William A. Harper
Canadian-born Romantic and Impressionist landscape painter, William A. Harper (1873-1910) moved at the age of eight with his family from Cayuga, Ontario to Illinois. After earning a degree from Brown’s Business College in Jacksonville, he settled in Chicago. There he took a job as a handyman and night watchman at the Chicago Art Institute, earning enough money to enroll in the Institute’s classes. Harper graduated from the Institute with honors six years later; and became a one of the first black members of the Chicago Society of Artists. The Art Institute of Chicago included three of Harper’s landscapes in their annual exhibit in 1901, the year of his graduation; and the paintings were described as “the most perfect in the exhibition” by a reviewer from the Chicago Conservator, Chicago’s first black newspaper.
From 1901 to 1903, Harper worked as an art teacher in the Houston, Texas public school system before traveling to Europe. From 1903 to 1905 he painted landscapes in Cornwall, England and studied at the Academie Julien in Paris, an exclusive private art school established in 1868 by painter Rodolphe Julien (1839-1907). In 1905, Harper returned to the U.S. for two years and submitted nine of his European paintings to the Art Institute exhibit, for which he was awarded the Municipal Art League Prize. A photograph of him accompanied by an article about his success appeared in the 6 February 1905 issue of the Chicago News, describing Harper as the “janitor artist.” A selection of his works featured in the Society of Western Artists exhibit that same year prompted The World Today journal to name Harper one of the top five rising art stars in Chicago. In 1907, several of Harper’s landscapes were included in the juried show at the historic Union League Club of Chicago. Exhibited alongside noted American portraitist Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), Hudson River School luminary George Inness (1825-94), French Impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926), and neoclassical sculptor Hiram Powers were a group of Harper’s sketches, painted from nature, of the French countryside. The works were praised for their “finished style,” and rich palette, and for their compositional arrangements. In 1908, Harper’s annual entry to the Chicago Art Institute Annual entitled Old Houses and Vines was awarded a $100 prize by the Institute’s Young Fortnightly Club.
Back in Paris in 1907, Harper went on painting excursions to Montreuil with American artists William Wendt (1865-1946) and Charles Francis Browne (1859-1920). In 1908, suffering from tuberculosis, he traveled to Cuernavaca, Mexico to recuperate. His Summer Breeze (Valley in the Hills, Mexico) is likely from this period, given the subject matter of palm trees, sailboats and azure sea. Unlike his earlier romantic pictures that employed muted colors, his Mexico works incorporated the high key colors, thick impasto and conspicuous brushwork of Impressionism. Harper’s illness became progressively worse and, after two years in Mexico, he died in the American Hospital in Mexico City. He was only thirty six years old. Harper’s passing was honored by the Art Institute of Chicago with a summer 1910 exhibit of 60 of his works.
Charles Ethan Porter
Charles Ethan Porter (c. 1847-1923) was a Connecticut painter of landscapes and floral still lifes who created light-infused and finely detailed compositions. Porter was one of the first African American artists to be academically trained. At age 18, he enrolled in a program of art study at the Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts (today, the Wilbraham & Monson Academy). After two years, in 1869 he transferred to New York’s prestigious National Academy of Design, becoming its first African American student. There Porter took classes alongside two soon-to-be preeminent romantic and impressionist painters, Alfred Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) and J. Alden Weir (1852-1919), who were also students. During his years at the Academy, Porter studied under neoclassical portraitist Joseph Oriel Eaton (1829-75) and supported himself by giving private art lessons to New York aficionados. Upon graduation, he became one of the first blacks to earn the equivalent of a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at any American institution.
Porter’s studies and connections at the Academy led to exhibitions of his watercolor paintings in 1873 and ’75 with the American Society of Painters in New York; and in 1876 at the National Academy of Design itself. The following year, he returned to his birthplace in Hartford, Connecticut, where he opened his own studio. He received immediate laudatory attention from The Hartford Daily Times, which reported in 1877 the presence in Hartford of a “New PainterA Colored Man.” The Times critic was most impressed with the “fineness of execution” of Porter’s paintings; and questioned, admiringly, “Do the people of Hartford know that they have among them an artist whose paintings, in minute accuracy of detail, and particularity in fidelity to nature in some of the most difficult points of color, are hardly surpassed by any painter?”
After four years in Hartford, Porter traveled to Paris, armed with a letter of introduction and financial support from writer Mark Twain, who was living in Hartford at the time; and who admired Porter’s work. In Paris, Porter enrolled in the École des Arts Décoratifs and spent time painting the pastoral terrain of Fleury-en-Bière, near the Fontainebleau forest where the Barbizon artists painted. Porter’s Landscape with Grain Sacks, from this time and place, reveals his affinity with the romantic themes of the Barbizon School as well as with the color innovations of the Impressionists (who themselves were inspired by the en pleine air practices of the Barbizon artists) [fig. 5-8]. Landscape with Grain Sacks depicts an expanse of French countryside in deep perspective. In the distance, a dark rainstorm brews; latent sunlight casts a subtle glow on the emerald green field and stacks of grain in the middle ground; and green wildflowers, highlighted with touches of blue, occupy the foreground. Porter’s subject and treatment of natural light are true to the en pleine air setting; and his middle and foreground palette of pure and glowing greens enlivened by touches pale blue are distinctly Impressionist.
After several years abroad, in 1885 Porter returned to the U.S. and opened a New York studio, where he worked for two years before returning to Hartford. For the remainder of his career, he devoted himself to painting jewel-like still lifes of fruit and flowers. In 1889, Porter moved his studio to the now historic Fitch Block retail complex on Union Street in Rockville, Connecticut; and subsequently to a space in Rockville’s Fox Hill Memorial Tower. He shared his studio with a younger romantic and impressionist painter named Gustave Adolph Hoffman (1869-1945), for whom Porter served as mentor and teacher. In turn, Hoffman helped Porter sell his works by standing in for him with local buyers who refused to deal directly with a black artist. Porter created and sold his paintings in Connecticut and New York, traveling to the latter city for protracted stays until 1896, when the cost became prohibitive. In 1910, he joined the newly founded Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts; but his artistic successes appear to have declined at this point. He continued to paint to the end of his life, passing away in 1923 after several years of ill health.