Final Years

Final Years – Last updated August 3, 2020 –


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.


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

[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