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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *