A genre painter, William Aiken Walker, is primarily known for his expressions of plantations, cotton fields, African Americans, and dock scenes. The son of a prominent cotton agent, he was a true Southerner, born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1838.
Walker completed his first painting at twelve and painted until his death in 1921. Although he studied in Dusseldorf sometime during the 1860s, he was primarily self-taught.
A social and friendly man, Walker often entertained friends with stories of his southern travels, which included Florida, Galveston, Texas, and the Carolinas. It is thought that he was somewhat inspired by European artistic subjects and styles, and also made at least one trip to that continent.
Currier and Ives published several of his color lithographs in 1884; most notably "Cotton Plantation on the Mississippi" and "The Levee, New Orleans," and his recognition soon grew. Throughout the Civil War, Walker remained in Charleston; becoming a member of the Confederate Engineer Corps, drafting sketches and preparing maps for the Confederacy.
From 1876 to 1905, Walker regarded New Orleans as his home. There he became especially close to Everett B. D. Fabino Julio, with whom he tried to form an art league. Although their league did not succeed, the project led to what would later become the Southern Art Union, which was formed in 1880, the earliest such association in New Orleans.
Walkers most productive period was during the early 1880s when he painted hundreds of pictures of poor rustic blacks. He enjoyed North Carolina, and spent many summers at Arden Park Lodge in the Asheville area, until it burned in 1919. The lodge was owned by Charles Beale of Arden, who became Walkers patron, enabling him to become a regular artist-in-residence and to sell his paintings at the lodge, with scenes of blacks working on tobacco farms.
His works are detailed due to some use of a camera, and sometimes lack of emotional depth. The number of landscapes he painted increased after 1890. Walker had added talents, and was known to sing, play the violin and piano, and compose poetry in English and French. One of his art students was Blanche Blanchard, who copied some of his work and painted in Walkers style.
WILLIAM AIKEN WALKER (1839-1921)
The name of William Aiken Walker is practically synonymous with painting in the South at the end of the last century, so popular were his images of Negroes, their cabins and their way of life. Indeed, Walker used an assembly line method of a sort to turn out post card-size portraits which he sold to the Yankee tourist trade as souvenirs of the Old South. A lesser-known aspect of his career are his topographical drawings, which include a series of careful renderings of Florida's east coast from New Smyrna to the Keys. Also surprising to discover are Walker's masterful trompe l'oeil paintings of fish and game which he did a full twenty years before William Harnett and Alexander Pope.
Walker was a serious, accomplished studio artist who had taken himself abroad to study in Dusseldorf, and yet he wanted little more than to paint the common man and in doing produce pictures that the common man could afford. Walker once said: "I am like the machine: I paint and repaint these subjects so that many can share the feelings I have for this magnificent world of ours. Art is not only for the artist, it is for all and I shall do my best to see that all can afford it, to the extent that I shall paint and paint and paint until the brush runs dry."(1)
Walker was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and raised partly there and in Baltimore, Maryland. At the tender age of twelve he exhibited a painting at the South Carolina Institute Fair of 1850, no doubt his first public showing. In 1860 he went to Dusseldorf to study art.(2) By the time the War Between the States erupted, he was back home, and he enlisted. Injuries that he suffered at the Battle of Seven Pines took him out of action for awhile, but having recuperated, he returned to service as a cartographer.
Charleston at the end of the War was no place for an artist to earn a living, as we saw in the essay on J. Beaufain Irving; accordingly, Walker moved to Baltimore, a city with which he was already familiar. Walker did not forsake Charleston altogether; in fact, he usually visited his birthplace for one month every year, and the art stores there always had paintings of his for sale. He would go to visit friends on nearby plantations and make sketches of their magnificent homes and the Negro sharecroppers who worked for them.
Walker's output was prodigious, as proven by his diary entries made on a visit to Cuba in 1869. Having arrived on December 14, he recorded on January 1, less than three weeks later, that he had already completed forty-seven pictures! He apparently wrote the truth when he began each day's journal entry with words like, "worked hard all day."(3)
Walker's normal operating procedure in the seventies was to spend the summer in Baltimore, a bit of the fall in Charleston and then to head further south for the winter months, either to New Orleans, which he first visited in 1876, or to St. Augustine or Ponce Park, Florida. He immediately "fell in love with" New Orleans, which he visited again and again over a thirty-year period.(4) He would often set up his easel at the corner of Royal and Dumaine Streets and sell freshly painted boards to the passing tourists. In this instance, Walker would take a large piece of academy board, mark it off into sections, each measuring eight by four inches, and then go over the whole with his ground color, usually sienna; next he would paint in the sky, the landscape, and finally place a figure in each rectangular space. He would then divide the board along the lines previously drawn into nearly pocket-size compositions.
What he did not sell to passers-by he would consign to local galleries, photography studios and gift shops, "all of which had a steady stream of prospective purchasers."5 Walker painted at least two major compositions over his years in New Orleans, both of which were lithographed by Currier and Ives. "The Levee at New Orleans" dates to 1883 and "Southern Cotton Plantation" was completed the following year.
Though these larger compositions may have been commissioned by wealthy patrons, Walker was able to stick to his goal of providing art for the common man, since Currier and Ives sold the prints for three dollars apiece. Wherever Walker went, he made it a point to treat himself well. He was something of a gastronome, having made a note in the diary of his Cuban trip of the many fine pastry shops to be found in Havana. When he had the option on traveling by steamboat or railroad he more often chose the former, because not only could he sketch the passing scene while under way, but also the steamboats were famous for their "plentiful cuisine."(6)
Beginning in 1884 Walker modified his itinerary somewhat by spending part of each summer in the Smoky Mountains. He would ensconce himself at the Arden Park Lodge, twenty miles from Asheville, to serve the steadily rising number of tourists to the area. (See essay on E. T. H. Foster.) He would paint his Negro sharecroppers from photographs and he also took to painting the local mountain folk.(7)
Walker must have been a welcome guest wherever he went. His biographers tell that he could sing, play the piano and violin and recite poetry admirably, and that he was often called upon to entertain. We can enjoy his generous spirit today in his legacy, a body of work which records faithfully and kindly the life of the Negroes, the landscape and the industry from Maryland to Florida and west to the Mississippi throughout the difficult years of Reconstruction.
(1) August P. Trovaioli and Roulhac B. Toledano. "William Aiken Walker, Southern Genre Painter". Baton Rouge: Louisiana.
(2) Theodore Stebbins. "American Master Drawings and Watercolors, A History of Works on Paper from Colonial Times to the Present". New York: Harper and Row in association with the Drawing Society, Inc., 1876.
(3) Trovaioli and Toledano, p. 30.
(4) John Fowler. "William Aiken Walker, Some New Orleans Notes". 15th Annual New Orleans Antiques Show and Sale, p. 10.
(5) Ibid, p. 11.
(6) Trovaioli and Toledano, p. 30.
(7) Margi Conrads. "Art and Art Life: Knoxville, Tennessee and the Greater Smoky Mountain Region: 1830-1930", unpublished manuscript. Copyright by Margi Conrads, 1985, p. 21.
William Aiken Walker came of age in antebellum Charleston, South Carolina, an experience that powerfully informed both his personal life and his extended and varied postbellum career. Though little is known about his early artistic training, he was afforded a liberal local education in the arts and letters. He became fluent in French and Spanish, was an accomplished pianist and amateur composer, and first exhibited paintings at the 1850 South Carolina Institute Fair. Much of Walker's first work focused upon hanging game and wildlife. Walker served briefly with the Second Palmetto Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers in Virginia in 1861, but spent the balance of the war years in Charleston, working as a draftsman for the Confederate Corps of Engineers. In 1868, he departed for Baltimore, advertising himself as an "artist and teacher of languages," initiating the series of itinerant journeys which would characterize his career. Over the years, he would travel and work in Cuba (1869), again in Baltimore (1871-1872), Louisville, Kentucky (1872), Galveston and San Antonio, Texas (1874 and 1876), and Augusta, Georgia (1879-1880). In addition to his paintings of landscapes, city landmarks and portrait commissions, one of his principal enterprises during this period included the hand-coloring of photographs. In 1872, Currier & Ives published a lithograph after one of Walker's many still lifes.
During the 1880s, Walker maintained a hectic peripatetic pace, making frequent trips up and down the Mississippi River. He was a regular seasonal visitor to New Orleans in the winter and the mountains of North Carolina in the summer, where he executed View from Revd. D.C. Howell's Farm, N.C. Throughout these years, he produced a prodigious quantity of genre paintings featuring the lives of African Americans engaged in agrarian enterprise on Southern plantations. These trademark works—whether of significant size and well executed with multiple layers of detailed activity or hastily created small scenes marketed on the street as souvenir postcards—were bestsellers at popular tourist attractions of the late nineteenth century South and are "the foundation on which Walker's fame is built."
From his earliest post-war canvases depicting the ruins of Charleston's churches to his signature plantation landscapes such as Noon Day Pause in the Cotton Field to his African American figure studies, Walker's paintings reflect his interpretation of the devastated cotton kingdom and its displaced inhabitants. In these scenes, Walker approached his subjects with a nostalgic sensibility that was simultaneously sympathetic and caricatural, creating works that document, in detail, their presence in a changing socioeconomic construct while avoiding any issues of personal identity.
Walker exhibited at the 1872 Louisville Industrial Exhibition, the 1885 North, Central and South American Exposition and the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Active in the Southern Art Union and the Artists' Association of New Orleans, his work is held in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Yale University Art Gallery, Virginia Museum of Fine Art, High Museum of Art, Parrish Art Museum, Morris Museum of Art and Historic New Orleans Collection.
The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolinawww.thejohnsoncollection.org
Walker was born in Charleston, SC, on 23 March 1838. He was for the most part self-taught, although he studied in Düsseldorf, Prussia (now part of Germany), in the 1860s. It is not known whether Walker worked with Charles Fraser, another Charleston artist, who painted numerous trompe l'oeil paintings of dead game, or was influenced by him; one of Walker's earliest known paintings was Still life with Virginia Partridges, 1858, which is very similar in style and composition to Fraser's Still life of Duck and Partridges, 1840.
Walker first painted piscatorial and hanging game trompe l'oeils and domestic animals, which met the demand for sporting subjects sought after by Charleston's aristocracy. He also over-painted photographic portraits earlier in his career. During the Civil War, he served in the Confederate army as a cartographer and draftsman, and was wounded at the battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks), near Richmond, VA. After the war he returned to painting but found little demand for sporting subjects in the South.
Walker settled in Baltimore, MD, and soon found a niche painting detailed Southern rural genre scenes of postwar cotton pickers, for which he remains best known. He included animals in his genre paintings and occasionally returned to trompe l'oeils. He spent a great deal of time in New Orleans, LA, between 1876 and 1905; during this period he also traveled in Florida, Texas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Georgia, and Cuba. After 1897 he divided his time among Arden, NC; Charleston; and Ponce Park, FL. Some of his works were reproduced by the lithography firm of Currier & Ives in the 1870s and 1880s, including,A Free Lunch, 1872 , which depicts mice on a table with crackers and cheese.
Walker first exhibited at the South Carolina Institute Fair in Charleston in 1850, at the age of twelve. He exhibited his Woodcock and Georgia Cotton Picker at the Boston (MA) Art Club in 1881. He also exhibited at the Southern Art Union in New Orleans in 1880; the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, IL, in 1893; and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, MO, in 1904. The Warner Collection of Gulf States Paper Corporation in Tuscaloosa, AL, has his Blackberry Winter and Hauling Moss. The Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, NY, has examples of his fish paintings, including Angel Fish, Pompano, Amber Jack, Wrasse, and Sand Smelt. The Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans has his Old Shoe with Mice. His Wasp and Dog is in the Gibbes Art Gallery at the Carolina Art Association in Charleston. Other institutions holding his work include the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MA) and the Rosenberg Library in Galveston, TX.
Walker died in Charleston, SC, on 3 January 1921.
Biography from Carolina Galleries - Southern Art
William Aiken Walker
A genre painter, William Aiken Walker, is primarily known for his expressions of plantations, cotton fields, African Americans, and dock scenes. The son of a prominent cotton agent, he was a true Southerner, born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1838. Walker completed his first painting at twelve and painted until his death in 1921.
Although he studied in Dusseldorf sometime during the 1860s, he was primarily self-taught. A social and friendly man, Walker often entertained friends with stories of his southern travels, which included Florida, Texas, and the Carolinas. It is thought that he was somewhat inspired by European artistic subjects and styles, and also made at least one trip to that continent. Currier and Ives published several of his color lithographs in 1884; most notably "Cotton Plantation on the Mississippi" and "The Levee, New Orleans," and his recognition soon grew.
Throughout the Civil War, Walker remained in Charleston; becoming a member of the Confederate Engineer Corps, drafting sketches and preparing maps for the Confederacy. From 1876 to 1905 Walker regarded New Orleans as his home. There he became especially close to Everett B. D. Fabino Julio, with whom he tried to form an art league. Although their league did not succeed, the project led to what would later become the Southern Art Union, which was formed in 1880, the earliest such association in New Orleans.
Walker's most productive period was during the early 1880s when he painted hundreds of pictures of poor rustic blacks. He enjoyed North Carolina, and spent many summers at Arden Park Lodge in the Asheville area, until it burned in 1919. The lodge was owned by Charles Beale of Arden, who became Walker's patron, enabling him to become a regular artist-in-residence and to sell his paintings, with scenes of blacks working on tobacco farms, at the lodge. His works are detailed due to some use of a camera, and sometimes lack emotional depth. The number of landscapes he painted increased after 1890. Walker had added talents, and was known to sing, play the violin and piano, and compose poetry in English and French.
Walker exhibited at the Southern Art Union, 1880, Boston Arts Club, 1881, American Expo, 1885-86, Artist's Association of New Orleans, 1885-1905, and the Columbian Expo, Chicago, 1893.
Historic New Orleans Collection
Boston Museum of Fine Arts
High Museum of Art
Morris Museum of Art
Greenville County Museum of Art
Gibbes Museum of Art
Amon Carter Museum of Western Art
Baltimore, Artist's Association of New Orleans
WILLIAM AIKEN WALKER'S EARLY TEXAS PERIOD, 1874-1876:
A FREQUENT BIOGRAPHICAL OMISSION
Submitted by Fred R. Kline, Kline Art Research Associates, Santa Fe, NM
William Aiken Walker, while in his mid-30s, lived and painted in Texas for several years during the 1870s. He arrived in Galveston in 1874 and spent most of his time there. In 1876, he traveled to San Antonio and lived there for perhaps six months before leaving Texas altogether. From Walker's two year period in Texas, less than ten paintings have been located and less than five have been published, the most notable being View of Galveston Harbor (Rosenberg Library, Galveston), San Jose Mission, San Antonio (Witte Museum-San Antonio Museum Foundation), and San Antonio Flower Girl (Private Collection, Santa Fe).
The San Antonio genre and architectural paintings of Theodore Gentilz (1819-1906), pioneer San Antonio artist and art teacher who was active and well known in the city from 1844 to 1894, very likely influenced Walker and it is plausible, based on Gentilz's style and primary subject matter and the close affinities found in Walker's San Antonio and later paintings, that Gentilz may also have given instruction to Walker. William Aiken Walker's early Texas paintings, a small but significant body of work, offer rare and historically important examples of the 19th century period in Texas Art History, a period represented by relatively few published works.
Important Note: After his Texas-period, Walker became widely known in the Deep South for his genre paintings of African-American cotton field workers, a body of many hundreds of standardized works that has stimulated scores of fakes, questionable 20th c. works "in the manner of Walker" (see Maine Antique Digest, July 2000: "How Bogus Paintings Plagued the Art Market for Over a Decade: The William Aiken Walker Affair" by David Hewett). Numerous clever forgeries of the cotton field genre still range across the art markets and have often been mistakenly "authenticated" by Walker specialists. No Texas paintings by Walker have been found to be forgeries.
William Aiken Walker (1839-1921) was an American artist who was born to an Irish Protestant father and a mother of South Carolina background in Charleston, South Carolina in 1839. In 1842, when his father died, Walker's mother moved the family to Baltimore, Maryland, where they remained until returning to Charleston in 1848.
In 1861, during the American Civil War, Walker enlisted in the Confederate army and served under General Wade Hampton in the Hampton's Legion. He was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines (1862). After recuperating, he was transferred back to Charleston, where he was assigned picket duty, which gave him time to paint. For the next two years, he made maps and drawings of Charleston's defenses. He was separated from the military at the end of 1864. After the Civil War, Walker moved to Baltimore, where he produced small paintings of the "Old South" to sell as tourist souvenirs.
He is best known for his paintings depicting the lives of poor black emancipated slaves, especially sharecroppers in the post-Reconstruction American South. Two of his paintings were reproduced by Currier and Ives as chromolithographs.
Walker continued painting until his death on January 3, 1921 in Charleston, where he is buried in the family plot at Magnolia Cemetery.