William Aiken Walker: in Florida

by Timothy A. Eaton



A Southern Gentleman

William Aiken Walker came of age in Charleston, South Carolina, an epicenter of the ante-bellum South, during the full bloom of its industrial and cultural life. In Charleston, he was well educated, learning French, Spanish and a general curriculum of humanities. He demonstrated his interest in art as a child and began to paint in earnest and, encouraged by his mother -- his father died when he was eight -- he exhibited his first works at the age of twelve.[1] Walker was a distinguished student who played the piano and violin, sang, wrote poetry and studied art and literature. Endowed with natural charm and well educated, as a young bachelor about town, Walker was much sought after for social engagements. He put great stock in good manners, fine food, games of leisure and sport, and a dapper wardrobe that combined with his musical abilities and refined conversational skills made him a desirable houseguest throughout his life. Walker's formality and personal style is reflected by his signing some of his poems and letters "Professor Walker," which in addition to "Dr." were monikers of respect his friends used to address him.

In Walker's youth, Charleston was a major port for the exportation of cotton and rice, hugely profitable global industries. It was a sophisticated and highly cultivated city, steeped in the tradition of Southern gentility and rich from shipping, agriculture, and slavery. Tragically, it seemed destined to be the flashpoint of the Civil War. On May 9, 1861, following his two older brothers who enlisted in 1860, Walker joined the Confederate Army. He served in the Charleston Palmetto Guard on Morris Island and with the Second Palmetto Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers out of camp Davis in Richmond, Virginia. He was discharged August 31, 1861, due to "surgeon certificate of disability." [2] Back in Charleston, he worked for the Confederate Engineer Corps as a draughtsman.[3] After the war he remained in Charleston for over a year painting and writing poetry, then moved to Baltimore before setting off forever to circulate in the South.

Walker was exceptionally nomadic, traveling with the seasons by boat, stage and train, setting up his studio in hotels, rooming houses, private homes and on street corners. He was uncommonly peripatetic for such a well-educated and refined gentleman or even an artist. He never married, owned a home or ever settled in one place permanently. A true itinerant, he traveled extensively throughout America with forays abroad, but resided and worked primarily in the Southern United States. Walker had occasional traveling companions and made friends and associates easily in all his ports of call. He developed several important personal relationships but except for his family few appear to have been especially intimate. It seems he was never romantically involved, though there is speculation he was infatuated with a woman named "Frankie" before the war and at its end he dedicated a book of his poems to a mysterious "Belle Ange." [4] But there is little other evidence of Walker's romantic life.

Early in his career, Walker painted traditional subject matter. He was an avid sportsman so he favored still life pictures of game and fish, portraits, cityscapes of Charleston -- its waterfront and harbor -- some standard genre scenes, and during the war, he documented the fortification of the city and his military encampments. While Walker's painting technique and style were not fully developed, he demonstrated an exceptional proficiency as a draftsman. After the war he discovered a wholly new subject that would predominate his paintings for decades: figure studies and genre scenes of former slaves, their families and environments throughout the Southern states. (Figs. 1 & 2)

He had established his commitment to painting before the war and after it, working constantly over the next sixty years, produced what has been estimated at between eight hundred and over two thousand works.[5] He's quoted as saying, "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. . ."[6] This statement eerily presages, though somewhat less ironically, Andy Warhol's proclamation one hundred years later that, "I want to be a machine." In Walker's quest to "manufacture" paintings, some of his work is primitive in style due mostly to the rapid speed with which he painted with his emphasis on production, though it reflects well the meager circumstances, worn-out garments and ramshackle dwellings of his subjects.

As his career developed, Walker painted as a populist trade, intending to sell as many paintings as he could to as many people as possible. He continued by saying, "Art is not only for the artist, it is for all and I shall do my best to see that all can afford it . . ."[7] To accomplish this objective, Walker set up his easel on street corners in railroad towns like Savannah and Augusta, port cities and tourist meccas such as New Orleans, Charleston and St. Augustine in addition to selling works in galleries and stores. On the street he worked quickly, selling his paintings to tourists as mementos of "The Sunny South" and souvenirs of the "Sunshine State" for $5, $10 and $20, often with discounts for purchases of two or more.[8] Walker honed his skills as a painter to a high level and rendered his commissioned works, and later his seascapes, landscapes and fish studies with great consideration and a more delicate hand, showing an exceptionally astute talent for rendering and depicting his unique mes en scenes.


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