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”.