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.

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