the “Saturday Class – Normal”.  Nevertheless, the author of the article must have interviewed Harper for the article since it ends with one of the few quotations that we have from Harper, and one which is particularly telling:

“ ‘I think I can do my best work abroad.’ He said.  ‘There the color on one’s skin is never under any circumstances taken in to consideration.’ “

Several other newspapers recorded Harper’s award, including one found in the Scrapbooks of the AIC dated February 6, 1905 entitled “Colored Man Wins Position.  Paintings by W. A. Harper are admired at the Art Institute”[18].  Reporting on the AIC Exhibition, the article states:

“Inch by inch Harper has fought in his struggle to attain and succeed in his art until he has received the recognition of both the directors of the Art Institute and the management of the Municipal Art League.  With them there is no color line drawn artistic ability alone being the password by which admission is gained to these exhibitions.”

In another review of the Exhibition, the Chicago Journal wrote:

“Claiming particular attention are the nine paintings of Cornwall, and France by William A. Harper.  Among these have been counted certain ones said to be the best in the exhibition.  Mr. Harper’s painting shows maturity in selection and poetic feeling.  His landscapes have a foreign air and a certainty of grasp and expression.”[19]

Following the opening of the Exhibition, an amusing discussion appeared in the Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), February 9, 1905, p. 5, under the column “The Whirl of Society” which gives telling insight into the reaction that people had to Harper.  After rather sarcastically reviewing the society men and women attending the opening, the author wrote the following:

“I heard a Southern woman raving over the ‘works’ of William A. Harper, the handsome youth who acts as assistant about the institute while studying his art, and whose French studies this year have won him so much favorable mention from those that know.

He has studied in Paris, and his sympathies are decidedly French, which perhaps accounts for his abundance of poetry, commonly called by the women of the clubs ‘temperament’.

‘He is one of the handsomest chaps I ever saw,’ said the woman I happened to overhear, and her companion, a man of enlightenment, gravely offered to introduce the artist.  She enthused and instinctively straightened her hat.

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.’ “

“Eagle’s Nest” refers to the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony in Oregon, Illinois, of which Taft and Browne where founders and Wendt a member.  See earlier discussion under “Education”.  While the language used in describing Harper seems today rather dated and is indicative of the race divide with which Harper had to contend, it is clear that he was well liked and well respected both as an individual and as an artist.

Indeed, such was the esteem in which Harper was held that he was elected later that year as one of the six members of the Chicago Advisory Committee of Artists for the Juries of Selection for the Eighteenth Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists, held October 19 to November 26, 1905.[20]  Included among the paintings over which the juries passed judgment were those by such prominent artists as Childe Hassan, Robert Henri, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Edmund Tarbell.  Interestingly, Harper would, according to his obituary, form some sort of relationship with Tanner some years later while in France on his second visit.  The nature of that relationship remains unclear, but Harper was clearly familiar with Tanner’s works through this exhibition and others.

Harper spent the summer of 1905 in Decatur, Illinois.   An article published in the Decatur Review after his death states that:

“He came to Decatur in the summer of 1905 to make his home with his father and brother on the farm northwest of Decatur, and he put in the summer painting landscapes, including some beautiful scenes along the Sangamon river and Stevens creek.  These he endeavored to sell here, but there was not so good demand for first class work then as now and he sent them to Seattle, Wash., to the Art League exhibit, and there had no trouble disposing of five of them at good prices.  Others were sold in New York and Chicago.”[21]

A very similar article was published in the Decatur, Illinois Review in May of 1908:

“In the summer of ___ he came to Decatur to live with his father and brother, northwest of the town.  Nearly the entire summer he spent in painting landscapes on the Wade farm.  However as there was so sale for them here and not enough opportunities for good pictures, he decided to return to Europe and study more.…. Five of the pictures which he painted here, he sent to an art exhibit in Seattle, Wash.  They were sold there.  Others were sold in New York and Chicago.” [22]

The date is obscured in the 1908 article, but since the posthumous article appears to have been  based on the 1908 article, the missing date was most likely “1905”.  No information is available about the location of the “Wade farm”, nor have specific paintings been linked to that venue.  Note, however, that, at least one landscape located on “Stevens Creek” did appear in 1908 in Harper’s one man exhibition at the James Millikan University.[23].  See, page __.

In the fall of 1905, Harper returned to Chicago..  According to the Decatur Daily Herald of September 23, 1905 (p. 8),

“Mr. and Mrs. John Harper entertained a few friends at 6 o’clock dinner Thursday evening in honor of Mr. William Harper, who will leave soon for his home in Chicago.  A four course dinner was served and all spent a pleasant evening.”

The “John Harper” referenced above could have been either William’s brother John, or his father who had the same name, both of whom lived in Decatur at this time. 

In December, Harper exhibited one painting in the Tenth Annual Exhibition of the Society of Western Artists[24] held at the AIC on December 5-25, 1905.[25]  HIs painting “Young Poplars and Willows” was reproduced in the Bentley article referenced above: 

“Among these excellent works, there was one small canvas which has received specially favorable comment, and which easily held its own among the leaders of this important exhibition.  ‘Young Poplars and Willows’ by William A. Harper, is a landscape full of dreamy charm and tender sentiment.  It is a work conceived by on to whom Nature seems to have revealed her most intimate secrets, and it is executed with a delicacy and sureness of brush, which is the result of an almost perfect technique.”[26]

According to Bentley, the scene depicted was from “Illinois, near Mr. Harper’s old country home”.  It is not known whether this referred to a childhood home, or the home of his father (or perhaps brother) in or near Decatur, Illinois.

No other article of the time appears to have addressed Harper in such depth, and few authors appear to have met directly with Harper, so it is worth quoting at length from Bentley’s article:

“It has been the privilege of the writer to see some new work, which Mr. Harper is preparing for the annual exhibition of Chicago artists, which will be in progress about the time that this paper sees the light of print.  The landscapes already finished show a dignity and strength, a mobility of expression which seem to indicate a growth beyond even the recent “Young Poplars and Willows,” a development which shows itself not only in improved technique, but in a broader, deeper and more mature conception of beautiful thoughts and ideas.  It is noticeable that in all of Mr. Harper’s landscapes, trees play an important part.  ‘His handling of trees,’ says Harriet Monroe, ‘shows close and accurate study of their souls and bodies,’ and it is very true that no one could see Mr. Harper’s trees, without turning with renewed interest to these sentinels of Nature in their own places.  In fact that seems to be the most telling effect of Mr. Harper’s landscapes, they inspire us with a renewed reverence for Nature, which help us to see beauties around us which otherwise would remain hidden from untutored eyes.”

Harriet Monroe (December 23, 1860 – September 26, 1936) was an editor, scholar, literary critic, poet, patron of the arts, and eventual founding publisher and long-time editor of Poetry magazine.  She was also a freelance correspondent and art critic for the Chicago Tribune and a member of the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony in Ogle County, Illinois, where she most certainly would have met Harper.[27]

Bentley went on in report that Harper had spent his youth on a farm in Illinois, and that:

“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 to her.  In truth and in fact, Mr. Harper has literally done just that, for his life has been a single-hearted devotion to a fixed purpose, in spite of privation and labor which would have daunted a less courageous soul.”[28]

1906

The next annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists took place at the AIC from January 30 to February 25, 1906.  According to the catalogue for that Exhibition, 927 works were sent in for examination by the juries, from which 307 were selected.  Harper had seven works accepted for the Exhibition listed in the catalogue as follows:

107.  Early evening, Cornwall, Eng.               $200

108.  Lowland pastures.                                  $250

109.  The cabbage patch.                               $200

110.  The last gleam.                                      $75

111.  The hillside                                             $50

112.  The house in the hollow.                       $40

113.  Grey day.                                               $35

Harper’s address is included as 224 Ontario Street, Chicago, the same address as he used in 1902, but without the “Care Wm. Wendt” prefix.  His painting “Lowland pastures” was one of the twelve paintings reproduced in the catalogue, perhaps explaining why it was the highest priced of his paintings.  The Inter-Oceans’ review of the Exhibition considered “Lowland pastures” the most interesting of Harper’s paintings, with “the silver blue pond to the left, as seen among the trees, possibly being the most interesting feature of the painting itself.” [29]

Not much is known about Harper’s friends, although he clearly had a good relationship with his mentors Wendt and Brown and was well thought of by the other AIC students who were with him in Paris.  An intriguing item is found in the catalogue of Exhibition of Paintings by Charles Edward Hallberg of Chicago, held at the AIC March 1 to March 21, 1906, which notes that painting No. 36 in that Exhibition entitled “Near the shore” was “Lent by Mr. Wm. A. Harper”.  Another painting was lent for the Exhibition by Browne.  Pursuant to the biographical preliminary to the catalogue, Hallberg was born in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1855, and was a sailor from 1873 to 1890.  He settled in Chicago in 1880, and became a painter, first exhibiting at the AIC in 1890.  He was also a fellow janitor.  According to an article in The Inter Ocean in 1902 entitled “Pictures by Janitor Artist”, Hallberg had by that time been working for eight years as a janitor in a local bank.[30]  Like Harper, in 1902 Hallberg had for the first time three paintings accepted in the annual juried Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists held at the AIC.  With this striking commonality between the two artists, it would not be surprising for the two to have been acquainted.  Harper never appears to have had much money, so owing a painting by Hallberg does suggest a certain level of friendship – whether Harper acquired the painting by purchase, gift, or even trade.   

It is worth noting that the 1908 article “Home from Paris; Studied Art There” in The Decatur Review, May 6, 1908, p. 7, also states that sometime after his return from his first trip to Europe Harper was “given the commission to paint the decorations on the walls of the Chicago Normal school in Englewood”[31].  No further information has been found regarding this commission and this is the only suggestion that Harper may have ever painted a mural.  Unfortunately, the building that housed that school no longer exists.  Coincidently, however, in 1906 Browne and another instructor at the AIC oversaw the completion of ten murals at the Institute depicting sports.  The following year, mural decoration was added to the curriculum of the AIC, with Browne as one of the two instructors.[32]  Under the direction of Browne and the other instructor, the first mural class painted three large murals for the auditorium of the Elm Place Grammar School.[33]  Given the timing, it is interesting to speculate as to whether Browne assisted with or advised Harper on his mural project – assuming that one was ever undertaken.

The same 1908 article goes on to state that in 1906 Harper returned to Europe.  The return trip to Europe notwithstanding, at the end of 1906 Harper exhibited in the Nineteenth Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculptures by American Artists at the AIC held from October 16 to November 29.  This was the first time that Harper participated as a contributor in this particular exhibition, although he served on one of the Juries of Selection for the Eighteenth Annual Exhibition in 1905.  The catalogue notes that Harper was a member of the Chicago Society of Artists, and indicates that Harper exhibited two paintings:

151.  A bit of Lincoln Park.

152.  On a day.

Tanner also exhibited a painting entitled “The Two Disciples at the Tomb”, which was awarded the hefty prize of $500 for the best picture of the show and subsequently purchased by the AIC.[34] 

In 1906 Harper also began to appear for the first time in the Catalogues of the Annual Exhibitions of the Society of Western Artists as an Associate Member for Chicago.[35]

1907

Harper was again represented in the annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists held at the AIC from January 29 to February 24, 1907, with five paintings:

113.  Gray day.                                   $40

114.  The road.                                   $40

115.  Dusk                                          $200

116.  Half leafless and dry.                 $150

117.  Cornish hills.                              $150

Out of 818 works submitted to the jury for consideration, 284 were selected for the Exhibition.  Harper listed his address in the catalogue as “Secretary’s Office, Art Institute, Chicago”.  The Secretary for the AIC was Newton H. Carpenter.  A letter written by Wm. M. R. French, the Director of the AIC following Harper’s death in 1910 advised that Carpenter managed Harpers “business”.[36]  Presumably he would have coordinated the submission of Harper’s paintings for the various exhibitions and handled any related finances, including the sale of paintings, when Harper was not in Chicago.  The two appear to have been friends for many years with one early article suggesting that it was Carpenter who was responsible for Harper actually attending the AIC.[37]  See earlier discussion under “Education”, p. ___. 

The painting “Half leafless and dry” was one of twelve paintings reproduced in the exhibition catalogue.  It was likewise reproduced in an article entitled “Exhibition of the Artists of Chicago” in the Brush and Pencil.[38]  The same painting also appears in an article entitled “The Artist Out of Doors” by James Spencer Dickerson in The World To-Day, but with the name “in Sere and Yellow Leaf”.[39]  It is not known whether this was an error by Dickerson, or whether Harper actually renamed the painting.  This painting eventually made its way into the Evans-Tibbs Collection of Thurlow Evans Tibbs, Jr., and is currently owned by the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

As to another of Harper’s paintings from the Exhibition, Dickerson wrote that it:

“is from the brush of the young negro artist whose work is steadily growing in interest and worth.  It, with several other recent canvases, hung in the recent exhibit of the Chicago Society of Artists.  The only painting bought by the Union League Club, of Chicago, of those shown at this exhibition, was one of Mr. Harper’s.”

A review of the Catalogue of Paintings, Etchings, Engravings and Sculpture of the Union League Club of Chicago in 1907[40] shows that the painting purchased by the Union League was “Dusk”.  The Catalogue describes the painting as follows:

“Below a hilltop crowned with large trees, the country slopes to the farming lands beyond.  This picture enters the sphere of decorative painting, depending upon a rich, low-toned color scheme, and an arrangement of composition for its attractiveness, rather than upon the pictorial quality of a descriptive work of landscape painting.  It is one of those creations of the painter that win a way into the imagination and gain interest on acquaintance.”

The Union League Club sold “Dusk” in a silent auction in May of 1984.[41]  No further information on this painting is available.

The same Catalogue also shows that the Union League Club in 1907 owned two other paintings by Harper.  One, “In France” is described in the Catalogue as “a travel note of France during the artist’s sojourn abroad”.  According to an inquiry made of the Union League Club in 2015 by the author, this was a 5 x 7.5 inch oil painting acquired in 1904.  The other, “Over the Hills” is described as one of a group of sketches of landscape made by Harper on his foreign travels.  Neither painting appears to have been exhibited at the AIC.  As of 2015, the Union Club no longer owned either of these paintings, and their dispositions are unknown. 

One further exhibition took place in 1907 at which Harper’s works were displayed, but not at the AIC.  In an advertisement on page 4 of the Chicago Tribune on May 27, 1907, Marshall Field & Company announced the beginning of an “interesting exhibit” of oil paintings in its Picture Galleries from the best known works of a number of artists including Charles Francis Browne, Charles E. Hallberg, William A. Harper, Albert H. Krehbiel, and William Wendt.  No further specifics are available regarding that exhibit, but one can assume that those paintings were available for sale.

Although Harper exhibited actively in Chicago in 1907, he was for part or all of 1907 in France.  Unfortunately, we have no primary material detailing Harper’s second sojourn in Paris or otherwise in France.  The titles of a number of Harper’s paintings in subsequent exhibitions in Chicago indicate that they were clearly scenes in France, with a few specifically referencing “Montreuil, France”.  But other than those titles, Harper’s second visit to France is somewhat of a mystery.  His obituary states that while he was in France in 1907 and 1908 he “formed relations” with Henry Ossawa Tanner.[42]  Some secondary sources even describe him as studying informally with Tanner – notably without citing supporting documentation.[43]  Biographies of Tanner indicate that Tanner took an interest in assisting and mentoring young black American artists, including Harper, in Paris, but again without supporting documentation.[44]  Tanner had an apartment in Paris, and, as of early 1908, a villa in Trépied where he painted and welcomed visitors.[45]  Trépied is within walking distance of the fishing village of Étapes which housed a popular artist colony.  We know from the Krehbiel letters that Harper was familiar with Étapes, but have no direct evidence that he ever visited or painted there.  In any event, Harper was familiar with Tanner’s work, and it would have been logical for him to have connected with Tanner in some fashion when he made his second trip to France.

Some secondary sources suggest that Harper also worked with Wendt and Browne on this second trip.  Browne apparently did make a trip to France in 1908, but since he taught at the AIC during the 1907-1908 school year,[46] he must have left at the earliest after the conclusion of the school year in May or June.  Since Harper was back in Decatur, Illinois by the end of April 1908 (see below), overlapping time in Europe does not seem likely.  Likewise, Wendt does not appear to have been in France during Harper’s second trip either.  The “Chronology of the Live of William Wendt”, by Janet Blake of the Laguna Art Museum, shows that Wendt was in Los Angeles, Chicago, and the Grand Canyon in 1907 and 1908.  There is no reference to a trip to Europe during that period, and Wendt was newly married at the end of 1906.  See also the comprehensive essay by Will South from the catalogue for the exhibition “In Nature’s Temple:  The Life and Art of William Wendt”, at the Laguna Art Museum, November 9,1908 – February 8, 2009.

1908

As was his habit, Harper exhibited in the annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists held at the AIC in 1908, even though he was out of the country.  The Exhibition ran from February 4, 1908 to March 1, 1908.  The works submitted for consideration by the juries numbered 986, of which 330 were selected, including two paintings by Harper:

            113.  Autumn sunshine                       $200

            114.  Old house and vines                  $150

Harper’s painting “Old house and vines”, a French scene near Boulogne[47], won a prestigious prize of $100 awarded annually by The Young Fortnightly Club.[48]  Wendt had received this prize some years earlier in 1897[49], and Browne in 1906.[50]

Harper’s painting style, which was originally heavily influenced by the Barbizon school of painting, had evolved over time.  By the conclusion of his second trip to France, his work had begun to take on a looser, brighter, more impressionistic style, and included a heaver use of impasto.  A 1908 reviewer would describe his technique as follows:

”At the risk of trespassing on the sculptor’s field, he uses his daubing knife almost as much as his brush, and when he has completed a tree or a house, it stands out as though chiseled from a rock of variegated [sic] colors.”[51]

See full text of article below.

Ship passenger records show that Harper returned to the U.S. on the S.S. Noordam (Holland-America Line), sailing from Boulogne-sur-mer, a coastal city in the north of France, on March 28, 1908, arriving in New York on April 8, 1908.[52]  He is listed on the form as a United States Citizen travelling in the “Second cabin”.  Since Harper’s return from his first trip took place in steerage, it is a happy assumption that Harper’s financial condition must have improved from his earlier days.  [attach]

By the end of April, Harper was visiting his brother and father in Decatur, Illinois.  The Decatur Daily Review published an article on May 6 entitled “Home from Paris; Studied Art There”[53].  The article began:

            “William Harper, a colored artist, is in Decatur visiting his brother John Harper, several miles northwest of the city, and also his father John Harper, Sr., living on East Jefferson street.  Harper is one of the few colored artists in the country.  He has spent years in Europe and the United States studying under well known artists….

He went to Europe in 1906 and returned about a week ago….

After visiting here for a few weeks Harper will leave for Canada, where he expects to find great opportunities for landscape painting.  If successful he will return to Chicago in the winter and exhibit his own paintings.”

There is no further discussion about the trip to Canada, or whether it included a visit to Harper’s home in the Canfield/Cayuga area. 

Harper had apparently requested, and had been hoping for, an individual exhibition at the AIC.  He must have been disappointed to receive the letter dated October 8, 1908[54] from William M. R. French, the Director of the AIC, which read as follows:

“My dear Harper: –

I am publishing the programme of the exhibitions of the season and I have been unable to put your name in.  We can make very few individual exhibitions.  It is possible that we might at some time let you have room 31, but perhaps you no longer want to make an exhibition.  As you know, we are very friendly to you.

Yours very truly,

Wm. M. R. French”

Although Harper did not have an individual exhibition at the AIC during this time period, he did have an individual exhibition in Decatur at the James Millikin University.  The Decatur Herald published a glowing review of the exhibition on September 8, 1908[55] which not only addressed the exhibition, but discussed in considerable detail Harper’s painting style and local connection.  The author clearly interviewed Harper, and since this is the most comprehensive article from this time period, it is worth reproducing in its entirety:

“Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibition

William A. Harper’s Excellent Work on Display At University Well Worth Study By Local Art Lovers.

Decatur art lovers will be well repaid for attending the exhibition of paintings which William A. Harper, the young Chicago artist, is holding in the liberal arts hall of the James Millikin university.  The display is not large, but every picture is a finished work, and the fact that a number of them are local lanscapes [sic] and are at once recognized as such adds a special interest to the collection.  Mr. Harper has been spending the Summer as the guest of his brother near the city, and while the monotony of prairie country offers little to the landscape [sic] painter, Mr. Harper has found some charming spots, the beauty of which the artist has faithfully reproduced.

At first glance one would consider the builder of the Harper pictures less a painter than a modeler in oils.  Mr. Harper frankly says that he cannot stand a thin picture.  At the risk of trespassing on the sculptor’s field, he uses his daubing knife almost as much as his brush, and when he has completed a tree or a house, it stands out as though chiseled from a rock of variegated [sic] colors.  But in Mr. Harper’s work there is nothing suggesting coldness; his pictures are finished; indeed they are veritable portraits, but with “lift” enough to raise them from the plane of photographs, and behind and over all are color and light.  Mr. Harper loves soft blue skies, (and he thinks Illinois skies pretty near perfection) and while his earlier pictures were dark, he now leans toward light backgrounds.  A winding road through October woods, done in England, is a fine example of a typical Harper landscape.  Tall trees, nearly bare, but with here and there a patch of leaves beautiful in death, stand out against a delicate autumn sky, which lights up the whole scene.

The place of honor is given to a large oil, a landscape near Stevens creek.  Mr. Harper searched a long time before he found a hill side with trees between which he could look out across water to hills beyond.  He exercised his painter’s license in taking out a few troublesome bushes which shut off the view to the distant hills.  Mr. Harper believes with Whistler that nature’s settings are so seldom right that it is safe enough to say that they are never right, but the great tree in the foreground he did not attempt to change.  One could study that tree.  Mr. Harper transferred it to his canvas with the same care that he would use in painting a portrait.  You can almost see the flutter of the leaves and the sway of the giant limbs.  There are several other pictures painted in the vicinity of the large one.  Mr. Harper is not particular that Nature shall be in her brightest and freshest dress when he paints her.  That Summer was already waning when he secured the Stevens creek landscape is evidenced by the brown tint in the green.  But despite his fondness for light colors Mr. Harper hopes to transfer to a larger canvass a little picture of a wood scene that is all verdure, the rich green verdure of early Spring.

‘An Old House With Vines’ with which Mr. Harper won a prize in a Chicago exhibit last Winter is a French scene near Boulogne where Mr. Harper spent some time painting the quaint old houses and walls.  It is just what the name suggests, and there is every where color and warmth.  Another Boulogne picture is a Summer view across a pleasant landscape in which tall poplar trees, trimmed well up the trunk are prominent in the foreground.

Mr. Harper has a few water colors that are well worth studying.  Too much color would be the off hand verdict of the critic.  And then Mr. Harper will ask how you are going to paint old French houses with their stone, their brick, and their tiling without using nearly every color.  And inspection convinces one that Mr. Harper had not misused his colors.  Everything is natural, and you would not have it changed.

Mr. Harper is meeting with the difficulties that nearly all American artists encounter.  He is competing with French artists or American artists in France, whose work is inferior to his, but who have the advantage of being located in the great art salesrooms of the world.  Sometime American millionaires will discover that it is not necessary to go to France to buy fine pictures.  There is some humor in the thought that the Stevens Creek landscape would be snapped up by a rich and somewhat homesick American in Paris, while the same man would pass it by with hardly a glance were it exhibited in Chicago.  Fortunately art connoisseurs are awaking to the fact that American artists are doing creditable work, and all exhibitions made up of the work of American artists alone, such as now are being held in may cities, deserve encouragement.  Especially are such exhibitions as Mr. Harper is giving to be encouraged.  Decatur, without an art gallery of its own, but with an art sense developed in may of its people should be grateful for any opportunity to see good paintings.

Mr. Harper’s exhibit will be open from 3 to 6 this afternoon and Wednesday afternoon.  Members of the Art League will receive, and Mr. Harper will be present.”

Interestingly, this article contains the only reference to Harper having painted in watercolor.  The catalogues of the Annual Exhibitions of Water-Colors, Pastels and Miniatures by American Artists for the years 1900-1910 held at the AIC do not list any watercolors by Harper.  Either he did not enter any, or they were not accepted.  To date, only one watercolor by Harper has been identified and, although being rather different in style from his oil paintings, is very much in the nature of the paintings of old houses described in the above article. The watercolor is a delicate painting of an old tiled roof farmhouse surrounded by trees in light bright colors, with splashes of red geraniums. A copy is in the Paintings Gallery.

At the end of 1908, Harper had the honor of again being elected to the Committee of Artists for Chicago on the Juries of Selection for the Twenty-First Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists held from October 20 to November 29, 1908.  He also exhibited two paintings:

            121.  Illinois landscape

            122  Hotel de France

Harper’s address for the catalogue was “Care Art Institute, Chicago, Ills”.  The Chicago Tribune reported on the opening reception in its “News of the Society World” column, describing the gowns worn by the society matrons, and noting that among the artists present was William A. Harper.[56]

The painting “Illinois landscape” was reproduced in The Inter Ocean, on November 8, 1908, p. 33, in an article entitled “Chicago’s Annual Art Exhibition”.  The article described his other painting, “Hotel de France”, as being “an old world theme, executed with taste and skill.”  It went on to state that Harper “has recently returned from abroad, and is one of the artists in whose progress and success the people of Chicago are greatly interested.”

Harper was by this time in poor health suffering from lung problems, probably tuberculosis (also known as consumption).  Sometime after the exhibition opening in October of 1908, Harper departed for Cuernevaca, Mexico in the hope that the change of climate would enable him to regain his health.[57]


[1]  “William A. Harper” by Florence Lewis Bentley, The Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3, p. 117.

[2] In March, Wendt held a one-man exhibition of paintings at the AIC, at which at least two were scenes in Cornwall.  See, Catalogue of Exhibition of Paintings by William Wendt, the Art Institute of Chicago, March 2 to March 22, MDCCCCV.

[3] Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1905, p. 5; Brush and Pencil, Vol. 15, No. 3 (March 1905), p. 50.

[4] “Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists Opens”, The Inter-Ocean, February 1, 1905, p. 5.

[5] Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, January 31 to February 26, 1911, p. 39.

[6] Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, January 31 to February 26, 1905, p. 34.

[7] The Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3,

[8] “William A. Harper” by Florence Lewis Bentley, The Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3, p. 117.

[9] Bentley mis-labeled the painting in her article as “An Afternoon, Montigny”.  The name in the Exhibition catalogue was “Early afternoon, Montigny, France”.

[10] This river was spelled “Loing” in the Exhibition catalogue.

[11] “William A. Harper” by Florence Lewis Bentley, The Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3, p. 117.

[12] T.E. Donnelley (spelled “Donnelly” in the article) was the son of the founder of R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company which produced books and periodicals, and mass printed commercial and reference materials.  See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RR_Donnelley

[13] https://myweb.uiowa.edu/fsboos/galleries/afampainting.htm.   For some reason, this image does not currently appear on the Howard University website

[14] Bentley, op. cit.

[15] Bentley, op. cit.

[16] The Crisis, September 1915, p. 242.

[17] The Decatur Review, February 3, 1905, p. 3

[18] A handwritten notation indicates that this article is from the Chicago News.

[19] Chicago Journal, February 9, 1905, from AIC Scrapbooks.  See additionally, American Art News, Vol. 3, No. 68 (February 25, 1905), p 6.

[20] Harper would again serve on the Chicago Advisory Committee of Artists for the Juries of Selection for the Twenty-First Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists, held October 20 to November 29, 1908.

[21] “Colored Artist Dead in Mexico”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), March 29, 1910, p. 7.

[22] “Home from Paris; Studied Art There”, The Decatur Review, May 6, 1908, p. 7. 

[23] See, “Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibit”, The Decatur Herald (June 8, 1908, p. 4.

[24] Harper was an Associate Member of the Society of Western Artists beginning in 1906.

[25] “Tenth Annual Exhibition of the Society of Western Artists”, by E.E. Talbot, Brush and Pencil, Vol. 17, No. 1 (January 1906), pp. 25.

[26] “William A. Harper” by Florence Lewis Bentley, Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3, p. 117.

[27] Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Monroe.

[28] Ibid, p. 121.

[29] “Features of the Chicago Artists’ Exhibit”, The Inter-Ocean, February 4, 1906, p. 37.

[30] “Pictures by Janitor Artist”, The Inter-Ocean, October 25, 1902, p. 3.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 1, No. 1 (October, 1907, p. 14.

[33] Essay on Charles Francis Browne by Melissa Wolfe and Joel S. Dryer, Illinois Historical Art Project:  https://www.illinoisart.org/charles-francis-browne.

[34] “Henry O. Tanner” by Florence Lewis Bentley, Voice of the Negro, November 1906, Vol. 3, p. 480.

[35] Eleventh Annual Exhibition of the Society of Western Artists held at the AIC December 6 to December 26, 1906.

[36] Letter from Wm. M. R. French, Director of AIC, to John W. Harper, dated April 18, 1910, AIC archives.

[37]  Chicago News, “Colored Man Wins Position”, February 6, 1905.  The name “George B. Carper” was probably an error, the correct name of the Secretary of the AIC at that time being Newton H. Carpenter.

[38] “Exhibition of the Artists of Chicago”, by A.G. Randolph, Brush and Pencil, Vol. 19, No. 2 (February 1907)

[39] “The Artist Out of Doors”, James Spencer Dickenson, The World Today, Volume XII, 1907, p. 512.

[40] Catalogue of Paintings, Etchings, Engravings and Sculpture of the Union League Club of Chicago, 1907, compiled by L. M. McCauley for the Art Committee of the Union League Club, p. 14..

[41] A. History of the Art Collection of the Union League Club of Chicago, by Joan G. Wagner (Chicago:  Art Committee of the Union League Club of Chicago, 2000)

[42] “William A. Harper” Obituary, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 4, No. 1, July 1910, p. 11.

[43] See, e.g.Alain Locke, The Negro in Art, Associates in Negro Folk Education, Washington, D.C., 1940.

[44] Henry Ossawa Tanner, American Artist, by Marcia M. Mathews, The University of Chicago Press, 1969, p. 132-33.

[45] Henry Ossawa Tanner, Modern Spirit, edited by Anna O. Marley, University of California Press, 2012, p. 89.

[46] [Need course catalogue from AIC to verify]

[47] “Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibition; William A. Harper’s Excellent Work on Display At University Well Worth Study By Local Art Lovers”; The Decatur Herald, September 8, 1908, p. 4.

[48] “Prize Winners in Exhibit by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity”; Chicago Daily Tribune, February 4, 1908, p. 3; “Recent Exhibition of Chicago Artists”, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Apr., 1908, p. 36.

[49] “Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists”, Art Institute of Chicago, February 1-27, 1898, p. 31.

[50] Brush and Pencil, Volume XVII, January to June 1906, p. 35.

[51] Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibition; William A. Harper’s Excellent Work on Display At University Well Worth Study By Local Art Lovers; The Decatur Herald, September 8, 1908, p. 4.

[52] From the ancestry.com records:  https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7488/NYT715_1089-1357?pid=4032491925&backurl=https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv%3Dtry%26db%3Dnypl%26h%3D4032491925&treeid=&personid=&hintid=&usePUB=true&usePUBJs=true&_ga=2.211829268.1007922885.1592430352-1376552555.1571343165

[53] It should be pointed out that there are errors in the article, the most significant being the statement that Harper was born in Petersburg, Illinois. 

[54]  Letter in the AIC archives from William M. R. French, the Director of the AIC, to Harper in Decatur, Illinois, dated October 8, 1908.

[55] “Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibition; William A. Harper’s Excellent Work on Display At University Well Worth Study By Local Art Lovers”, The Decatur Herald, September 8, 1908, p. 4.

[56] “News of the Society World”, Chicago Tribune, October 21, 1908, p. 9.

[57]  “William A. Harper” obituary, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 4, No. 1 (July 1910), p. 11.

Interim Years

Last updated 7-29-20

Interim Years

1905

When Harper returned to Chicago after his sojourn in Europe, he brought with him paintings from both his time in Cornwall, England and his time in France.  He again submitted paintings to the annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, which ran at the AIC from January 31 to February 26, 1905.  According to the catalogue from that Exhibition, 902 works were submitted for consideration, of which 276 were selected for display.  Harper had nine paintings accepted, of which seven were of scenes in Cornwall and two of scenes in Montigny, France.  According to the Exhibition catalogue, Harper’s paintings were as follows:

            100.  Morning, midsummer, Cornwall, Eng.               $150

            101.  Early afternoon, Montigny, France                    $150

            102.  The hedgerow, Cornwall, Eng.                          $100

            103.  Eventide, Cornwall, Eng.                                   $50

            104.  Banks of the Loing, Montigny, France              $100

105.  The potato field, Cornwall, Eng.                        $35

106.  Lobbs house, Cornwall, Eng.                            $35

107.  Grey day, Cornwall, Eng.                                  $35

108.  Quiet morning, Cornwall, Eng.                          $35

This time, Harper listed his address in the catalogue as “Art Institute, Chicago”.  Of the nine above canvasses, six sold, including “Early afternoon, Montigny, France” and “Eventide, Cornwall, Eng.”.[1]  Given his past financial straits, this must have provided considerable relief to Harper.

Browne likewise exhibited, and of his seven paintings at least four were scenes in France, with three containing a Montigny, France designation.  Harper’s and Browne’s paintings of Montigny were clearly the result of their spring 1904 travel in that area.  Wendt exhibited five paintings, although their names as listed in the Exhibition catalogue give no clue as to whether they might have been painted in Cornwall or elsewhere.[2]

Harper’s work received much acclaim, and the Chicago Municipal Art League awarded him a prize of $30.  The Chicago Tribune reported that this award was for a “group of pictures”[3].  The Inter-Ocean, however, reported that this award was for the painting “Early Afternoon, Montigny”.[4]   Browne would win the same award from the Municipal Art League for a “group of pictures” in 1906.[5]  The Municipal Art League was composed of various independent organizations in Chicago which worked together for the purpose of encouraging art in the city of Chicago.[6]

In 1906, the illustrated monthly magazine The Voice of the Negro  would run a full page portrait of Harper in a white shirt and tie, wearing an artist’s smock and holding a palette and paint brushes as the front piece for the magazine with the title “Mr. William A. Harper, The Rising Negro Artist of the West”.[7]  In that same magazine, Florence Lewis Bentley wrote a lengthy article about Harper entitled “William A. Harper”,[8] which reproduced three of Harpers paintings from the 1905 Exhibition, “Early afternoon, Montigny, France” [9], “Eventide, Cornwall, Eng.”, and “The Banks of the Laing[10], Montigny, France”.  Bentley wrote that Harper’s painting “Early afternoon, Montigny, France” was “especially distinguished for beauty of color and atmospheric qualities” and richly deserving of the central position that it held in the gallery.  She went on to report that a “well known critic” had said that “It has no superior in the Exhibition, and will ever be a source of delight to the fortunate possessor.”[11]  That “fortunate possessor” would turn out to be Mr. T. E. Donnelley, of the firm of Donnelley & Sons, Chicago[12].  This painting is currently in the collection of Howard University, in Washington, D. C.[13]  Of the painting “Eventide”, Bentley wrote that it was “a beautiful English landscape rich in mellow browns and greens and bathed in the dreamy light of ending day.”[14]  Bentley went on to state that Harper’s “noticeable group of pictures was one of the sensations of last year’s exhibit and claimed as much attention as the work of men of international repute.”  Bentley clearly knew Harper, because in her article she wrote:

“It has been the privilege of the writer to see some new work, which Mr. Harper is preparing for the annual exhibition of Chicago artists, which will be in progress about the time that this paper sees the light of print.”[15]

Florence Lewis Bentley was a black author and literary editor described by The Crisis, a monthly magazine published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (“NAACP”), as “a strong social force in the city” of Chicago.[16]  She was married to Dr. Charles E. Bentley, a prominent dentist in Chicago, and one of the directors of the NAACP.  In addition to the article on Harper, Bentley also wrote in November of 1906, an article on “Henry O. Tanner” for Voice of the Negro, Vol. 3, November 1906, p. 480. 

Following the award from the Municipal Art League in 1905, the Decatur Review, a paper in Decatur, Illinois, where Harper’s father and brother lived, ran an article about Harper entitled “Negro Janitor, A Prize Artist”[17]  The article stated that:

“By awarding a prize to William A. Harper, a negro janitor of the Art Institute, the Chicago Municipal Art league has put itself on record against class and color distinctions when it comes to distributing honors for excellent work with the brush.”

The article described Harper’s ambitious work schedule at the AIC as follows:

“Several years ago, Harper was appointed janitor at the institute.  When he was not scrubbing floors and washing windows, he was studying pictures and drawing.  He saved money, became a student, received a diploma in 1900, went abroad and devoted every spare minute assiduously to the canvas.  He is night watchman now from 2 o’clock til 7 in the morning.  He paints all day, goes to sleep at 6 in the evening and rises for work at 2 in the morning.”

The reference to a diploma in “1900” appears to be an error because the AIC Circular for 1900-1901 lists Harper as still a student in the “Saturday Class – Normal”.  Nevertheless, the author of the article must have interviewed Harper for the article since it ends with one of the few quotations that we have from Harper, and one which is particularly telling:

“ ‘I think I can do my best work abroad.’ He said.  ‘There the color on one’s skin is never under any circumstances taken in to consideration.’ “

Several other newspapers recorded Harper’s award, including one found in the Scrapbooks of the AIC dated February 6, 1905 entitled “Colored Man Wins Position.  Paintings by W. A. Harper are admired at the Art Institute”[18].  Reporting on the AIC Exhibition, the article states:

“Inch by inch Harper has fought in his struggle to attain and succeed in his art until he has received the recognition of both the directors of the Art Institute and the management of the Municipal Art League.  With them there is no color line drawn artistic ability alone being the password by which admission is gained to these exhibitions.”

In another review of the Exhibition, the Chicago Journal wrote:

“Claiming particular attention are the nine paintings of Cornwall, and France by William A. Harper.  Among these have been counted certain ones said to be the best in the exhibition.  Mr. Harper’s painting shows maturity in selection and poetic feeling.  His landscapes have a foreign air and a certainty of grasp and expression.”[19]

Following the opening of the Exhibition, an amusing discussion appeared in the Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), February 9, 1905, p. 5, under the column “The Whirl of Society” which gives telling insight into the reaction that people had to Harper.  After rather sarcastically reviewing the society men and women attending the opening, the author wrote the following:

“I heard a Southern woman raving over the ‘works’ of William A. Harper, the handsome youth who acts as assistant about the institute while studying his art, and whose French studies this year have won him so much favorable mention from those that know.

He has studied in Paris, and his sympathies are decidedly French, which perhaps accounts for his abundance of poetry, commonly called by the women of the clubs ‘temperament’.

‘He is one of the handsomest chaps I ever saw,’ said the woman I happened to overhear, and her companion, a man of enlightenment, gravely offered to introduce the artist.  She enthused and instinctively straightened her hat.

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.’ “

“Eagle’s Nest” refers to the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony in Oregon, Illinois, of which Taft and Browne where founders and Wendt a member.  See earlier discussion under “Education”.  While the language used in describing Harper seems today rather dated and is indicative of the race divide with which Harper had to contend, it is clear that he was well liked and well respected both as an individual and as an artist.

Indeed, such was the esteem in which Harper was held that he was elected later that year as one of the six members of the Chicago Advisory Committee of Artists for the Juries of Selection for the Eighteenth Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists, held October 19 to November 26, 1905.[20]  Included among the paintings over which the juries passed judgment were those by such prominent artists as Childe Hassan, Robert Henri, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Edmund Tarbell.  Interestingly, Harper would, according to his obituary, form some sort of relationship with Tanner some years later while in France on his second visit.  The nature of that relationship remains unclear, but Harper was clearly familiar with Tanner’s works through this exhibition and others.

Harper spent the summer of 1905 in Decatur, Illinois.   An article published in the Decatur Review after his death states that:

“He came to Decatur in the summer of 1905 to make his home with his father and brother on the farm northwest of Decatur, and he put in the summer painting landscapes, including some beautiful scenes along the Sangamon river and Stevens creek.  These he endeavored to sell here, but there was not so good demand for first class work then as now and he sent them to Seattle, Wash., to the Art League exhibit, and there had no trouble disposing of five of them at good prices.  Others were sold in New York and Chicago.”[21]

A very similar article was published in the Decatur, Illinois Review in May of 1908:

“In the summer of ___ he came to Decatur to live with his father and brother, northwest of the town.  Nearly the entire summer he spent in painting landscapes on the Wade farm.  However as there was so sale for them here and not enough opportunities for good pictures, he decided to return to Europe and study more.…. Five of the pictures which he painted here, he sent to an art exhibit in Seattle, Wash.  They were sold there.  Others were sold in New York and Chicago.” [22]

The date is obscured in the 1908 article, but since the posthumous article appears to have been  based on the 1908 article, the missing date was most likely “1905”.  No information is available about the location of the “Wade farm”, nor have specific paintings been linked to that venue.  Note, however, that, at least one landscape located on “Stevens Creek” did appear in 1908 in Harper’s one man exhibition at the James Millikan University.[23].  See, page __.

In the fall of 1905, Harper returned to Chicago..  According to the Decatur Daily Herald of September 23, 1905 (p. 8),

“Mr. and Mrs. John Harper entertained a few friends at 6 o’clock dinner Thursday evening in honor of Mr. William Harper, who will leave soon for his home in Chicago.  A four course dinner was served and all spent a pleasant evening.”

The “John Harper” referenced above could have been either William’s brother John, or his father who had the same name, both of whom lived in Decatur at this time. 

In December, Harper exhibited one painting in the Tenth Annual Exhibition of the Society of Western Artists[24] held at the AIC on December 5-25, 1905.[25]  HIs painting “Young Poplars and Willows” was reproduced in the Bentley article referenced above: 

“Among these excellent works, there was one small canvas which has received specially favorable comment, and which easily held its own among the leaders of this important exhibition.  ‘Young Poplars and Willows’ by William A. Harper, is a landscape full of dreamy charm and tender sentiment.  It is a work conceived by on to whom Nature seems to have revealed her most intimate secrets, and it is executed with a delicacy and sureness of brush, which is the result of an almost perfect technique.”[26]

According to Bentley, the scene depicted was from “Illinois, near Mr. Harper’s old country home”.  It is not known whether this referred to a childhood home, or the home of his father (or perhaps brother) in or near Decatur, Illinois.

No other article of the time appears to have addressed Harper in such depth, and few authors appear to have met directly with Harper, so it is worth quoting at length from Bentley’s article:

“It has been the privilege of the writer to see some new work, which Mr. Harper is preparing for the annual exhibition of Chicago artists, which will be in progress about the time that this paper sees the light of print.  The landscapes already finished show a dignity and strength, a mobility of expression which seem to indicate a growth beyond even the recent “Young Poplars and Willows,” a development which shows itself not only in improved technique, but in a broader, deeper and more mature conception of beautiful thoughts and ideas.  It is noticeable that in all of Mr. Harper’s landscapes, trees play an important part.  ‘His handling of trees,’ says Harriet Monroe, ‘shows close and accurate study of their souls and bodies,’ and it is very true that no one could see Mr. Harper’s trees, without turning with renewed interest to these sentinels of Nature in their own places.  In fact that seems to be the most telling effect of Mr. Harper’s landscapes, they inspire us with a renewed reverence for Nature, which help us to see beauties around us which otherwise would remain hidden from untutored eyes.”

Harriet Monroe (December 23, 1860 – September 26, 1936) was an editor, scholar, literary critic, poet, patron of the arts, and eventual founding publisher and long-time editor of Poetry magazine.  She was also a freelance correspondent and art critic for the Chicago Tribune and a member of the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony in Ogle County, Illinois, where she most certainly would have met Harper.[27]

Bentley went on in report that Harper had spent his youth on a farm in Illinois, and that:

“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 to her.  In truth and in fact, Mr. Harper has literally done just that, for his life has been a single-hearted devotion to a fixed purpose, in spite of privation and labor which would have daunted a less courageous soul.”[28]

1906

The next annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists took place at the AIC from January 30 to February 25, 1906.  According to the catalogue for that Exhibition, 927 works were sent in for examination by the juries, from which 307 were selected.  Harper had seven works accepted for the Exhibition listed in the catalogue as follows:

107.  Early evening, Cornwall, Eng.               $200

108.  Lowland pastures.                                  $250

109.  The cabbage patch.                               $200

110.  The last gleam.                                      $75

111.  The hillside                                             $50

112.  The house in the hollow.                       $40

113.  Grey day.                                               $35

Harper’s address is included as 224 Ontario Street, Chicago, the same address as he used in 1902, but without the “Care Wm. Wendt” prefix.  His painting “Lowland pastures” was one of the twelve paintings reproduced in the catalogue, perhaps explaining why it was the highest priced of his paintings.  The Inter-Oceans’ review of the Exhibition considered “Lowland pastures” the most interesting of Harper’s paintings, with “the silver blue pond to the left, as seen among the trees, possibly being the most interesting feature of the painting itself.” [29]

Not much is known about Harper’s friends, although he clearly had a good relationship with his mentors Wendt and Brown and was well thought of by the other AIC students who were with him in Paris.  An intriguing item is found in the catalogue of Exhibition of Paintings by Charles Edward Hallberg of Chicago, held at the AIC March 1 to March 21, 1906, which notes that painting No. 36 in that Exhibition entitled “Near the shore” was “Lent by Mr. Wm. A. Harper”.  Another painting was lent for the Exhibition by Browne.  Pursuant to the biographical preliminary to the catalogue, Hallberg was born in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1855, and was a sailor from 1873 to 1890.  He settled in Chicago in 1880, and became a painter, first exhibiting at the AIC in 1890.  He was also a fellow janitor.  According to an article in The Inter Ocean in 1902 entitled “Pictures by Janitor Artist”, Hallberg had by that time been working for eight years as a janitor in a local bank.[30]  Like Harper, in 1902 Hallberg had for the first time three paintings accepted in the annual juried Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists held at the AIC.  With this striking commonality between the two artists, it would not be surprising for the two to have been acquainted.  Harper never appears to have had much money, so owing a painting by Hallberg does suggest a certain level of friendship – whether Harper acquired the painting by purchase, gift, or even trade.   

It is worth noting that the 1908 article “Home from Paris; Studied Art There” in The Decatur Review, May 6, 1908, p. 7, also states that sometime after his return from his first trip to Europe Harper was “given the commission to paint the decorations on the walls of the Chicago Normal school in Englewood”[31].  No further information has been found regarding this commission and this is the only suggestion that Harper may have ever painted a mural.  Unfortunately, the building that housed that school no longer exists.  Coincidently, however, in 1906 Browne and another instructor at the AIC oversaw the completion of ten murals at the Institute depicting sports.  The following year, mural decoration was added to the curriculum of the AIC, with Browne as one of the two instructors.[32]  Under the direction of Browne and the other instructor, the first mural class painted three large murals for the auditorium of the Elm Place Grammar School.[33]  Given the timing, it is interesting to speculate as to whether Browne assisted with or advised Harper on his mural project – assuming that one was ever undertaken.

The same 1908 article goes on to state that in 1906 Harper returned to Europe.  The return trip to Europe notwithstanding, at the end of 1906 Harper exhibited in the Nineteenth Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculptures by American Artists at the AIC held from October 16 to November 29.  This was the first time that Harper participated as a contributor in this particular exhibition, although he served on one of the Juries of Selection for the Eighteenth Annual Exhibition in 1905.  The catalogue notes that Harper was a member of the Chicago Society of Artists, and indicates that Harper exhibited two paintings:

151.  A bit of Lincoln Park.

152.  On a day.

Tanner also exhibited a painting entitled “The Two Disciples at the Tomb”, which was awarded the hefty prize of $500 for the best picture of the show and subsequently purchased by the AIC.[34] 

In 1906 Harper also began to appear for the first time in the Catalogues of the Annual Exhibitions of the Society of Western Artists as an Associate Member for Chicago.[35]

1907

Harper was again represented in the annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists held at the AIC from January 29 to February 24, 1907, with five paintings:

113.  Gray day.                                   $40

114.  The road.                                   $40

115.  Dusk                                          $200

116.  Half leafless and dry.                 $150

117.  Cornish hills.                              $150

Out of 818 works submitted to the jury for consideration, 284 were selected for the Exhibition.  Harper listed his address in the catalogue as “Secretary’s Office, Art Institute, Chicago”.  The Secretary for the AIC was Newton H. Carpenter.  A letter written by Wm. M. R. French, the Director of the AIC following Harper’s death in 1910 advised that Carpenter managed Harpers “business”.[36]  Presumably he would have coordinated the submission of Harper’s paintings for the various exhibitions and handled any related finances, including the sale of paintings, when Harper was not in Chicago.  The two appear to have been friends for many years with one early article suggesting that it was Carpenter who was responsible for Harper actually attending the AIC.[37]  See earlier discussion under “Education”, p. ___. 

The painting “Half leafless and dry” was one of twelve paintings reproduced in the exhibition catalogue.  It was likewise reproduced in an article entitled “Exhibition of the Artists of Chicago” in the Brush and Pencil.[38]  The same painting also appears in an article entitled “The Artist Out of Doors” by James Spencer Dickerson in The World To-Day, but with the name “in Sere and Yellow Leaf”.[39]  It is not known whether this was an error by Dickerson, or whether Harper actually renamed the painting.  This painting eventually made its way into the Evans-Tibbs Collection of Thurlow Evans Tibbs, Jr., and is currently owned by the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

As to another of Harper’s paintings from the Exhibition, Dickerson wrote that it:

“is from the brush of the young negro artist whose work is steadily growing in interest and worth.  It, with several other recent canvases, hung in the recent exhibit of the Chicago Society of Artists.  The only painting bought by the Union League Club, of Chicago, of those shown at this exhibition, was one of Mr. Harper’s.”

A review of the Catalogue of Paintings, Etchings, Engravings and Sculpture of the Union League Club of Chicago in 1907[40] shows that the painting purchased by the Union League was “Dusk”.  The Catalogue describes the painting as follows:

“Below a hilltop crowned with large trees, the country slopes to the farming lands beyond.  This picture enters the sphere of decorative painting, depending upon a rich, low-toned color scheme, and an arrangement of composition for its attractiveness, rather than upon the pictorial quality of a descriptive work of landscape painting.  It is one of those creations of the painter that win a way into the imagination and gain interest on acquaintance.”

The Union League Club sold “Dusk” in a silent auction in May of 1984.[41]  No further information on this painting is available.

The same Catalogue also shows that the Union League Club in 1907 owned two other paintings by Harper.  One, “In France” is described in the Catalogue as “a travel note of France during the artist’s sojourn abroad”.  According to an inquiry made of the Union League Club in 2015 by the author, this was a 5 x 7.5 inch oil painting acquired in 1904.  The other, “Over the Hills” is described as one of a group of sketches of landscape made by Harper on his foreign travels.  Neither painting appears to have been exhibited at the AIC.  As of 2015, the Union Club no longer owned either of these paintings, and their dispositions are unknown. 

One further exhibition took place in 1907 at which Harper’s works were displayed, but not at the AIC.  In an advertisement on page 4 of the Chicago Tribune on May 27, 1907, Marshall Field & Company announced the beginning of an “interesting exhibit” of oil paintings in its Picture Galleries from the best known works of a number of artists including Charles Francis Browne, Charles E. Hallberg, William A. Harper, Albert H. Krehbiel, and William Wendt.  No further specifics are available regarding that exhibit, but one can assume that those paintings were available for sale.

Although Harper exhibited actively in Chicago in 1907, he was for part or all of 1907 in France.  Unfortunately, we have no primary material detailing Harper’s second sojourn in Paris or otherwise in France.  The titles of a number of Harper’s paintings in subsequent exhibitions in Chicago indicate that they were clearly scenes in France, with a few specifically referencing “Montreuil, France”.  But other than those titles, Harper’s second visit to France is somewhat of a mystery.  His obituary states that while he was in France in 1907 and 1908 he “formed relations” with Henry Ossawa Tanner.[42]  Some secondary sources even describe him as studying informally with Tanner – notably without citing supporting documentation.[43]  Biographies of Tanner indicate that Tanner took an interest in assisting and mentoring young black American artists, including Harper, in Paris, but again without supporting documentation.[44]  Tanner had an apartment in Paris, and, as of early 1908, a villa in Trépied where he painted and welcomed visitors.[45]  Trépied is within walking distance of the fishing village of Étapes which housed a popular artist colony.  We know from the Krehbiel letters that Harper was familiar with Étapes, but have no direct evidence that he ever visited or painted there.  In any event, Harper was familiar with Tanner’s work, and it would have been logical for him to have connected with Tanner in some fashion when he made his second trip to France.

Some secondary sources suggest that Harper also worked with Wendt and Browne on this second trip.  Browne apparently did make a trip to France in 1908, but since he taught at the AIC during the 1907-1908 school year,[46] he must have left at the earliest after the conclusion of the school year in May or June.  Since Harper was back in Decatur, Illinois by the end of April 1908 (see below), overlapping time in Europe does not seem likely.  Likewise, Wendt does not appear to have been in France during Harper’s second trip either.  The “Chronology of the Live of William Wendt”, by Janet Blake of the Laguna Art Museum, shows that Wendt was in Los Angeles, Chicago, and the Grand Canyon in 1907 and 1908.  There is no reference to a trip to Europe during that period, and Wendt was newly married at the end of 1906.  See also the comprehensive essay by Will South from the catalogue for the exhibition “In Nature’s Temple:  The Life and Art of William Wendt”, at the Laguna Art Museum, November 9,1908 – February 8, 2009.

1908

As was his habit, Harper exhibited in the annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists held at the AIC in 1908, even though he was out of the country.  The Exhibition ran from February 4, 1908 to March 1, 1908.  The works submitted for consideration by the juries numbered 986, of which 330 were selected, including two paintings by Harper:

            113.  Autumn sunshine                       $200

            114.  Old house and vines                  $150

Harper’s painting “Old house and vines”, a French scene near Boulogne[47], won a prestigious prize of $100 awarded annually by The Young Fortnightly Club.[48]  Wendt had received this prize some years earlier in 1897[49], and Browne in 1906.[50]

Harper’s painting style, which was originally heavily influenced by the Barbizon school of painting, had evolved over time.  By the conclusion of his second trip to France, his work had begun to take on a looser, brighter, more impressionistic style, and included a heaver use of impasto.  A 1908 reviewer would describe his technique as follows:

”At the risk of trespassing on the sculptor’s field, he uses his daubing knife almost as much as his brush, and when he has completed a tree or a house, it stands out as though chiseled from a rock of variegated [sic] colors.”[51]

See full text of article below.

Ship passenger records show that Harper returned to the U.S. on the S.S. Noordam (Holland-America Line), sailing from Boulogne-sur-mer, a coastal city in the north of France, on March 28, 1908, arriving in New York on April 8, 1908.[52]  He is listed on the form as a United States Citizen travelling in the “Second cabin”.  Since Harper’s return from his first trip took place in steerage, it is a happy assumption that Harper’s financial condition must have improved from his earlier days.  [attach]

By the end of April, Harper was visiting his brother and father in Decatur, Illinois.  The Decatur Daily Review published an article on May 6 entitled “Home from Paris; Studied Art There”[53].  The article began:

            “William Harper, a colored artist, is in Decatur visiting his brother John Harper, several miles northwest of the city, and also his father John Harper, Sr., living on East Jefferson street.  Harper is one of the few colored artists in the country.  He has spent years in Europe and the United States studying under well known artists….

He went to Europe in 1906 and returned about a week ago….

After visiting here for a few weeks Harper will leave for Canada, where he expects to find great opportunities for landscape painting.  If successful he will return to Chicago in the winter and exhibit his own paintings.”

There is no further discussion about the trip to Canada, or whether it included a visit to Harper’s home in the Canfield/Cayuga area. 

Harper had apparently requested, and had been hoping for, an individual exhibition at the AIC.  He must have been disappointed to receive the letter dated October 8, 1908[54] from William M. R. French, the Director of the AIC, which read as follows:

“My dear Harper: –

I am publishing the programme of the exhibitions of the season and I have been unable to put your name in.  We can make very few individual exhibitions.  It is possible that we might at some time let you have room 31, but perhaps you no longer want to make an exhibition.  As you know, we are very friendly to you.

Yours very truly,

Wm. M. R. French”

Although Harper did not have an individual exhibition at the AIC during this time period, he did have an individual exhibition in Decatur at the James Millikin University.  The Decatur Herald published a glowing review of the exhibition on September 8, 1908[55] which not only addressed the exhibition, but discussed in considerable detail Harper’s painting style and local connection.  The author clearly interviewed Harper, and since this is the most comprehensive article from this time period, it is worth reproducing in its entirety:

“Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibition

William A. Harper’s Excellent Work on Display At University Well Worth Study By Local Art Lovers.

Decatur art lovers will be well repaid for attending the exhibition of paintings which William A. Harper, the young Chicago artist, is holding in the liberal arts hall of the James Millikin university.  The display is not large, but every picture is a finished work, and the fact that a number of them are local lanscapes [sic] and are at once recognized as such adds a special interest to the collection.  Mr. Harper has been spending the Summer as the guest of his brother near the city, and while the monotony of prairie country offers little to the landscape [sic] painter, Mr. Harper has found some charming spots, the beauty of which the artist has faithfully reproduced.

At first glance one would consider the builder of the Harper pictures less a painter than a modeler in oils.  Mr. Harper frankly says that he cannot stand a thin picture.  At the risk of trespassing on the sculptor’s field, he uses his daubing knife almost as much as his brush, and when he has completed a tree or a house, it stands out as though chiseled from a rock of variegated [sic] colors.  But in Mr. Harper’s work there is nothing suggesting coldness; his pictures are finished; indeed they are veritable portraits, but with “lift” enough to raise them from the plane of photographs, and behind and over all are color and light.  Mr. Harper loves soft blue skies, (and he thinks Illinois skies pretty near perfection) and while his earlier pictures were dark, he now leans toward light backgrounds.  A winding road through October woods, done in England, is a fine example of a typical Harper landscape.  Tall trees, nearly bare, but with here and there a patch of leaves beautiful in death, stand out against a delicate autumn sky, which lights up the whole scene.

The place of honor is given to a large oil, a landscape near Stevens creek.  Mr. Harper searched a long time before he found a hill side with trees between which he could look out across water to hills beyond.  He exercised his painter’s license in taking out a few troublesome bushes which shut off the view to the distant hills.  Mr. Harper believes with Whistler that nature’s settings are so seldom right that it is safe enough to say that they are never right, but the great tree in the foreground he did not attempt to change.  One could study that tree.  Mr. Harper transferred it to his canvass with the same care that he would use in painting a portrait.  You can almost see the flutter of the leaves and the sway of the giant limbs.  There are several other pictures painted in the vicinity of the large one.  Mr. Harper is not particular that Nature shall be in her brightest and freshest dress when he paints her.  That Summer was already waning when he secured the Stevens creek landscape is evidenced by the brown tint in the green.  But despite his fondness for light colors Mr. Harper hopes to transfer to a larger canvass a little picture of a wood scene that is all verdure, the rich green verdure of early Spring.

‘An Old House With Vines’ with which Mr. Harper won a prize in a Chicago exhibit last Winter is a French scene near Boulogne where Mr. Harper spent some time painting the quaint old houses and walls.  It is just what the name suggests, and there is every where color and warmth.  Another Boulogne picture is a Summer view across a pleasant landscape in which tall poplar trees, trimmed well up the trunk are prominent in the foreground.

Mr. Harper has a few water colors that are well worth studying.  Too much color would be the off hand verdict of the critic.  And then Mr. Harper will ask how you are going to paint old French houses with their stone, their brick, and their tiling without using nearly every color.  And inspection convinces one that Mr. Harper had not misused his colors.  Everything is natural, and you would not have it changed.

Mr. Harper is meeting with the difficulties that nearly all American artists encounter.  He is competing with French artists or American artists in France, whose work is inferior to his, but who have the advantage of being located in the great art salesrooms of the world.  Sometime American millionaires will discover that it is not necessary to go to France to buy fine pictures.  There is some humor in the thought that the Stevens Creek landscape would be snapped up by a rich and somewhat homesick American in Paris, while the same man would pass it by with hardly a glance were it exhibited in Chicago.  Fortunately art connoisseurs are awaking to the fact that American artists are doing creditable work, and all exhibitions made up of the work of American artists alone, such as now are being held in may cities, deserve encouragement.  Especially are such exhibitions as Mr. Harper is giving to be encouraged.  Decatur, without an art gallery of its own, but with an art sense developed in may of its people should be grateful for any opportunity to see good paintings.

Mr. Harper’s exhibit will be open from 3 to 6 this afternoon and Wednesday afternoon.  Members of the Art League will receive, and Mr. Harper will be present.”

Interestingly, this article contains the only reference to Harper having painted in watercolor.  The catalogues of the Annual Exhibitions of Water-Colors, Pastels and Miniatures by American Artists for the years 1900-1910 held at the AIC do not list any watercolors by Harper.  Either he did not enter any, or they were not accepted. 

At the end of 1908, Harper had the honor of again being elected to the Committee of Artists for Chicago on the Juries of Selection for the Twenty-First Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists held from October 20 to November 29, 1908.  He also exhibited two paintings:

            121.  Illinois landscape

            122  Hotel de France

Harper’s address for the catalogue was “Care Art Institute, Chicago, Ills”.  The Chicago Tribune reported on the opening reception in its “News of the Society World” column, describing the gowns worn by the society matrons, and noting that among the artists present was William A. Harper.[56]

The painting “Illinois landscape” was reproduced in The Inter Ocean, on November 8, 1908, p. 33, in an article entitled “Chicago’s Annual Art Exhibition”.  The article described his other painting, “Hotel de France”, as being “an old world theme, executed with taste and skill.”  It went on to state that Harper “has recently returned from abroad, and is one of the artists in whose progress and success the people of Chicago are greatly interested.”

Harper was by this time in poor health suffering from lung problems, probably tuberculosis (also known as consumption).  Sometime after the exhibition opening in October of 1908, Harper departed for Cuernevaca, Mexico in the hope that the change of climate would enable him to regain his health.[57]


[1]  “William A. Harper” by Florence Lewis Bentley, The Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3, p. 117.

[2] In March, Wendt held a one-man exhibition of paintings at the AIC, at which at least two were scenes in Cornwall.  See, Catalogue of Exhibition of Paintings by William Wendt, the Art Institute of Chicago, March 2 to March 22, MDCCCCV.

[3] Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1905, p. 5; Brush and Pencil, Vol. 15, No. 3 (March 1905), p. 50.

[4] “Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists Opens”, The Inter-Ocean, February 1, 1905, p. 5.

[5] Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, January 31 to February 26, 1911, p. 39.

[6] Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, January 31 to February 26, 1905, p. 34.

[7] The Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3,

[8] “William A. Harper” by Florence Lewis Bentley, The Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3, p. 117.

[9] Bentley mis-labeled the painting in her article as “An Afternoon, Montigny”.  The name in the Exhibition catalogue was “Early afternoon, Montigny, France”.

[10] This river was spelled “Loing” in the Exhibition catalogue.

[11] “William A. Harper” by Florence Lewis Bentley, The Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3, p. 117.

[12] T.E. Donnelley (spelled “Donnelly” in the article) was the son of the founder of R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company which produced books and periodicals, and mass printed commercial and reference materials.  See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RR_Donnelley

[13] https://myweb.uiowa.edu/fsboos/galleries/afampainting.htm.   For some reason, this image does not currently appear on the Howard University website

[14] Bentley, op. cit.

[15] Bentley, op. cit.

[16] The Crisis, September 1915, p. 242.

[17] The Decatur Review, February 3, 1905, p. 3

[18] A handwritten notation indicates that this article is from the Chicago News.

[19] Chicago Journal, February 9, 1905, from AIC Scrapbooks.  See additionally, American Art News, Vol. 3, No. 68 (February 25, 1905), p 6.

[20] Harper would again serve on the Chicago Advisory Committee of Artists for the Juries of Selection for the Twenty-First Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists, held October 20 to November 29, 1908.

[21] “Colored Artist Dead in Mexico”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), March 29, 1910, p. 7.

[22] “Home from Paris; Studied Art There”, The Decatur Review, May 6, 1908, p. 7. 

[23] See, “Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibit”, The Decatur Herald (June 8, 1908, p. 4.

[24] Harper was an Associate Member of the Society of Western Artists beginning in 1906.

[25] “Tenth Annual Exhibition of the Society of Western Artists”, by E.E. Talbot, Brush and Pencil, Vol. 17, No. 1 (January 1906), pp. 25.

[26] “William A. Harper” by Florence Lewis Bentley, Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3, p. 117.

[27] Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Monroe.

[28] Ibid, p. 121.

[29] “Features of the Chicago Artists’ Exhibit”, The Inter-Ocean, February 4, 1906, p. 37.

[30] “Pictures by Janitor Artist”, The Inter-Ocean, October 25, 1902, p. 3.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 1, No. 1 (October, 1907, p. 14.

[33] Essay on Charles Francis Browne by Melissa Wolfe and Joel S. Dryer, Illinois Historical Art Project:  https://www.illinoisart.org/charles-francis-browne.

[34] “Henry O. Tanner” by Florence Lewis Bentley, Voice of the Negro, November 1906, Vol. 3, p. 480.

[35] Eleventh Annual Exhibition of the Society of Western Artists held at the AIC December 6 to December 26, 1906.

[36] Letter from Wm. M. R. French, Director of AIC, to John W. Harper, dated April 18, 1910, AIC archives.

[37]  Chicago News, “Colored Man Wins Position”, February 6, 1905.  The name “George B. Carper” was probably an error, the correct name of the Secretary of the AIC at that time being Newton H. Carpenter.

[38] “Exhibition of the Artists of Chicago”, by A.G. Randolph, Brush and Pencil, Vol. 19, No. 2 (February 1907)

[39] “The Artist Out of Doors”, James Spencer Dickenson, The World Today, Volume XII, 1907, p. 512.

[40] Catalogue of Paintings, Etchings, Engravings and Sculpture of the Union League Club of Chicago, 1907, compiled by L. M. McCauley for the Art Committee of the Union League Club, p. 14..

[41] A. History of the Art Collection of the Union League Club of Chicago, by Joan G. Wagner (Chicago:  Art Committee of the Union League Club of Chicago, 2000)

[42] “William A. Harper” Obituary, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 4, No. 1, July 1910, p. 11.

[43] See, e.g.Alain Locke, The Negro in Art, Associates in Negro Folk Education, Washington, D.C., 1940.

[44] Henry Ossawa Tanner, American Artist, by Marcia M. Mathews, The University of Chicago Press, 1969, p. 132-33.

[45] Henry Ossawa Tanner, Modern Spirit, edited by Anna O. Marley, University of California Press, 2012, p. 89.

[46] [Need course catalogue from AIC to verify]

[47] “Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibition; William A. Harper’s Excellent Work on Display At University Well Worth Study By Local Art Lovers”; The Decatur Herald, September 8, 1908, p. 4.

[48] “Prize Winners in Exhibit by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity”; Chicago Daily Tribune, February 4, 1908, p. 3; “Recent Exhibition of Chicago Artists”, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Apr., 1908, p. 36.

[49] “Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists”, Art Institute of Chicago, February 1-27, 1898, p. 31.

[50] Brush and Pencil, Volume XVII, January to June 1906, p. 35.

[51] Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibition; William A. Harper’s Excellent Work on Display At University Well Worth Study By Local Art Lovers; The Decatur Herald, September 8, 1908, p. 4.

[52] From the ancestry.com records:  https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7488/NYT715_1089-1357?pid=4032491925&backurl=https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv%3Dtry%26db%3Dnypl%26h%3D4032491925&treeid=&personid=&hintid=&usePUB=true&usePUBJs=true&_ga=2.211829268.1007922885.1592430352-1376552555.1571343165

[53] It should be pointed out that there are errors in the article, the most significant being the statement that Harper was born in Petersburg, Illinois. 

[54]  Letter in the AIC archives from William M. R. French, the Director of the AIC, to Harper in Decatur, Illinois, dated October 8, 1908.

[55] “Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibition; William A. Harper’s Excellent Work on Display At University Well Worth Study By Local Art Lovers”, The Decatur Herald, September 8, 1908, p. 4.

[56] “News of the Society World”, Chicago Tribune, October 21, 1908, p. 9.

[57]  “William A. Harper” obituary, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 4, No. 1 (July 1910), p. 11.

Interim Years

Last updated 7-29-20

Interim Years

1905

When Harper returned to Chicago after his sojourn in Europe, he brought with him paintings from both his time in Cornwall, England and his time in France.  He again submitted paintings to the annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, which ran at the AIC from January 31 to February 26, 1905.  According to the catalogue from that Exhibition, 902 works were submitted for consideration, of which 276 were selected for display.  Harper had nine paintings accepted, of which seven were of scenes in Cornwall and two of scenes in Montigny, France.  According to the Exhibition catalogue, Harper’s paintings were as follows:

            100.  Morning, midsummer, Cornwall, Eng.               $150

            101.  Early afternoon, Montigny, France                    $150

            102.  The hedgerow, Cornwall, Eng.                          $100

            103.  Eventide, Cornwall, Eng.                                   $50

            104.  Banks of the Loing, Montigny, France              $100

105.  The potato field, Cornwall, Eng.                        $35

106.  Lobbs house, Cornwall, Eng.                            $35

107.  Grey day, Cornwall, Eng.                                  $35

108.  Quiet morning, Cornwall, Eng.                          $35

This time, Harper listed his address in the catalogue as “Art Institute, Chicago”.  Of the nine above canvasses, six sold, including “Early afternoon, Montigny, France” and “Eventide, Cornwall, Eng.”.[1]  Given his past financial straits, this must have provided considerable relief to Harper.

Browne likewise exhibited, and of his seven paintings at least four were scenes in France, with three containing a Montigny, France designation.  Harper’s and Browne’s paintings of Montigny were clearly the result of their spring 1904 travel in that area.  Wendt exhibited five paintings, although their names as listed in the Exhibition catalogue give no clue as to whether they might have been painted in Cornwall or elsewhere.[2]

Harper’s work received much acclaim, and the Chicago Municipal Art League awarded him a prize of $30.  The Chicago Tribune reported that this award was for a “group of pictures”[3].  The Inter-Ocean, however, reported that this award was for the painting “Early Afternoon, Montigny”.[4]   Browne would win the same award from the Municipal Art League for a “group of pictures” in 1906.[5]  The Municipal Art League was composed of various independent organizations in Chicago which worked together for the purpose of encouraging art in the city of Chicago.[6]

In 1906, the illustrated monthly magazine The Voice of the Negro  would run a full page portrait of Harper in a white shirt and tie, wearing an artist’s smock and holding a palette and paint brushes as the front piece for the magazine with the title “Mr. William A. Harper, The Rising Negro Artist of the West”.[7]  In that same magazine, Florence Lewis Bentley wrote a lengthy article about Harper entitled “William A. Harper”,[8] which reproduced three of Harpers paintings from the 1905 Exhibition, “Early afternoon, Montigny, France” [9], “Eventide, Cornwall, Eng.”, and “The Banks of the Laing[10], Montigny, France”.  Bentley wrote that Harper’s painting “Early afternoon, Montigny, France” was “especially distinguished for beauty of color and atmospheric qualities” and richly deserving of the central position that it held in the gallery.  She went on to report that a “well known critic” had said that “It has no superior in the Exhibition, and will ever be a source of delight to the fortunate possessor.”[11]  That “fortunate possessor” would turn out to be Mr. T. E. Donnelley, of the firm of Donnelley & Sons, Chicago[12].  This painting is currently in the collection of Howard University, in Washington, D. C.[13]  Of the painting “Eventide”, Bentley wrote that it was “a beautiful English landscape rich in mellow browns and greens and bathed in the dreamy light of ending day.”[14]  Bentley went on to state that Harper’s “noticeable group of pictures was one of the sensations of last year’s exhibit and claimed as much attention as the work of men of international repute.”  Bentley clearly knew Harper, because in her article she wrote:

“It has been the privilege of the writer to see some new work, which Mr. Harper is preparing for the annual exhibition of Chicago artists, which will be in progress about the time that this paper sees the light of print.”[15]

Florence Lewis Bentley was a black author and literary editor described by The Crisis, a monthly magazine published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (“NAACP”), as “a strong social force in the city” of Chicago.[16]  She was married to Dr. Charles E. Bentley, a prominent dentist in Chicago, and one of the directors of the NAACP.  In addition to the article on Harper, Bentley also wrote in November of 1906, an article on “Henry O. Tanner” for Voice of the Negro, Vol. 3, November 1906, p. 480. 

Following the award from the Municipal Art League in 1905, the Decatur Review, a paper in Decatur, Illinois, where Harper’s father and brother lived, ran an article about Harper entitled “Negro Janitor, A Prize Artist”[17]  The article stated that:

“By awarding a prize to William A. Harper, a negro janitor of the Art Institute, the Chicago Municipal Art league has put itself on record against class and color distinctions when it comes to distributing honors for excellent work with the brush.”

The article described Harper’s ambitious work schedule at the AIC as follows:

“Several years ago, Harper was appointed janitor at the institute.  When he was not scrubbing floors and washing windows, he was studying pictures and drawing.  He saved money, became a student, received a diploma in 1900, went abroad and devoted every spare minute assiduously to the canvas.  He is night watchman now from 2 o’clock til 7 in the morning.  He paints all day, goes to sleep at 6 in the evening and rises for work at 2 in the morning.”

The reference to a diploma in “1900” appears to be an error because the AIC Circular for 1900-1901 lists Harper as still a student in the “Saturday Class – Normal”.  Nevertheless, the author of the article must have interviewed Harper for the article since it ends with one of the few quotations that we have from Harper, and one which is particularly telling:

“ ‘I think I can do my best work abroad.’ He said.  ‘There the color on one’s skin is never under any circumstances taken in to consideration.’ “

Several other newspapers recorded Harper’s award, including one found in the Scrapbooks of the AIC dated February 6, 1905 entitled “Colored Man Wins Position.  Paintings by W. A. Harper are admired at the Art Institute”[18].  Reporting on the AIC Exhibition, the article states:

“Inch by inch Harper has fought in his struggle to attain and succeed in his art until he has received the recognition of both the directors of the Art Institute and the management of the Municipal Art League.  With them there is no color line drawn artistic ability alone being the password by which admission is gained to these exhibitions.”

In another review of the Exhibition, the Chicago Journal wrote:

“Claiming particular attention are the nine paintings of Cornwall, and France by William A. Harper.  Among these have been counted certain ones said to be the best in the exhibition.  Mr. Harper’s painting shows maturity in selection and poetic feeling.  His landscapes have a foreign air and a certainty of grasp and expression.”[19]

Following the opening of the Exhibition, an amusing discussion appeared in the Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), February 9, 1905, p. 5, under the column “The Whirl of Society” which gives telling insight into the reaction that people had to Harper.  After rather sarcastically reviewing the society men and women attending the opening, the author wrote the following:

“I heard a Southern woman raving over the ‘works’ of William A. Harper, the handsome youth who acts as assistant about the institute while studying his art, and whose French studies this year have won him so much favorable mention from those that know.

He has studied in Paris, and his sympathies are decidedly French, which perhaps accounts for his abundance of poetry, commonly called by the women of the clubs ‘temperament’.

‘He is one of the handsomest chaps I ever saw,’ said the woman I happened to overhear, and her companion, a man of enlightenment, gravely offered to introduce the artist.  She enthused and instinctively straightened her hat.

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.’ “

“Eagle’s Nest” refers to the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony in Oregon, Illinois, of which Taft and Browne where founders and Wendt a member.  See earlier discussion under “Education”.  While the language used in describing Harper seems today rather dated and is indicative of the race divide with which Harper had to contend, it is clear that he was well liked and well respected both as an individual and as an artist.

Indeed, such was the esteem in which Harper was held that he was elected later that year as one of the six members of the Chicago Advisory Committee of Artists for the Juries of Selection for the Eighteenth Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists, held October 19 to November 26, 1905.[20]  Included among the paintings over which the juries passed judgment were those by such prominent artists as Childe Hassan, Robert Henri, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Edmund Tarbell.  Interestingly, Harper would, according to his obituary, form some sort of relationship with Tanner some years later while in France on his second visit.  The nature of that relationship remains unclear, but Harper was clearly familiar with Tanner’s works through this exhibition and others.

Harper spent the summer of 1905 in Decatur, Illinois.   An article published in the Decatur Review after his death states that:

“He came to Decatur in the summer of 1905 to make his home with his father and brother on the farm northwest of Decatur, and he put in the summer painting landscapes, including some beautiful scenes along the Sangamon river and Stevens creek.  These he endeavored to sell here, but there was not so good demand for first class work then as now and he sent them to Seattle, Wash., to the Art League exhibit, and there had no trouble disposing of five of them at good prices.  Others were sold in New York and Chicago.”[21]

A very similar article was published in the Decatur, Illinois Review in May of 1908:

“In the summer of ___ he came to Decatur to live with his father and brother, northwest of the town.  Nearly the entire summer he spent in painting landscapes on the Wade farm.  However as there was so sale for them here and not enough opportunities for good pictures, he decided to return to Europe and study more.…. Five of the pictures which he painted here, he sent to an art exhibit in Seattle, Wash.  They were sold there.  Others were sold in New York and Chicago.” [22]

The date is obscured in the 1908 article, but since the posthumous article appears to have been  based on the 1908 article, the missing date was most likely “1905”.  No information is available about the location of the “Wade farm”, nor have specific paintings been linked to that venue.  Note, however, that, at least one landscape located on “Stevens Creek” did appear in 1908 in Harper’s one man exhibition at the James Millikan University.[23].  See, page __.

In the fall of 1905, Harper returned to Chicago..  According to the Decatur Daily Herald of September 23, 1905 (p. 8),

“Mr. and Mrs. John Harper entertained a few friends at 6 o’clock dinner Thursday evening in honor of Mr. William Harper, who will leave soon for his home in Chicago.  A four course dinner was served and all spent a pleasant evening.”

The “John Harper” referenced above could have been either William’s brother John, or his father who had the same name, both of whom lived in Decatur at this time. 

In December, Harper exhibited one painting in the Tenth Annual Exhibition of the Society of Western Artists[24] held at the AIC on December 5-25, 1905.[25]  HIs painting “Young Poplars and Willows” was reproduced in the Bentley article referenced above: 

“Among these excellent works, there was one small canvas which has received specially favorable comment, and which easily held its own among the leaders of this important exhibition.  ‘Young Poplars and Willows’ by William A. Harper, is a landscape full of dreamy charm and tender sentiment.  It is a work conceived by on to whom Nature seems to have revealed her most intimate secrets, and it is executed with a delicacy and sureness of brush, which is the result of an almost perfect technique.”[26]

According to Bentley, the scene depicted was from “Illinois, near Mr. Harper’s old country home”.  It is not known whether this referred to a childhood home, or the home of his father (or perhaps brother) in or near Decatur, Illinois.

No other article of the time appears to have addressed Harper in such depth, and few authors appear to have met directly with Harper, so it is worth quoting at length from Bentley’s article:

“It has been the privilege of the writer to see some new work, which Mr. Harper is preparing for the annual exhibition of Chicago artists, which will be in progress about the time that this paper sees the light of print.  The landscapes already finished show a dignity and strength, a mobility of expression which seem to indicate a growth beyond even the recent “Young Poplars and Willows,” a development which shows itself not only in improved technique, but in a broader, deeper and more mature conception of beautiful thoughts and ideas.  It is noticeable that in all of Mr. Harper’s landscapes, trees play an important part.  ‘His handling of trees,’ says Harriet Monroe, ‘shows close and accurate study of their souls and bodies,’ and it is very true that no one could see Mr. Harper’s trees, without turning with renewed interest to these sentinels of Nature in their own places.  In fact that seems to be the most telling effect of Mr. Harper’s landscapes, they inspire us with a renewed reverence for Nature, which help us to see beauties around us which otherwise would remain hidden from untutored eyes.”

Harriet Monroe (December 23, 1860 – September 26, 1936) was an editor, scholar, literary critic, poet, patron of the arts, and eventual founding publisher and long-time editor of Poetry magazine.  She was also a freelance correspondent and art critic for the Chicago Tribune and a member of the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony in Ogle County, Illinois, where she most certainly would have met Harper.[27]

Bentley went on in report that Harper had spent his youth on a farm in Illinois, and that:

“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 to her.  In truth and in fact, Mr. Harper has literally done just that, for his life has been a single-hearted devotion to a fixed purpose, in spite of privation and labor which would have daunted a less courageous soul.”[28]

1906

The next annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists took place at the AIC from January 30 to February 25, 1906.  According to the catalogue for that Exhibition, 927 works were sent in for examination by the juries, from which 307 were selected.  Harper had seven works accepted for the Exhibition listed in the catalogue as follows:

107.  Early evening, Cornwall, Eng.               $200

108.  Lowland pastures.                                  $250

109.  The cabbage patch.                               $200

110.  The last gleam.                                      $75

111.  The hillside                                             $50

112.  The house in the hollow.                       $40

113.  Grey day.                                               $35

Harper’s address is included as 224 Ontario Street, Chicago, the same address as he used in 1902, but without the “Care Wm. Wendt” prefix.  His painting “Lowland pastures” was one of the twelve paintings reproduced in the catalogue, perhaps explaining why it was the highest priced of his paintings.  The Inter-Oceans’ review of the Exhibition considered “Lowland pastures” the most interesting of Harper’s paintings, with “the silver blue pond to the left, as seen among the trees, possibly being the most interesting feature of the painting itself.” [29]

Not much is known about Harper’s friends, although he clearly had a good relationship with his mentors Wendt and Brown and was well thought of by the other AIC students who were with him in Paris.  An intriguing item is found in the catalogue of Exhibition of Paintings by Charles Edward Hallberg of Chicago, held at the AIC March 1 to March 21, 1906, which notes that painting No. 36 in that Exhibition entitled “Near the shore” was “Lent by Mr. Wm. A. Harper”.  Another painting was lent for the Exhibition by Browne.  Pursuant to the biographical preliminary to the catalogue, Hallberg was born in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1855, and was a sailor from 1873 to 1890.  He settled in Chicago in 1880, and became a painter, first exhibiting at the AIC in 1890.  He was also a fellow janitor.  According to an article in The Inter Ocean in 1902 entitled “Pictures by Janitor Artist”, Hallberg had by that time been working for eight years as a janitor in a local bank.[30]  Like Harper, in 1902 Hallberg had for the first time three paintings accepted in the annual juried Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists held at the AIC.  With this striking commonality between the two artists, it would not be surprising for the two to have been acquainted.  Harper never appears to have had much money, so owing a painting by Hallberg does suggest a certain level of friendship – whether Harper acquired the painting by purchase, gift, or even trade.   

It is worth noting that the 1908 article “Home from Paris; Studied Art There” in The Decatur Review, May 6, 1908, p. 7, also states that sometime after his return from his first trip to Europe Harper was “given the commission to paint the decorations on the walls of the Chicago Normal school in Englewood”[31].  No further information has been found regarding this commission and this is the only suggestion that Harper may have ever painted a mural.  Unfortunately, the building that housed that school no longer exists.  Coincidently, however, in 1906 Browne and another instructor at the AIC oversaw the completion of ten murals at the Institute depicting sports.  The following year, mural decoration was added to the curriculum of the AIC, with Browne as one of the two instructors.[32]  Under the direction of Browne and the other instructor, the first mural class painted three large murals for the auditorium of the Elm Place Grammar School.[33]  Given the timing, it is interesting to speculate as to whether Browne assisted with or advised Harper on his mural project – assuming that one was ever undertaken.

The same 1908 article goes on to state that in 1906 Harper returned to Europe.  The return trip to Europe notwithstanding, at the end of 1906 Harper exhibited in the Nineteenth Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculptures by American Artists at the AIC held from October 16 to November 29.  This was the first time that Harper participated as a contributor in this particular exhibition, although he served on one of the Juries of Selection for the Eighteenth Annual Exhibition in 1905.  The catalogue notes that Harper was a member of the Chicago Society of Artists, and indicates that Harper exhibited two paintings:

151.  A bit of Lincoln Park.

152.  On a day.

Tanner also exhibited a painting entitled “The Two Disciples at the Tomb”, which was awarded the hefty prize of $500 for the best picture of the show and subsequently purchased by the AIC.[34] 

In 1906 Harper also began to appear for the first time in the Catalogues of the Annual Exhibitions of the Society of Western Artists as an Associate Member for Chicago.[35]

1907

Harper was again represented in the annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists held at the AIC from January 29 to February 24, 1907, with five paintings:

113.  Gray day.                                   $40

114.  The road.                                   $40

115.  Dusk                                          $200

116.  Half leafless and dry.                 $150

117.  Cornish hills.                              $150

Out of 818 works submitted to the jury for consideration, 284 were selected for the Exhibition.  Harper listed his address in the catalogue as “Secretary’s Office, Art Institute, Chicago”.  The Secretary for the AIC was Newton H. Carpenter.  A letter written by Wm. M. R. French, the Director of the AIC following Harper’s death in 1910 advised that Carpenter managed Harpers “business”.[36]  Presumably he would have coordinated the submission of Harper’s paintings for the various exhibitions and handled any related finances, including the sale of paintings, when Harper was not in Chicago.  The two appear to have been friends for many years with one early article suggesting that it was Carpenter who was responsible for Harper actually attending the AIC.[37]  See earlier discussion under “Education”, p. ___. 

The painting “Half leafless and dry” was one of twelve paintings reproduced in the exhibition catalogue.  It was likewise reproduced in an article entitled “Exhibition of the Artists of Chicago” in the Brush and Pencil.[38]  The same painting also appears in an article entitled “The Artist Out of Doors” by James Spencer Dickerson in The World To-Day, but with the name “in Sere and Yellow Leaf”.[39]  It is not known whether this was an error by Dickerson, or whether Harper actually renamed the painting.  This painting eventually made its way into the Evans-Tibbs Collection of Thurlow Evans Tibbs, Jr., and is currently owned by the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

As to another of Harper’s paintings from the Exhibition, Dickerson wrote that it:

“is from the brush of the young negro artist whose work is steadily growing in interest and worth.  It, with several other recent canvases, hung in the recent exhibit of the Chicago Society of Artists.  The only painting bought by the Union League Club, of Chicago, of those shown at this exhibition, was one of Mr. Harper’s.”

A review of the Catalogue of Paintings, Etchings, Engravings and Sculpture of the Union League Club of Chicago in 1907[40] shows that the painting purchased by the Union League was “Dusk”.  The Catalogue describes the painting as follows:

“Below a hilltop crowned with large trees, the country slopes to the farming lands beyond.  This picture enters the sphere of decorative painting, depending upon a rich, low-toned color scheme, and an arrangement of composition for its attractiveness, rather than upon the pictorial quality of a descriptive work of landscape painting.  It is one of those creations of the painter that win a way into the imagination and gain interest on acquaintance.”

The Union League Club sold “Dusk” in a silent auction in May of 1984.[41]  No further information on this painting is available.

The same Catalogue also shows that the Union League Club in 1907 owned two other paintings by Harper.  One, “In France” is described in the Catalogue as “a travel note of France during the artist’s sojourn abroad”.  According to an inquiry made of the Union League Club in 2015 by the author, this was a 5 x 7.5 inch oil painting acquired in 1904.  The other, “Over the Hills” is described as one of a group of sketches of landscape made by Harper on his foreign travels.  Neither painting appears to have been exhibited at the AIC.  As of 2015, the Union Club no longer owned either of these paintings, and their dispositions are unknown. 

One further exhibition took place in 1907 at which Harper’s works were displayed, but not at the AIC.  In an advertisement on page 4 of the Chicago Tribune on May 27, 1907, Marshall Field & Company announced the beginning of an “interesting exhibit” of oil paintings in its Picture Galleries from the best known works of a number of artists including Charles Francis Browne, Charles E. Hallberg, William A. Harper, Albert H. Krehbiel, and William Wendt.  No further specifics are available regarding that exhibit, but one can assume that those paintings were available for sale.

Although Harper exhibited actively in Chicago in 1907, he was for part or all of 1907 in France.  Unfortunately, we have no primary material detailing Harper’s second sojourn in Paris or otherwise in France.  The titles of a number of Harper’s paintings in subsequent exhibitions in Chicago indicate that they were clearly scenes in France, with a few specifically referencing “Montreuil, France”.  But other than those titles, Harper’s second visit to France is somewhat of a mystery.  His obituary states that while he was in France in 1907 and 1908 he “formed relations” with Henry Ossawa Tanner.[42]  Some secondary sources even describe him as studying informally with Tanner – notably without citing supporting documentation.[43]  Biographies of Tanner indicate that Tanner took an interest in assisting and mentoring young black American artists, including Harper, in Paris, but again without supporting documentation.[44]  Tanner had an apartment in Paris, and, as of early 1908, a villa in Trépied where he painted and welcomed visitors.[45]  Trépied is within walking distance of the fishing village of Étapes which housed a popular artist colony.  We know from the Krehbiel letters that Harper was familiar with Étapes, but have no direct evidence that he ever visited or painted there.  In any event, Harper was familiar with Tanner’s work, and it would have been logical for him to have connected with Tanner in some fashion when he made his second trip to France.

Some secondary sources suggest that Harper also worked with Wendt and Browne on this second trip.  Browne apparently did make a trip to France in 1908, but since he taught at the AIC during the 1907-1908 school year,[46] he must have left at the earliest after the conclusion of the school year in May or June.  Since Harper was back in Decatur, Illinois by the end of April 1908 (see below), overlapping time in Europe does not seem likely.  Likewise, Wendt does not appear to have been in France during Harper’s second trip either.  The “Chronology of the Live of William Wendt”, by Janet Blake of the Laguna Art Museum, shows that Wendt was in Los Angeles, Chicago, and the Grand Canyon in 1907 and 1908.  There is no reference to a trip to Europe during that period, and Wendt was newly married at the end of 1906.  See also the comprehensive essay by Will South from the catalogue for the exhibition “In Nature’s Temple:  The Life and Art of William Wendt”, at the Laguna Art Museum, November 9,1908 – February 8, 2009.

1908

As was his habit, Harper exhibited in the annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists held at the AIC in 1908, even though he was out of the country.  The Exhibition ran from February 4, 1908 to March 1, 1908.  The works submitted for consideration by the juries numbered 986, of which 330 were selected, including two paintings by Harper:

            113.  Autumn sunshine                       $200

            114.  Old house and vines                  $150

Harper’s painting “Old house and vines”, a French scene near Boulogne[47], won a prestigious prize of $100 awarded annually by The Young Fortnightly Club.[48]  Wendt had received this prize some years earlier in 1897[49], and Browne in 1906.[50]

Harper’s painting style, which was originally heavily influenced by the Barbizon school of painting, had evolved over time.  By the conclusion of his second trip to France, his work had begun to take on a looser, brighter, more impressionistic style, and included a heaver use of impasto.  A 1908 reviewer would describe his technique as follows:

”At the risk of trespassing on the sculptor’s field, he uses his daubing knife almost as much as his brush, and when he has completed a tree or a house, it stands out as though chiseled from a rock of variegated [sic] colors.”[51]

See full text of article below.

Ship passenger records show that Harper returned to the U.S. on the S.S. Noordam (Holland-America Line), sailing from Boulogne-sur-mer, a coastal city in the north of France, on March 28, 1908, arriving in New York on April 8, 1908.[52]  He is listed on the form as a United States Citizen travelling in the “Second cabin”.  Since Harper’s return from his first trip took place in steerage, it is a happy assumption that Harper’s financial condition must have improved from his earlier days.  [attach]

By the end of April, Harper was visiting his brother and father in Decatur, Illinois.  The Decatur Daily Review published an article on May 6 entitled “Home from Paris; Studied Art There”[53].  The article began:

            “William Harper, a colored artist, is in Decatur visiting his brother John Harper, several miles northwest of the city, and also his father John Harper, Sr., living on East Jefferson street.  Harper is one of the few colored artists in the country.  He has spent years in Europe and the United States studying under well known artists….

He went to Europe in 1906 and returned about a week ago….

After visiting here for a few weeks Harper will leave for Canada, where he expects to find great opportunities for landscape painting.  If successful he will return to Chicago in the winter and exhibit his own paintings.”

There is no further discussion about the trip to Canada, or whether it included a visit to Harper’s home in the Canfield/Cayuga area. 

Harper had apparently requested, and had been hoping for, an individual exhibition at the AIC.  He must have been disappointed to receive the letter dated October 8, 1908[54] from William M. R. French, the Director of the AIC, which read as follows:

“My dear Harper: –

I am publishing the programme of the exhibitions of the season and I have been unable to put your name in.  We can make very few individual exhibitions.  It is possible that we might at some time let you have room 31, but perhaps you no longer want to make an exhibition.  As you know, we are very friendly to you.

Yours very truly,

Wm. M. R. French”

Although Harper did not have an individual exhibition at the AIC during this time period, he did have an individual exhibition in Decatur at the James Millikin University.  The Decatur Herald published a glowing review of the exhibition on September 8, 1908[55] which not only addressed the exhibition, but discussed in considerable detail Harper’s painting style and local connection.  The author clearly interviewed Harper, and since this is the most comprehensive article from this time period, it is worth reproducing in its entirety:

“Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibition

William A. Harper’s Excellent Work on Display At University Well Worth Study By Local Art Lovers.

Decatur art lovers will be well repaid for attending the exhibition of paintings which William A. Harper, the young Chicago artist, is holding in the liberal arts hall of the James Millikin university.  The display is not large, but every picture is a finished work, and the fact that a number of them are local lanscapes [sic] and are at once recognized as such adds a special interest to the collection.  Mr. Harper has been spending the Summer as the guest of his brother near the city, and while the monotony of prairie country offers little to the landscape [sic] painter, Mr. Harper has found some charming spots, the beauty of which the artist has faithfully reproduced.

At first glance one would consider the builder of the Harper pictures less a painter than a modeler in oils.  Mr. Harper frankly says that he cannot stand a thin picture.  At the risk of trespassing on the sculptor’s field, he uses his daubing knife almost as much as his brush, and when he has completed a tree or a house, it stands out as though chiseled from a rock of variegated [sic] colors.  But in Mr. Harper’s work there is nothing suggesting coldness; his pictures are finished; indeed they are veritable portraits, but with “lift” enough to raise them from the plane of photographs, and behind and over all are color and light.  Mr. Harper loves soft blue skies, (and he thinks Illinois skies pretty near perfection) and while his earlier pictures were dark, he now leans toward light backgrounds.  A winding road through October woods, done in England, is a fine example of a typical Harper landscape.  Tall trees, nearly bare, but with here and there a patch of leaves beautiful in death, stand out against a delicate autumn sky, which lights up the whole scene.

The place of honor is given to a large oil, a landscape near Stevens creek.  Mr. Harper searched a long time before he found a hill side with trees between which he could look out across water to hills beyond.  He exercised his painter’s license in taking out a few troublesome bushes which shut off the view to the distant hills.  Mr. Harper believes with Whistler that nature’s settings are so seldom right that it is safe enough to say that they are never right, but the great tree in the foreground he did not attempt to change.  One could study that tree.  Mr. Harper transferred it to his canvass with the same care that he would use in painting a portrait.  You can almost see the flutter of the leaves and the sway of the giant limbs.  There are several other pictures painted in the vicinity of the large one.  Mr. Harper is not particular that Nature shall be in her brightest and freshest dress when he paints her.  That Summer was already waning when he secured the Stevens creek landscape is evidenced by the brown tint in the green.  But despite his fondness for light colors Mr. Harper hopes to transfer to a larger canvass a little picture of a wood scene that is all verdure, the rich green verdure of early Spring.

‘An Old House With Vines’ with which Mr. Harper won a prize in a Chicago exhibit last Winter is a French scene near Boulogne where Mr. Harper spent some time painting the quaint old houses and walls.  It is just what the name suggests, and there is every where color and warmth.  Another Boulogne picture is a Summer view across a pleasant landscape in which tall poplar trees, trimmed well up the trunk are prominent in the foreground.

Mr. Harper has a few water colors that are well worth studying.  Too much color would be the off hand verdict of the critic.  And then Mr. Harper will ask how you are going to paint old French houses with their stone, their brick, and their tiling without using nearly every color.  And inspection convinces one that Mr. Harper had not misused his colors.  Everything is natural, and you would not have it changed.

Mr. Harper is meeting with the difficulties that nearly all American artists encounter.  He is competing with French artists or American artists in France, whose work is inferior to his, but who have the advantage of being located in the great art salesrooms of the world.  Sometime American millionaires will discover that it is not necessary to go to France to buy fine pictures.  There is some humor in the thought that the Stevens Creek landscape would be snapped up by a rich and somewhat homesick American in Paris, while the same man would pass it by with hardly a glance were it exhibited in Chicago.  Fortunately art connoisseurs are awaking to the fact that American artists are doing creditable work, and all exhibitions made up of the work of American artists alone, such as now are being held in may cities, deserve encouragement.  Especially are such exhibitions as Mr. Harper is giving to be encouraged.  Decatur, without an art gallery of its own, but with an art sense developed in may of its people should be grateful for any opportunity to see good paintings.

Mr. Harper’s exhibit will be open from 3 to 6 this afternoon and Wednesday afternoon.  Members of the Art League will receive, and Mr. Harper will be present.”

Interestingly, this article contains the only reference to Harper having painted in watercolor.  The catalogues of the Annual Exhibitions of Water-Colors, Pastels and Miniatures by American Artists for the years 1900-1910 held at the AIC do not list any watercolors by Harper.  Either he did not enter any, or they were not accepted. 

At the end of 1908, Harper had the honor of again being elected to the Committee of Artists for Chicago on the Juries of Selection for the Twenty-First Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists held from October 20 to November 29, 1908.  He also exhibited two paintings:

            121.  Illinois landscape

            122  Hotel de France

Harper’s address for the catalogue was “Care Art Institute, Chicago, Ills”.  The Chicago Tribune reported on the opening reception in its “News of the Society World” column, describing the gowns worn by the society matrons, and noting that among the artists present was William A. Harper.[56]

The painting “Illinois landscape” was reproduced in The Inter Ocean, on November 8, 1908, p. 33, in an article entitled “Chicago’s Annual Art Exhibition”.  The article described his other painting, “Hotel de France”, as being “an old world theme, executed with taste and skill.”  It went on to state that Harper “has recently returned from abroad, and is one of the artists in whose progress and success the people of Chicago are greatly interested.”

Harper was by this time in poor health suffering from lung problems, probably tuberculosis (also known as consumption).  Sometime after the exhibition opening in October of 1908, Harper departed for Cuernevaca, Mexico in the hope that the change of climate would enable him to regain his health.[57]


[1]  “William A. Harper” by Florence Lewis Bentley, The Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3, p. 117.

[2] In March, Wendt held a one-man exhibition of paintings at the AIC, at which at least two were scenes in Cornwall.  See, Catalogue of Exhibition of Paintings by William Wendt, the Art Institute of Chicago, March 2 to March 22, MDCCCCV.

[3] Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1905, p. 5; Brush and Pencil, Vol. 15, No. 3 (March 1905), p. 50.

[4] “Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists Opens”, The Inter-Ocean, February 1, 1905, p. 5.

[5] Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, January 31 to February 26, 1911, p. 39.

[6] Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, January 31 to February 26, 1905, p. 34.

[7] The Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3,

[8] “William A. Harper” by Florence Lewis Bentley, The Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3, p. 117.

[9] Bentley mis-labeled the painting in her article as “An Afternoon, Montigny”.  The name in the Exhibition catalogue was “Early afternoon, Montigny, France”.

[10] This river was spelled “Loing” in the Exhibition catalogue.

[11] “William A. Harper” by Florence Lewis Bentley, The Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3, p. 117.

[12] T.E. Donnelley (spelled “Donnelly” in the article) was the son of the founder of R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company which produced books and periodicals, and mass printed commercial and reference materials.  See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RR_Donnelley

[13] https://myweb.uiowa.edu/fsboos/galleries/afampainting.htm.   For some reason, this image does not currently appear on the Howard University website

[14] Bentley, op. cit.

[15] Bentley, op. cit.

[16] The Crisis, September 1915, p. 242.

[17] The Decatur Review, February 3, 1905, p. 3

[18] A handwritten notation indicates that this article is from the Chicago News.

[19] Chicago Journal, February 9, 1905, from AIC Scrapbooks.  See additionally, American Art News, Vol. 3, No. 68 (February 25, 1905), p 6.

[20] Harper would again serve on the Chicago Advisory Committee of Artists for the Juries of Selection for the Twenty-First Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists, held October 20 to November 29, 1908.

[21] “Colored Artist Dead in Mexico”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), March 29, 1910, p. 7.

[22] “Home from Paris; Studied Art There”, The Decatur Review, May 6, 1908, p. 7. 

[23] See, “Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibit”, The Decatur Herald (June 8, 1908, p. 4.

[24] Harper was an Associate Member of the Society of Western Artists beginning in 1906.

[25] “Tenth Annual Exhibition of the Society of Western Artists”, by E.E. Talbot, Brush and Pencil, Vol. 17, No. 1 (January 1906), pp. 25.

[26] “William A. Harper” by Florence Lewis Bentley, Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3, p. 117.

[27] Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Monroe.

[28] Ibid, p. 121.

[29] “Features of the Chicago Artists’ Exhibit”, The Inter-Ocean, February 4, 1906, p. 37.

[30] “Pictures by Janitor Artist”, The Inter-Ocean, October 25, 1902, p. 3.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 1, No. 1 (October, 1907, p. 14.

[33] Essay on Charles Francis Browne by Melissa Wolfe and Joel S. Dryer, Illinois Historical Art Project:  https://www.illinoisart.org/charles-francis-browne.

[34] “Henry O. Tanner” by Florence Lewis Bentley, Voice of the Negro, November 1906, Vol. 3, p. 480.

[35] Eleventh Annual Exhibition of the Society of Western Artists held at the AIC December 6 to December 26, 1906.

[36] Letter from Wm. M. R. French, Director of AIC, to John W. Harper, dated April 18, 1910, AIC archives.

[37]  Chicago News, “Colored Man Wins Position”, February 6, 1905.  The name “George B. Carper” was probably an error, the correct name of the Secretary of the AIC at that time being Newton H. Carpenter.

[38] “Exhibition of the Artists of Chicago”, by A.G. Randolph, Brush and Pencil, Vol. 19, No. 2 (February 1907)

[39] “The Artist Out of Doors”, James Spencer Dickenson, The World Today, Volume XII, 1907, p. 512.

[40] Catalogue of Paintings, Etchings, Engravings and Sculpture of the Union League Club of Chicago, 1907, compiled by L. M. McCauley for the Art Committee of the Union League Club, p. 14..

[41] A. History of the Art Collection of the Union League Club of Chicago, by Joan G. Wagner (Chicago:  Art Committee of the Union League Club of Chicago, 2000)

[42] “William A. Harper” Obituary, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 4, No. 1, July 1910, p. 11.

[43] See, e.g.Alain Locke, The Negro in Art, Associates in Negro Folk Education, Washington, D.C., 1940.

[44] Henry Ossawa Tanner, American Artist, by Marcia M. Mathews, The University of Chicago Press, 1969, p. 132-33.

[45] Henry Ossawa Tanner, Modern Spirit, edited by Anna O. Marley, University of California Press, 2012, p. 89.

[46] [Need course catalogue from AIC to verify]

[47] “Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibition; William A. Harper’s Excellent Work on Display At University Well Worth Study By Local Art Lovers”; The Decatur Herald, September 8, 1908, p. 4.

[48] “Prize Winners in Exhibit by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity”; Chicago Daily Tribune, February 4, 1908, p. 3; “Recent Exhibition of Chicago Artists”, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Apr., 1908, p. 36.

[49] “Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists”, Art Institute of Chicago, February 1-27, 1898, p. 31.

[50] Brush and Pencil, Volume XVII, January to June 1906, p. 35.

[51] Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibition; William A. Harper’s Excellent Work on Display At University Well Worth Study By Local Art Lovers; The Decatur Herald, September 8, 1908, p. 4.

[52] From the ancestry.com records:  https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7488/NYT715_1089-1357?pid=4032491925&backurl=https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv%3Dtry%26db%3Dnypl%26h%3D4032491925&treeid=&personid=&hintid=&usePUB=true&usePUBJs=true&_ga=2.211829268.1007922885.1592430352-1376552555.1571343165

[53] It should be pointed out that there are errors in the article, the most significant being the statement that Harper was born in Petersburg, Illinois. 

[54]  Letter in the AIC archives from William M. R. French, the Director of the AIC, to Harper in Decatur, Illinois, dated October 8, 1908.

[55] “Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibition; William A. Harper’s Excellent Work on Display At University Well Worth Study By Local Art Lovers”, The Decatur Herald, September 8, 1908, p. 4.

[56] “News of the Society World”, Chicago Tribune, October 21, 1908, p. 9.

[57]  “William A. Harper” obituary, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 4, No. 1 (July 1910), p. 11.

First Trip to Europe

First Trip to Europe – last updated July 23, 2020

Following the conclusion of the 1902-03 school year in Houston, Harper left teaching and departed for Cornwall, England, located in the southwestern most part of England.  William Wendt was at that time painting in St. Ives, Cornwall, having arrived in May of 1903.[1]  Wendt had been briefly a student at the AIC, and was at that time an independent artist in Chicago.  He would go on to become one of California’s most well-known impressionist painters.  He was also, as noted earlier, one of Harper’s mentors.  Not much information is available about Harper’s time in Cornwall in 1903, but one, and possibly two, of Harper’s three paintings accepted for the January 28 – February 28, 1904 Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists were paintings done in Cornwall. 

On a prior trip to St. Ives in 1898, Wendt had taken classes with an important landscape painter and instructor, John Noble Barlow, RBA ROI RWA (1860-1917). Barlow also had a connection with another of Harper’s mentors, Charles Francis Browne.  Wendt described Barlow in a 1898 letter as “a former colleague of C. F. Browne”[2], the two having likely met as fellow students at the Académie Julian in Paris where Barlow studied from 1887-89.[3]  Browne attended in 1887.[4] A photograph reproduced in The Siren, Issue No. 14, October 2017, p. 9, shows five artists in smocks and toques sitting against a wall, two of whom where Browne and Barlow.  With these connections to St. Ives, it is hardly surprising that Harper chose to study and paint in Cornwall.  He may also have been a student of Barlow’s, although that would have been on his later trip to Cornwall in 1904 since Barlow was out of the country in the summer of 1903.[5]

By the fall of 1903, Harper was in Paris.  Since no correspondence or other papers of Harper appear to have survived, what is known of his time is Paris comes from two sources:  1. the letters of Albert Henry Krehbiel, a close friend of Harper’s from the AIC, and 2. a 1904 photograph of a class at the Académie Julian from the Krehbiel files.[6] 

The above photograph of the class at the Académie Julian shows Harper seated in the second row, with Krehbiel second to his right.  From this photograph it has been assumed that Harper studied at the Académie Julian.  Interestingly, however, none of the newspaper or journal articles published about Harper during his lifetime, nor even his obituary, say anything more than that he studied or painted in Paris.  Even the Krehbiel letters to not mention Harper specifically in the context of the Académie Julian, although Krehbiel does discuss the competitions sponsored by the Académie Julian in which he and other named students participated.  Furthermore, an alphabetical list of students created from documents in the French national archives regarding the Académie Julian[7] contains Krehbiel, Worthington E. Hagerman, Willliam E. Cook, and Leon Lorado Merton Gruenhagen as students of J.P. Laurens, but does not mention Harper.  It may simply be that Harper’s time at the Académie Julian was too short to register in one of the surviving records, or that the list of students mentioned above is incomplete.  In any event, the photograph does exist and nothing in the other documentation found to date specifically contradicts the conclusion that Harper was a student there from the fall of 1903 to the early spring of 1904.   

The Académie Julian was founded in 1868, and by 1903 had become a magnet for foreign art students, including those from the AIC.  Numerous well know American artists were among its alumni, including Henry Ossawa Tanner, an American expatriate artist with whom Harper would become acquainted on a subsequent trip to France.[8]  The Académie Julian had no entrance requirements, and afforded considerable flexibility to the student, being generally open from 0800 hours to 1800 hours.  For a modest sum, a student paid for the privilege of drawing and painting at one of the various locations under the general direction of Monsieur Julian.[9]  Students were admitted for a few days, a month, or a year, provided that they paid in advance.  The student could select the master under which he wished to work, who would circulate through the class and provide the students criticism once or twice a week.[10]  According to one student,

“Students work for the judgment of the master and are enormously elated or depressed by his criticism.  He passed from one canvas or board to another and talks rapidly, of course in French, which is an embarrassment to the American who does not understand, although other students are good-natured about translating….Nerves are at high tension.  After a criticism, the work for that day usually ends.”[11]

Tanner provided the following rather gloomy description of the Académie Julian in his 1909 writing “The Story of an Artist’s Life”[12] which addressed his early time in Paris:

“The Académie Julian!  Never had I seen or heard such a bedlam – or men waste so much time.  Of course, I had come to study at such a cost that every minute seemed precious and not to be frittered away.  I had often seen rooms full of tobacco smoke, but not as here in a room never ventilated – and when I san never, I mean not rarely but never, during the five or six months of cold weather.  Never were windows opened.  They were nailed fast at the beginning of the cold season.  Fifty or sixty men smoking in such a room for two or three hours would make it so that those on the back rows could hardly see the model.” 

We have a fair amount of information about Harper’s time in Paris thanks to the letters of Krehbiel to his fiancé in Chicago, Dulah Evans.  Krehbeil had a scholarship from the AIC to study at the Académie Julian[13], and wrote almost weekly wonderfully long and gossipy letters to Evans.  Krehbiel and Harper must have been quite good friends since least two thirds of the letters from the 1903-04 school year contain references to Harper.  Evans was a classmate at the AIC, and shared the Advanced Life Class with Harper and Krehbiel in the 1899-1900 school year.[14]  At this time, Evans was a fairly successful illustrator and freelance commercial artist in Chicago, creating images for the covers of magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar.[15]  While we have Krehbiel’s letters to Evans, we unfortunately do not have the full conversation since Evans’ letters to Krehbiel do not appear to have survived.[16]  Evans and Harper must also have been friends in addition to classmates as the letters indicate that she made an effort on his behalf in 1904 to sell some of his paintings in Chicago.[17] 

Harper began his studies at the Académie Julian in October 1903.  About seven other Americans entered at the same time, at least three of whom were “Chicago boys”.[18]  Krehbiel, and presumably also Harper, studied under Jean Paul Laurens (1838-1921) as master[19], under whom Tanner had also studied.[20]  From Krehbiel’s letters, the Chicago boys stuck together in Paris, with the most frequently mentioned ones besides Harper being Leo Lorado Merton Gruenhagen and Worthington E. Hagerman.

For young men from the U.S. midwest, the Paris of 1903 came as a bit of a shock.  In one of his earliest letters from Paris Krehbiel writes: 

“I believe that you would enjoy Paris, but I’m not so sure that you would like the people…Enjoyment seems to be the greatest aim of the French people, and apparently they leave no stone unturned in order to find it….Gaiety seems to be their watchword and Sunday the day in which they are able to gratify their desire for amusement.”[21] 

Harper and Krehbiel did not forget the Sabbath, however, and attended almost every Sunday evening at 8:15 the “Students’ Atelier Reunions” let by the Rev. Sylvester W. Beach.[22]  On November 29, 1903, Krehbiel and Harper attended the atelier, and although snow and sleet covered the pavement Krehbiel reported that “Harper and I went down and we arrived there very early.”

Krehbiel started his time in Paris in a hotel, but once he found an affordable studio lived in that studio.  A picture drawn by Krehbiel of his studio shows a sparsely furnished room with a high ceiling.[23]  On one side of the room is a high balcony running the length of the 20 ft. room about 4 and ½ ft. wide, with a ladder leading up to what he called his “little home” containing his bed, a washstand and an arm chair.  The room was heated by a wood or coal burning stove.  This form of studio/balcony arrangement was not uncommon for students, with the stove which was the sole means of heating the room being so small as to be “amusing rather than warming.”[24]  Harper most likely had a similarly spare arrangement, particularly given his financial situation.  References to joint activities throughout Krehbiel’s letters suggest that Harper’s studio was fairly close in proximity to his.

Like many other American art students in Paris, Krehbiel joined the American Art Association, alternatively referred to as the American Art Club.  The American Art Association was organized in 1890 with the backing of a number of prominent Americans, including Rodman Wannamaker, who represented the Chicago Wannamaker firm in Paris.[25]  According to the American Art Annual, 1905-6, Vol 5, the Association

“provides not only an unconventional fellowship among artists but also a common meeting-place for students as well as for all interested in the development of American art.  The Club’s membership consists of painters, sculptors, architects and students in most of the professions.  The Associate membership list contains representatives of nearly all nations, while the honorary membership, headed by our Ambassador and Consul-General, includes most of the leading Americans in Paris.” 

The membership entrance fee was $2, with annual dues of $10. The club had a library, a reading room, a parlor, and an athletic room.  It was

“a gathering place…to read, eat, smoke and get acquainted with simple fashion.  Here the American boys celebrate Thanksgiving with turkeys and plum pudding sent over from New England.”[26] 

In other words, it was a place to hang out with fellow Americans. 

Unfortunately, there seems to have been some objection from certain of the southern members of the Club to Harper joining the club, and the Chicago boys rallied in his support.  In his December 5, 1903 letter, Krebhiel wrote: 

“I haven’t been to the club for over a week and from now on that place will see but very little of me….

Hagerman just now dropped in all wrought up over the treatment the club is giving Harper.  He had just returned from the club where he had met the chairman of the Membership Com. who had asked him to inform Gruenhagen and myself that there were 13 members who objected to Harper coming into the club.  As Gruenhagen and myself had filled out the formal recommendation for Harper’s membership we were advised to withdraw by letter the name of our candidate.  It happens however that we don’t intend to do anything of the sort.….We are going to see the finish of this affair and find out whether the club is willing to stand for the petty prejudices of a few.

Some of the southern fellows give me a pain.  Their whole aim seems to be to have lots of fun and the thought of study never enters their head.  But few of them are here for study as it seems and yet they make the club their ‘hangout’.  From what I have observed from their talk I am willing to wager that Harper would discount the entire thirteen in intellect and the other qualities which go to make up a man.  Harper is going to make a fight to get in and I am glad of it for there is lots of fight in him.”

In January 1904, Krehbiel, Hagerman, Gruenhagen and Henry Salem Hubbell (another AIC artist painting in Paris) met:

“to discuss Harper’s affair and act on the matter immediately as the Governing board of the club are due to meet during the next week and we were anxious to counteract any move that the opposition might make in having Harper’s name presented to said board.  We are now getting us a petition with some forty or fifty names which will be presented to the board without the knowledge of the opposing faction.  One named Walhan and Fred Vance are drawing up the petition and will get all the available names possible to signed to it from members who are daily at the club.  Tomorrow I am going to canvass the class at Julians and find out how the American boys there feel about it and those that are in favor of the move will be allowed to sign the petition which I will take over later on in the week….”[27]

The next week Krehbiel wrote:

“So far Harper hasn’t broken with the club.  Our petition which was signed by some thirty members was laid before the board on Sat. evening and they got rid of the affair by laying it on the table.  What the result will be is hard to imagine as the opposition is very strong.  It is proposed now that we get up a list of fellows who are willing to resign in case he isn’t admitted.  How many are willing to carry their belief that far is hard to estimate.  For my party I am willing enough to get out of the affair altogether.  Last week I had the petition over at Julians for a couple of days and spent so much time arguing in favor of Harper that I was surprised when my drawing of the week was accepted for the concours.[28]  I intend to have Harper with me over at the club whenever I go so if you hear of a good touch fight over here you can figure that we were in it.  No one can object to my friend coming to the place in my company.”[29]

Fortunately, no violence occurred, and later references indicate that Harper did on at least one occasion attend an exhibition at the club.  This objection to Harper’s membership in the American Art Association is rather curious given that Tanner was himself a member of the club.[30]  Furthermore, Wannamaker, one of the founding members of the club and its president, was one of Tanner’s sponsors. 

The estrangement between Harper and he club must not have been too deep, however, since Harper listed his address in the 1904 catalogue of the Exhibition of the Works by Chicago Artists of the Art Institute of Chicago, January 28 – February 28, 1904 as 74 Notre Dame des Champs, Paris, which just happened to be the address of the clubhouse of the American Art Association.  In any event, Harper left Paris in the spring of 1904, so the club’s membership dilemma became moot. 

Excerpts from Krehbiel’s letters show a generally friendly and collegial atmosphere among the Chicago boys.  They also reveal Harper’s financial struggles. While at least Krehbiel and Hagerman were supported by AIC scholarships[31] and Browne by an AIC stipend[32], Harper was on his own financially:

December 13, 1903 –

“Now Harper and Gruenhagen are anxious to have me give them composition lessons.  Whenever they come in in the evening they usually find me busy in making arrangements and sketching out ideas, so Harper one evening sat down and worked out some likewise.  I told him what I knew about it and since then he has been doing them right along.  As he says it ‘It is just the thing I have always needed for I learned to walk before I could crawl.’

Harper is a fine chap and always a jolly one to have around.  Gruenhagen is very serious but I like him too.“

December 20, 1903 –

“Harper intends to leave for England about the middle of March and may return to the states that same fall unless some good fortune should strike him.  Both he and Gruenhagen are going to do some copying in the Louvre in a few days.  There are many pictures there of which I would like to have copies so I may do the same sometime before I get through over here….

Today has been another miserable rainy day.  Harper and I spent the time until nearly one oclock over in the Louvre looking at pictures until our heads swam. This evening we four went down to the meeting in the Vitti Atelier [Students’ Atelier Reunions].  So far I haven’t missed a Sunday evening there as the talk given by Mr. Beach and the music are too good to miss.”

December 27, 1903 –

“Xmas day was very very quiet here.  In the morning I went down to Julians.  In the afternoon to [Duvenons?], but I didn’t work with very much heart for I felt the day was too sacred.  Still there wasn’t any other alternatives in order to keep from being lonesome.  In the evening it was different for Harper, Gruenhagen, an Australian named Geech and myself had a dinner in Gr. Studio.

The day before we had left our order for a cooked goose and even before that I had been to the market and laid in a supply of nuts, oranges, apples, figs and the like.  On Xmas day Gruenhagen baked sweet potatoes and made cranberry sauce and we also had our corn cakes with syrup.  The dinner was a dandy and lasted from six oclock in the evening until twelve as we had to rest a spell every now and then in order to let things settle. After diner we played ‘hearts’ until very late but I didn’t have any luck at winning which is merely another sign that I’m in love.”

January 3, 1904 –

”Today has been a repeat of yesterday as far as the nice weather is concerned, at least it was nice until a few hours ago when it suddenly commenced to rain in torrents.  Harper and I went over to the Pantheon soon after breakfast as he had never seen the decorations there and upon our return we stopped at the Museum Cluny which I had never visited although I had seen and passed by the old ruins in connection with the place many a time.”

January 11, 1904 –

“I don’t know whether Hagerman writes more than once a week to his lady.  Between you and me, it appears that Hagerman is rather a fickle chap for he is always talking of some ‘stunning girl’ whom he has just met and she is inevitably in his eyes a ‘pearl’.  No doubt the girl in Oshaloosa is much to [sic] good for him, but it would be hard to have______it that way.  Poor Gruenhagen is the only fellow in the crowd who hasn’t a girl it seems for Harper has confessed to leaving one in Texas.”

Unfortunately, there is no further information on the girl that Harper left behind in Texas.

January 24, 1904 –

“You see my English friend Geach

[sic]

advertised in the “Journal” the other day for a young Frenchman to exchange [French] lessons with I and for two days the postal service was compelled to use a wagon in delivering his mail.  He picked out two, and Harper got two and out of the bushel of letters he brought me I answered one and the fellow showed up immediately so you see there is no reason why one shouldn’t learn French when there are so many Frenchmen dying “parler” French…

Mr. Geach stopped here (as he thought for a day on his way to Italy) in order to see his friend Harper but that one day has lengthened into nearly three months so well is he satisfied with the little colony of friends he now has here…”

Krehbiel’s January 24 letter continues on with a rather derisive description of the perceived work habit failings of another one of the Chicago boys designated “H” (probably for Hagerman since he is mentioned in the previous paragraph).  Krehbiel contrasts this with Harper’s hard work and industry which he seems to greatly admire: 

“This is all in the quiet Dulah for I don’t want to have the people at the Institute or the people who are furnishing him with funds find out what little advantage he [“H”] is taking of his good chances.

Harper who has no one but himself to depend upon is a different sort of fellow.  He is always up about three hours before H, and by the time it gets to be near daylight he is at work.  On Mon. and Thur. when he is unable to work at the Louvre he paints all day long in the studio or else goes into the country to make additional sketches.  He is busy at the Louvre copying a sunset by Dupré and a landscape with an old church in it by Millet.  Harper sent a number of things over for the Chicago Artists Ex, but I haven’t heard whether they arrived in time or whether they were accepted.  He and I are going to the Louvre this afternoon and upon our return from there we are going to stop at the club to see the exhibition.” 

It is curious that in this letter Krehbiel references Harper’s work at the Louvre, in “the studio”, and in “the country”, but does not mention the Académie Julian.  The question again arises as to how much time Harper actually spent at the Académie beyond the time when his picture was taken.  Given his financial circumstances, that time may have been quite limited.

A search of the collective catalogue of the state museums of France managed by the Direction des Musées de France[33] (Directorate of French museums) under the French Ministry of Culture shows that in 2019 the Louvre has 21 paintings by Jules Dupré, with two involving a sunset:  “Soleil Couchant Aprés l’Orage” (“Sun Setting after the Storm”) and “Soleil Couchant sur un Marais” (“Sun Setting on a Marsh”).  Both of these paintings were acquired in 1902, so either could have been the sunset painting that Harper was copying in January of 1904. 

“Soliel Couchant Apres l’Orage”, Jules Dupre.
“Soleil Couchant sur un Marais”:, Jules Dupre.

The Louvre also has 9 paintings by Jean Francois Millet, with 83 in the collection of the Musées de France over all.  The only painting which appears to a church, “L’Eglise de Greville”, is not currently in the Louvre, although the Louvre is listed as a prior location.  This may be the Millet painting referenced by Krehbiel. 

Official consent was required to copy paintings in the national museums.  To obtain such an authorization, the American student had to obtain a recommendation from the American Ambassador, and present the same to the “Directeur des Musées Nationaux” “who has his office in an upper room of the Louvre, up a wonderous winding staircase which one ascends like a tower.”[34]  The Directeur would give a general permission to copy in the galleries of the Louvre, the Luxembourg, and other venues, and then a special permission for specific paintings.  No payment was required for the permissions or for the gallery entrance, but a student did need to pay the guardian of the museum who provided an easel and stool, and took care of the canvasses when the student was not actively painting.  One student reported that:

“It is awkward to attend to these detail when one does not speak French, and it is somewhat resented by the authorities because it gives them more trouble….There are some pictures so popular that four or five are always waiting for a chance to copy, and they secure first, second and third right to the place in front of canvas.  They must watch their opportunity to paint, but must decamp if the person with first permit demands it.  The word of the guardian is law when rights are disputed….Velasquez, Rembrandts and Titians, Millet’s landscapes, and Paul Potter’s cattle are favorites with Americans.”[35]

While in Europe, Harper continued to submit paintings for AIC exhibitions.  On January 31, 1904, Krehbiel wrote:

“Harper has received a note from Mr. French saying that his pictures for the Chicago Ex. had been entered and now he is anxiously awaiting the news whether or not they were accepted by the jury.  If they are hung I hope he will be fortunate enough to dispose of them so that he can remain over here for a longer time.  He figures that now he can remain only until summer.”

As noted above, three of Harper’s paintings were in fact accepted for the AIC art exhibition held January 28 – February 28, 1904.  There is, however, no indication as to whether those paintings sold.  The listing in the catalogue of the Exhibition of the Works of Chicago Artists at the Art Institute of Chicago was as follows:

            “Harper, William A.- 74 Rue Notre Dame Des Champs, Paris

            82.       Cornish upland, Cornwall, England.   $100

            83.       An ilex at St. Cloud, France.              $35

            84.       A West Country slope corner.            $50”

That year there were 768 works of art submitted for examination by the jury, with 278 selected for the exhibition.  The address referenced was the address of American Art Association/Club in Paris.

By February, the weather was occasionally nice enough for Harper and Krehbeil to sketch out of doors.  On February 9:

“Harper and I started out early this morning and went up the Seine and the Morne rivers by boat to Charenton about three quarters of an hour from here.  Harper has been up there often of late and was so enthused over the place that we decided last night, if it was pleasant, to take our sketching books and spend the day out.  For once the day started out fine and the tempirature  [sic] was like that of a summer’s day so we enjoyed the ride up the rivers and afterwards over ___ through the various small towns in the vicinity of Charenton.  One of these St. Maurce is the birthplace of the painter Eug. Delacroix who died in 1863 and who is represented in the Art Institute by a number of pictures.  We only stopped to make one sketch apiece.  It was of an old stone mill on a canal near the river.  I made mine on paper with the Raeffeli colors and it didn’t turn out very well.  Later on in the afternoon the whole country was overrun with people whom the hot sun brought out from Paris so we decided to leave about five oclock before the rush back to the city commenced. “

But on February 14, Krehbiel wrote, “All morning I spent at the Louvre and this afternoon I bummed around with Harper until the rain drove us to cover…”.  On February 21, “Harper and I planned to walk to St. Cloud to-day in order to get a little exercise but as usual the weather is too wet to go out…”

Work and weather notwithstanding, Harper and Krehbiel did take time to enjoy themselves, with Krehbiel’s February 21 letter containing the following account of the earlier Mardi Gras celebration in Paris.

“Last Thursday was “Mardi Gras” day here and it was celebrated in the street in rollicking style.  It is the Catholic’s last chance to have a good time before Lent and them make the most of their opportunity.  Harper and I went down Boulevard St. Michel which starts near here about seven [?] oclock last night in order to see the fun.  The sidewalks were crowded with people and as it had been raining hard during the afternoon the pavement was ankle deep with mud.  The “Bal Boulliers” [?] is near the end of St. Michel and everywhere could be seen gay crowds in costumes making for that noted dance hall.  Harper & I found it rather difficult getting through the crowds and every now and then we would run into a blockade and have to stop.  A gang of students would get a couple of girls in a circle and keep them there by running around and round and all the time singing a song.  Then after the girls had been thoroughly kissed they would be permitted to go on their way.  It is customary to throw “confetti” at each other on this occasion.  The stuff is made of heavy paper, and cut into very small disks and this is thrown by the handful.  The girls throw at the boys and vice-versa.  Whenever a girl throws a handful of “confetti” in one’s face it gives him license to kiss her provided he can catch her.  Harper and myself had enough of it thrown at us but we didn’t enter into the sport.  Many men were dressed up as women and the women made up like men.  One of the funniest sights I have ever seen took place that evening.  One fellow dressed as a woman with a high hat and swell make up made love to all the policemen along the route.  Harper and I followed him for quite a ways and almost died laughing to see him approach a policeman.  He certainly acted well.”

The disparagement of Hagerman’s work ethic continued in Krehbiel’s February 21 letter, and Harper seems to have concurred with Krehbiel:

“By-the-way do you know that Hagie’s [Hagerman] “belle dame” is going to show up here in Paris on next Sat.?…Hagie says “It is all off with Etaples[36] now” so I imagine that he will extend his summer here in Paris and Harper adds ‘Yes and now it will be all off with work for Hagie’ which may be equally true since he hasn’t taken any very great fancy to work since he has been here.”

In his letter of January 24 (see above), Krehbiel discusses Harper painting in “the studio” when he is unable to paint at the Louvre.  It is not clear in this instance whether the referenced studio belongs to Harper, or whether it might mean another venue, such as the Académie Julian.  Krehbiel’s February 28 letter, however, makes it clear that Harper does have his own studio:

”I started out without my raincoat thinking that I wouldn’t need it but I soon found out that it was rather chilly after all.  So I came back here, had a light lunch, and then set out on a three hour and a half tramp which took me over a good part of the southeastern part of the berg and afterwards across the river into northern Paris.  By the time I got back to Harper’s studio I was hungry enough to eat a raw bear had one crossed my path.  Later on Harper and I went to church, where we met Hagerman and Miss Rosenberger.  Their party had arrived about the middle of the afternoon and I think Hagie might have given the poor girl a rest instead of trotting her down to the meeting.  She looked very tired and I liked her.’’

Krehbiel not only held Harper in high esteem as a friend and artist, but also sought out his opinion on his art work.  As the February 28 letter continued:

“Another composition on which I spend more than a half day represented the old mill at Clarendon.  I had Harper see it one afternoon when he dropped in and he didn’t recognize it as the mill we had sketched the other Sunday.

This composition [referring to a sketch in the letter] is also very low in tone and represents the embarking of a barge of grain for the little mill in the ravine.  The men in the lower right had corner are on the barge lifting the sacks onto the dock.  Others are putting the sacks in a pile while still others are carrying them to the mill.

Harper liked the thing immediately and begged (?) me not to touch it again.  However it isn’t what I want as yet, so I intend to work on it until I get it right.”

We are also indebted to Krehbiel for the knowledge that Harper was a good cook.  In his letter dated March 12, 1904, Krehbiel wrote:

“It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I got back here almost supper time.   Harper suggested that we have supper with him (Geech and myself) so we chipped in on the expense and had a rousing good meal for Harper is a good cook as well as a painter.

After that we all went to the [Sunday evening] meeting.  I did not see Hagie and the lady there this evening although they may have been present in the crowd without my noticing it….”

In that same letter, Krehbiel discussed Harper’s ongoing financial difficulties and his challenges as a “colored man” painting in the U.S.:

“Harper has written to Miss Willard in order to find out whether she will be able to sell some small sketched in oil for him.  I have been urging Harper to remain over on this side of the water if he could possibly arrange to do so.

A colored man whether in the north or the south isn’t treated with very much consideration in the states while here it is entirely different.  If I were in his place I would go to England (where he likes it) get a small piece of land, which can be had for 25 dollars per year and sketch there until my work would sell. 

Harper likes the idea and may carry it out for I don’t doubt but that he will be able to make his living ere long from what he produces.

It is very good of you to give so much time and trouble trying to dispose of his things.  I haven’t said anything about it to him for he might be come to [sic] hopeful that some of the stuff would be sold and make his plans accordingly.

I hope that Miss Willard will be able to sell some of the smaller pictures, for I believe they would sell more readily than the larger ones.  In the modern buildings the rooms are usually so small that a large picture cannot be seen, so I should think that there would be a demand for little pictures….”

Miss Geneva Willard was on the staff of the AIC, and the exhibition catalogues of the AIC generally referred those interested in purchasing paintings to Miss Willard at “the desk”.  There is no report in any of Krehbiel’s letters as to whether or not Evans or Willard had any success in the sale of Harper’s paintings. 

In early March of 1904, Charles Francis Browne arrived in Paris after a painting sojourn in Scotland, and, according to Krehbiel, “immediately came over to see Harper”.[37]  As noted earlier, Browne is one of two individuals identified as mentors of Harper.  Browne was both an accomplished painter and an instructor at the AIC, with the AIC providing Browne support of $600 for his time in Europe.  Browne’s plans were to remain in France until after the Paris Salon and then return to Scotland. [38] 

The Paris Salon was the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris and every artist and art student in Paris aspired to have a painting “accepted” by the Salon.  The Chicago boys were no exception.  According to Krehbiel’s letters of March 12 and March 20, Harper submitted a landscape for the 1904 Salon, Krehbiel and Gruenhagens each submitted two paintings, and Hagerman submitted one painting.  Browne also submitted a painting.  None of the paintings appear to have been accepted, however, as none of the four students, nor Browne, are listed in the “Catalogue Illustré du Salon de 1904”.  With regard to the Salon, Krehbiel wrote in his March 20 letter:

“I wish that you could have witnessed what has been going on in this vicinity since the opening of the salon.  In whatever direction one would look, one could see “scads” of pictures carried along or being loaded into carts.  One never knows really which are artists hacks

[studios]

or musicians until Salon time when they begin to cart out their pictures.

Harper and I passed the Grand Palace to-day, and stopped for awhile to see the many wagons unloading their stuff into the building.  The street was full if men carrying or wheeling along pictures and at the long entrance there was almost a blockade of big furniture vans each one pouring its share of pictures into the building.”

At the same time as the Salon was taking place, a competing Salon des Indépendants (Société des Artistes Indépendants) was being held at the Grandes Serres de la Ville de Paris (Cours-la-Reine).  The Salon des Indépendants was an annual independent art exhibition established in 1884 in response to the rigid traditionalism of the official government-sponsored Salon.  The Salon des Indépendants allowed artists to present their works to the general public directly, rather than through the selective method of the government Salon.  According to Article 1 of the By-laws of the organization: “The purpose of Société des Artistes Indépendants—based on the principle of abolishing admission jury—is to allow the artists to present their works to public judgement with complete freedom”.  In 1904, 2,395 works were exhibited.[39]  The modern avant-guarde paintings, however, were often ridiculed by critics.  The American students were no different, and Harper in particular seems to have failed to appreciate the contemporary trends in art.  As Krehbiel wrote on March 20: 

“Some blocks further on is a large glass palace facing the river.  A large sign says that the Independent Artist Exhibit is within.  I saw the sign last Sunday from across the river while with the Julian mob and since then I have heard people tell of what a frightful exhibit it really was.  So I told Harper if he would go along I’d pay his way in.

Well it was a regular circus!  Just imagine some fifteen hundred pictures any of which could have been improved upon by your Saturday students.  Painted in all the colors of the rainbow and in every manner imaginable.  Harper and I saw the thing from start to finish and it proved to be such a treat to Billie that we remined there an hour and a half.  Every few minutes Harper would double up with laughter and I had to warn him continually lest he might offend the artist if he chanced to be near.  Harper said that a man who had gaul [sic] enough to think that stuff of that kind was art ought to be offended.  Which happened to be pretty near true in this case.  The independent artists are certainly a lot of independent individuals.  They have no jury.  Membership can be had by paying five francs which will entitle you to send in five pictures which are hung without fail.  I’m thinking of going it before long.

I hadn’t expected to find things quite as bad as they were.  I had imagined when people told me of the show that they might be a little prejudiced and that perhaps one would find there after all some “artistic daubs” which are often preferable to so called finished pictures.  But in this I was mistaken for by far the greater part of the stuff looked like childrens work.

We ran across Hubbell in the exhibit.  He shook his head and said that he couldn’t understand it at all – then he added that Paris is certainly the art center for it is only here that such stuff would be allowed in a show.”

The letter went on to discuss Harper’s travel plans with Browne and a possible employment opportunity:

“Harper and Brown[e] are going down to a place near Barbizon in a few days where they will very likely stay until the opening of the Salon on the first of May.  After that Harper might go to England and Brown[e] shall return to Scotland. 

By-the-way, Harper has been offered a position as instructor in drawing in Booker T. Washingtons school down in Alabama.  He rather likes the idea of attaching himself to that institution in case he will be allowed sufficient time as that he can keep at his painting.  That school is being backed pretty heavily by wealthy men and it may be that if he should go there it would be the means of his meeting some rich “bugger” who thought well enough of his work to launch him onto a carreer [sic].

You know that Tanner has been backed for a good many years by Mr. Wanemaker [sic] and just recently I heard it said that some wealthy Chicago woman has made it possible for Hubbell and his family to remain over here for the last seven years.

Harper tells me that Wm. Wendt has been backed for years by a wealthy Chicago doctor so one begins to see why some are able to hold out until success strikes them while others fall by the wayside….

I saw the things Hubbell sent to the Salon.  There was a reception at his studio last Wed. afternoon from two until four.  Harper and I went over together and staid [sic] some time.”

The reference to Booker T. Washington’s school was to Tuskegee University, in Tuskegee, Alabama.  There is no evidence, however, that Harper ever did teach at Tuskeege.  All indications from subsequent newspaper articles and publications are that he returned to the Chicago area at the 1904, and none appear to contain references to Tuskegee.

Harper and Browne left Paris together in mid-March.  On March 27, Krehbiel reported that:

“Harper left last Tues. so that since then I haven’t been in their room.  While he was still here he and I were together often in the evenings for I like Harper who manages to keep a cheerful disposition even in the face of adversity.  I wish I were built on the same principal but I am afraid that I am not.  However whenever I get with a person who is in good spirits I usually contract the same disease and likewise forget my troubles.  Perhaps it was for this reason that we were together so often.  Anyway I have missed him this week.

Harper and Chas Francis Brown[e] went down to a little burg somewhere south of here last Tuesday morning.  In all likelihood he will remain there until the show opens here in May….”

This letter, like others, suggests that Harper lived fairly near Krehbiel, but his exact address is not known.  Likewise, it is not clear who Krehbiel meant when referring to “their room”.  The phrasing suggests that Harper was sharing a room, but his roommate is not specifically identified in any of the letters.  Clearly, Harper and Krehbiel were close friends, and Krehbiel held him in high regard.

Although Krehbiel cites the town of Barbizon located in the Seine-et-Marne department of north-central France as the pair’s destination, Harper and Brown also painted in Montiguy, a village situated on the banks of the Loing River, likewise located in Seine-et-Marne.  Two of Harper’s paintings listed in the catalogue of Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists at the AIC January 31 – February 26, 1905 were painted in Montigny: “Early afternoon, Montigny, France” and “Banks of the Loing, Montiguy, France”.  The Loing is an 88 mile tributary of the Seine running through central France.  Montigny (or Montigny-sur-Loing as it is now called) is a small commune or township on the Loing located south of Fontainebleau, about 60 miles southeast of Paris.  It is not known how long Harper stayed in Montiguy, but according to the catalogue for the “Exhibition of Paintings and Sketches by Charles Francis Browne” held at the AIC in December of 1904, Browne painted in Montiguy during the months of March, April and May of 1904.

Following his stay in the French countryside, it appears that Harper returned to Cornwall.  William Wendt was in back in Cornwall after a trip to the continent beginning in March and remained there through the summer[40], so it is logical that Harper returned to continue his painting with Wendt.  In any event, seven of Harper’s nine paintings listed in the catalogue of Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists at the AIC January 31 – February 26, 1905 were painted in Cornwall.  The full listing from that catalogue is as follows:

            “Harper, William A. – Art Institute, Chicago

            100.     Morning, midsummer, Cornwall, Eng.            $150

            101.     Early afternoon, Montigny,, France.               $150

            102.     The hedgerow, Cornwall, Eng.                       $100

            103.     Eventide, Cornwall, Eng.                                $50

            104.     Banks of the Loing, Montigny, France           $100

            105.     The potato field, Cornwall, Eng.                     $35

            106.     Lobbs house, Cornwall, Eng.                         $35

            107.     Grey day, Cornwall, Eng.                               $35

            108.     Quiet morning, Cornwall, Eng.                       $35”

On October 24, 1904 Harper set sail on the S.S. Parisian from Liverpool, England, travelling in steerage class, arriving at the port of Montreal on November 6, 1904.[41]  The ship’s manifest lists Harper as an artist, whose final destination is Chicago “home of Art Institute”, and notes that Harper had all of $15 in his possession. [Attach] 

[Discuss influence of exposure to tonalism in Cornwall and the Barbazon school on Harper?]


[1] “American Artists in St. Ives” by David Tovey, https://www.stivesart.info/american-artists-in-st-ives/ .  Documents on the Life and Art of William Wendt, by John Alan Walker, 1992, pg. 47.

[2] “John Noble Barlow (1860-1917) – A Centennial Tribute”, by David Tovey, The Siren, Issue No. 14, October 2017; p. 10, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ht830l9nFh9xzFRh_MfAJI7APQJprxcr/view.

[3] https://sites.google.com/site/academiejulian/b-1/john-barlow.

[4] https://sites.google.com/site/academiejulian/b-1/browne-1.

[5] “John Noble Barlow (1860-1917) – A Centennial Tribute”, by David Tovey, The Siren, Issue No. 14, October 2017; p. 9, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ht830l9nFh9xzFRh_MfAJI7APQJprxcr/view. 

[6] Albert Krehbiel papers.  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian.

[7] See: https://sites.google.com/site/academiejulian/home.

[8]  Henry Ossawa Tanner was considered the foremost “Negro” artist of the time.  Obituary, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 4, July 1910, p. 11.

[9] Henry Ossawa Tanner, American Artist, by Marcia M. Mathews, 1969, p. 57.

[10] The Julian Academy, Paris 1868 – 1939, “Spring Exhibition 1989”, essays by Catherine Fehrer, Shepherd Gallery, N.Y.

[11] A Reading Journal Through France, “Art Life in Paris”, by Fanny Rowell, Chautauquan 30:408, January 1900.

[12] “The Story of an Artist’s Life, by H.O. Tanner, The World’s Work, Vol. XVIII, May to October, 1909, p. 11770.

[13] Krehbiel – Life and Works of an American Artist, by Robert Guinan, 1991, p. 5.

[14] Circular of Instruction of the School of Drawing, Painting, Modelling, Decorative Designing and Architecture for the AIC, Catalogue of Students for 1899-1900.

[15] Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dulah_Marie_Evans.

[16] Information courtesy of the Krehbiel family grandchildren.  For more information on Krehbiel, see the website:  https://www.krehbielart.com/index.htm .

[17] Albert Krehbiel, (March 12, 1904) “Letters of Albert Krehbiel”.  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian.

[18] Albert Krehbiel, (October 8, 1903) “Letters of Albert Krehbiel”.  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian.

[19] Albert Krehbiel, (October 8, 1903) “Letters of Albert Krehbiel”.  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian.

[20] Henry Ossawa Tanner, American Artist, by Marcia M. Mathews, 1969, p. 65.

[21] Albert Krehbiel, (October 25, 1903) “Letters of Albert Krehbiel”.  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian.

[22] Albert Krehbiel, (November 29, 1903) and (December 20, 1903) “Letters of Albert Krehbiel”.  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian.

[23] Albert Krehbiel, (November 29, 1903) “Letters of Albert Krehbiel”.  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian.

[24] A Reading Journal Through France, “Art Life in Paris”, by Fanny Rowell, Chautauquan 30:406-7, January 1900.

[25] Henry Ossawa Tanner, American Artist, by Marcia M. Mathews, 1969, p. 61.

[26] A Reading Journal Through France, “Art Life in Paris”, by Fanny Rowell, Chautauquan 30:406, January 1900.

[27] Albert Krehbiel, (January 3, 1904) “Letters of Albert Krehbiel”.  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian.

[28] Weekly competitive exams on Sundays at the Académie Julian.

[29] Albert Krehbiel, (January 11, 1904) “Letters of Albert Krehbiel”.  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian.

[30] Henry Ossawa Tanner, American Artist, by Marcia M. Mathews, 1969, p. 61.

[31] Krehbiel – Life and Works of an American Artist, by Robert Guinan, 1991., p. 5.

[32] Albert Krehbiel, (March 12, 1904) “Letters of Albert Krehbiel”.  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian.

[33] http://www2.culture.gouv.fr/documentation/joconde/fr/recherche/rech_libre.htm.

[34] A Reading Journal Through France, “Art Life in Paris”, by Fanny Rowell, Chautauquan 30:410, January 1900.

[35] Ibid, p. 410-12.

[36] Étapes was a small artist colony and fishing port on the north bank of the Canche river, on the train line between Paris and London.  Henry Ossawa Tanner had a home nearby (in addition to his Paris apartment).

[37] Albert Krehbiel, (March 12, 1904) “Letters of Albert Krehbiel”.  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian.

[38] Albert Krehbiel, (March 12, 1904) “Letters of Albert Krehbiel”.  Archives of American Art, Smithsonian.

[39] Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Société_des_Artistes_Indépendants

[40] “American Artists in St. Ives” by David Tovey, https://www.stivesart.info/american-artists-in-st-ives/.  Documents on the Life and Art of William Wendt, by John Alan Walker, 1992, pg. 47.

[41] List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the U.S. Immigration Officer at Port of Arrival, National Archives and Records Administration

Teaching in Houston

        Teaching in Houston – Last updated July 15, 2020

Following his graduation from the AIC, Harper accepted a position as a drawing and writing instructor with the Houston public schools in Houston, Texas, where he taught for two years..[1]  At this time, the schools in Houston were divided into white schools and “Colored Schools”.  The Superintendent of the Independent School District of Houston, W.W. Barnett, had actively encouraged the school board to hire a drawing instructor for the “Colored Schools”, writing in the section of the 1900-1901 Annual Report of the Superintendent entitled “The Colored Schools”, that

“During the coming year I hope the Board will be able to secure the services of a thoroughly trained teacher of drawing and writing.”[2] 

On September 4, 1901, the Houston Daily Post announced the appointment of Harper to such position as that drawing and writing instructor for the “Colored Schools”.  As noted in the previous chapter, Harper was not the first AIC graduate to work for the Houston public schools.  When Harper arrived in Houston, he joined Blanche Williams who was already the “directress” for drawing in the white public schools.  Williams had graduated from the AIC the year before Harper, and she and Harper had shared at least one class at the AIC.[3]

The Houston City Directory for the years 1902-1903 listed Harper as “Harper, William (c), director of drawing and writing Houston (c) public school, bds 302 [?] Andrews”.[4]  The designation “(c)” depicted race, and “bds” presumably meaning Harper was a boarder at the referenced address.  Records are not available from the individual “Colored Schools” of those years, but it appears that Harper served as the drawing and writing instructor for all of such Houston schools. 

One article appearing in the Houston Post in 1901 entitled “Colored School Work – Teachers Held a Grade Meeting Friday Afternoon”[5] described the “regular monthly grade meeting” of the “colored teachers in the intermediate department of the city schools”.  Teachers for the fourth through seventh grades were present, including “Willliam H.[sic] Harper, instructor in writing and drawing”.  The order of business included the election of the “conductor of the grade work for the present scholastic year” and the “comparison of progress cards for the scholastic month ending October ll.”

Harper was clearly well received and well liked.  The Houston Post reported that at the July 1902 School Board meeting, the Superintendent of the school system read his report, and an

“important item of the superintendent’s report was the recommendation that the salary of William Harper, a negro teacher, be raised to $75 the month.  Prof. Barnett spoke of Harper’s abilities in the highest terms”.[6]

It may be at this time that Harper’s title went from “instructor” to “director”.

In fact, Harper so impressed Superintendent/Professor Barnett that he took the time to write a letter to the Director of the AIC, W.M.R. French, praising Harper’s work.[7]  Barnett’s letter has not survived, but on August 28, 1902, French wrote to Harper,

“I have received a letter from Prof. Barnett expressing his satisfaction with your work.  I am highly pleased to hear of your success.  It was, however, a matter of course with your attainments and habits.  I think you are in a way of doing a great deal of good both professionally and socially.  We hope you may some day pay us a visit.” 

French then went on to discuss the latest happenings at the AIC.  Given the number of students who passed through the AIC, a letter of this nature from the Director is an impressive indication of the esteem with which Harper was held by the AIC, and the Director in particular.

The annual Superintendent’s Reports list the salaries of teachers, including the “Special Teachers”.  For a salary comparison, Blanche Williams annual salary was $540 during the 1900-1901 school year[8].  During the 1903-1904 school year, her annual salary was $900.[9]  Unfortunately, the Superintendent’s Report for the 1901-1902 and the 1902-1903 school years, those years when Harper was teaching in Houston, are missing.  

Although certainly engaged with classes while teaching in Houston, Harper was nevertheless artistically busy during that time period.  In early 1902, he had three paintings accepted in the annual juried Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, an exhibition jointly managed by the AIC and the Municipal Art League of Chicago.  The catalogue listing was as follows:

Harper, William A. – Care Wm. Wendt, 224 East Ontario Street, Chicago[10]

93.  The lake in the hills

94.  The green of summer

95.  First sign of autumn

It is interesting to note that in this catalogue, Harper’s address for the purposes of the exhibition is listed as care of one of his mentors, William Wendt.  269 paintings from a submission of 629 were selected by the jury for the exhibition, including paintings by Charles Francis Browne and William Wendt.

An article in the Brush and Pencil, Vol. 9, No. 6 (Mar, 1902), an international art magazine published in Chicago, reproduced Harper’s painting entitled “First Show [sic] of Autumn”, a rare and certainly gratifying honor for a young painter.  The magazine reviewed the exhibition and noted that:

“Warm praise should be awarded… to William A. Harper for his ‘First Sign of Autumn’ and ‘The Lake in the Hills’, both of which are pleasing landscapes, replete with sentiment….”[11] 

In early 1903, Harper again had two paintings granted entrance to the annual Chicago exhibition.  The catalogue listing was as follows:

            Harper, William A. – 817 San Felipe Street, Houston, Texas

            90.  Eucalyptus                       $100

            91.  The old mulberry             $100

239 paintings from a submission of 679 were selected by the jury for the exhibition, including paintings by Charles Francis Browne and Worthington E. Haggerman..  Haggerman would in 1903 study at the Academie Julian in Paris with Harper.  The catalogue for that exhibition noted that William Wendt had been elected as a member of the jury, but was unable to serve as he was out of the country.  He was in fact painting in Cornwall where Harper would join him in in the summer of 1903.

Lorado Taft, an instructor at the AIC and one of the founders of the Eagle’s Nest, stayed in touch with Harper during his time in Houston, and was invited to lecture in Houston by the Houston Art League in October of 1902.[12]  Twenty-five years later Taft would provide a poignant account of his visit to Houston in a letter to the Chicago Tribune:

“Will Harper was in his time the pride of the Art Institute.  This earnest student, who was obliged to work his way through the school, continually surprised us by the large simplicity of his compositions and the somber richness of his coloring.  Mr. Harper became a superintendent of drawing in the public schools of an important city of the south.  Never shall I forget an evening when I found myself lecturing there.  The great hall was filled below with the beauty and chivalry of the place, while in the dimness of the gallery sat one lone, dark figure – my friend Harper.  The colored teachers had obtained permission to attend, but through some misunderstanding were represented by him alone.  It was a strange feeling that this social exile was perhaps the only one in my audience who completely understood what I was trying to say.”[13]

No further information is available about Harper’s time in Houston.  It is unclear whether he spent the summer between the 1901 and 1902 school years in Houston, but given the oppressive heat of the Houston summers before the advent of air conditioning, it is more than likely that he either joined his father and brother in Decatur, Illinois, or joined Lorado Taft and his fellow artists to work again at the Eagle’s Nest.  After the end of the 1902-1903 school year, Harper left Houston for Europe – the ultimate destination for all aspiring artist of the time.


[1] Obituary, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 4, July 1910, p. 11.

[2]Annual Report of the Public Schools of the Independent School District of Houston 1900-1901., p. 51.

[3] Ibid, p. 35.

[4] Houston City Directory 1902 – 03, p. 118.

[5] “Colored School Work.  Teachers Held a Grade Meeting Friday Afternoon; Houston Post (Houston, Texas), October 20, 1901, p. 12.

[6] “School Board Meeting”, Houston Post (Houston, Texas), July 30, 1902.

[7] Letter from W.M.R. French to Wm. Harper dated August 28, 1902, advising of the favorable report.

[8] Annual Report of the Public Schools of the Independent School District of Houston 1900-1901.

[9] Annual Report of the Public Schools of the Independent School District of Houston 1903-1904.

[10] This address appears to be that of the “Holbein Studios” and was also used by other artists.  See, e.g. the catalogue of the Exhibition of Chicago Artists held at the AIC February 4 to March 1, 1908, listings for Cora Freer and Frederick Freer.  No further information has been found, however, about such studio.

[11] “Works of Chicago Artists” by Arthur Anderson Merritt in Brush and Pencil, Vol. 9, No 6 (March 1902), pp 336-346.

[12] Report on meeting of the advisory board of the City Federation, Houston Post, May 18, 1902, p. 33.

[13] Letter from Lorado Taft entitled “The Work of Negro Artists”, Chicago Tribune, November 17, 1927, p. 10.

Education

                                              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. 

Education

                                              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 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.