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The Sunny South, 1881
William Aiken Walker (1839 – 1921)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
22 1/8 x 36 1/8 inches
Signature Details: WAWalker 1881
Status: Private Collection, Tennessee

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.

1August P. Trovaioli and Roulhac B. Toledano. William Aiken Walker, Southern Genre Painter. Baton Rouge: Louisiana.

2Theodore 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.

3Trovaioli and Toledano, p. 30.

4John Fowler. William Aiken Walker, Some New Orleans Notes. 15th Annual New Orleans Antiques Show and Sale, p. 10.

5Ibid, p. 11.

6Trovaioli and Toledano, p. 30.

7Margi Conrads. Art and Art Life: Knoxville, Tennessee and the Greater Smoky Mountain Region: 1830-1930, unpublished manuscript. Copyright by Margi Conrads, 1985, p. 21.

For more information on this artist and work, please contact us.

This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from Hicklin Galleries, LLC.

For more information on this artist and work, please contact us.

This essay is copyrighted by Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc. and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission.

1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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