Works in the Collection
William A. Harper was born in Ontario, CA in 1837. Harper’s mother passed away at a young age, and he was left in the care of his grandmother, a formidable woman who escaped slavery in West Virginia on foot. In 1885, Harper joined his father in Illinois and attended the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). He worked as a janitor to put himself through school and graduated from AIC with honors. After graduating, Harper received the opportunity to join his mentor, William Wendt, in Europe. He spent the summer of 1903 in Cornwall, England, and went on to study at the Académie Julian in Paris in the fall. In the spring of 1904, he ventured to the south of France with another mentor, Charles Francis Browne, where the Barbizon school of painting had a major influence on his style.
Harper’s second trip to France was in 1907. During his visit, he studied under Henry Ossawa Tanner, painting the French countryside where Tanner owned a property. By 1908, Harper’s health started to suffer, and he moved to Mexico, where he continued to paint until he died of consumption in 1910.
In his lifetime, he exhibited paintings in the juried Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, which was managed by the AIC and the Municipal Art League of Chicago; he won the Municipal Art League prize in 1905 and the Young Fortnightly Club award in 1908; he was elected to one of the Juries of Selection for the Eighteenth Annual Exhibition of the Paintings and Sculpture of American Artists in 1905, and again for the Twenty-First Annual Exhibition of the Paintings and Sculpture of American Artists in 1908. After he passed away, the Art Institution of Chicago curated a retrospective exhibition of sixty of Harper’s paintings, which was one of the first major museum shows for a Black artist in the United States.
You can find a more complete biography, researched and written by Janet A. Nussbaum, at www.williamaharper.com/