William Aiken Walker (American, b. c.1838-1921)
Man in a Cottonfield
Oil on board, signed lower left.
Painting Size: 8.25” x 4.25”
Frame Size: 12.5” x 8.5”
A lifelong artist, Walker exhibited his first painting at the age of twelve and continued to paint until his death 71 years later.
In the 1860’s Walker traveled to Dusseldorf for artistic training and remained for several years. Returning to Charleston, he joined the Confederate Army and served as a cartographer. At the conclusion of the war, Walker moved to Baltimore where he had spent a portion of his childhood. Until 1876, Walker split his residence between Charleston and Baltimore. However, on a visit to New Orleans in that year, he fell in love with the city and spent the next 29 years, calling it home.
Best known for his genre scenes of African Americans in the post Civil War South,
Walker is listed in numerous references including Who Was Who in American Art by Falk and Art Across America by Gerdts. He has also been the subject of several monographs.
William Aiken Walker was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on March 11, 1839. He had an artistic bent at a very early age; he exhibited his first oil painting at the South Carolina Institute in 1850 when he was 11 years old. The first known still life by Walker was produced in 1858. Animal and fish portraits followed, along with a few portraits and landscapes.
During the Civil War, Walker served as a private in Charleston's Palmetto Regiment of the South Carolina Volunteers. He was given a medical discharge in August 1861. He continued to serve as a volunteer draftsman in the Confederate Engineers Corps.
When Charleston was decimated in a great fire in 1861, Walker recorded the resultant ruins. In 1863 Charleston was shelled by Union troops; Walker recorded that event too.
In 1864 Walker created perhaps the most collectible of all decks of American playing cards. Sixteen of the cards carried miniature paintings, ranging from the bombardment of Fort Sumter to portraits of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Stonewall Jackson as kings.
What Walker did between 1866 and 1868 remains a mystery, but by the latter year he had settled in Baltimore. He visited New York and Cuba but was back in Baltimore by 1871, when he began the series of paintings that would capture the attention of present-day collectors.
Walker's Gathering Herbs, 1871, depicted an African-American woman at the herb garden, a basket in her arms, and another on her head. The depictions of what would be later known as "The Sunny South" had commenced. Although he painted scenes depicting Anglo-Saxon citizens and landscapes, it would be the African-American scenes that would come to be recognized as Walker's seminal body of work.
He traveled extensively in the South, from South Carolina to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, to Florida, to New Orleans, and wherever he traveled, he painted. The focus of his energy from the early 1880's to the mid-1890's was the cotton trade. Walker was fortunate in many ways, not the least of which is the fact that his paintings were collected and sold during his lifetime. Major paintings sold in the $70 to $100 range while he still was alive.
By the time Walker had reached his sixties, he returned to landscapes and still life subjects, though his bread-and-butter work was still the genre scenes of the Old South. Walker died on January 3, 1921, just two months shy of his 82nd birthday.