Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on February 14, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of Eaton Fine Art, Inc. The essay was excerpted from the illustrated catalogue for the exhibition William Aiken Walker: In Florida held January 28 - March 20, 2004 at Eaton Fine Art, West Palm Beach, FL. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact Eaton Fine Art at either this web address or phone number:



 

William Aiken Walker: in Florida

by Timothy A. Eaton

 



 

Introduction

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, William Aiken Walker (1839-1921) is best known for his extensive and original body of paintings depicting the life and environments of emancipated slaves, especially cotton workers in the post-Reconstruction American South. However, his large and distinctive body of work in Florida is a critical aspect of his oeuvre that played an important role in his life and the history of art in America.

This exhibition and catalogue will present a brief overview of Walker's Florida work. Though sketchy, Walker's time in Florida is well documented. However, this is the first exhibition to focus on this subject, and we hope it will encourage others to more critically analyze the importance of his art.

William Aiken Walker by virtue of his time, background, talents and accomplishments, was an uncommon and remarkable character. A man possessed in full by his heritage, artistic by nature and nomadic by choice, Walker was an American iconoclast. A talented, idiosyncratic and especially industrious man, William Aiken Walker was respected and successful throughout his lifetime.

Walker's work in Florida includes many excellent genre paintings of African-Americans and their homesteads, but more interestingly it also includes a body of work that is critical to understanding the range and quality of his oeuvre. These pictures include important architectural studies, a number of Luminist panoramic seascapes, landscapes and exceptional still life paintings of indigenous fish. Walker's work in Florida presents some of the earliest documentation of the Florida East Coast Railroad; the hotel buildings in Henry Morrison Flagler's chain; the region's churches; lighthouses; dwellings; vessels; inlets; estuaries; rivers and coastal wetlands as well as fish and other aquatic life. As documentary subjects, Walker's work is fascinating and important to the history of Florida, however, as with all significant art, his accomplishments are not contingent upon the value of the subjects, but on the quality of his expression.

In a much different way, Walker was as affected by Florida as he had been by the fractured world in which he'd grown up. Florida's paradisiacal nature before the turn of the twentieth century was especially full of promise; its brilliant and warm skies, clear waters, vestal beaches, fecund woodlands and the seemingly endless bounty of the sea are all reflected in the renewed development of Walker's art and the continuity it brought to his life. Though he remained an inveterate wanderer, perhaps in Florida Walker came full circle, from the boundless opportunities of his youth in the heart of a powerful society through its destruction to this open and largely untouched state -- America's last Eden. What is certain is the importance of William Aiken Walker's art. As Walker's artistic accomplishments are more fully examined and understood, his reputation becomes increasingly enhanced, gaining steadily in aesthetic value and historical importance.

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