William Aiken Walker: in Florida

by Timothy A. Eaton



Florida: A Home Base

It is well documented that Walker was in Florida in 1883, though it's likely he visited earlier.[9] For the next thirty-six years with some exception, Walker returned annually to Florida traversing the state, residing and painting for extended periods, most notably in St. Augustine and later in Ponce Park (now Ponce Inlet). Over his long life, other than Charleston, Walker's time in Florida was his most consistent domicile.

In 1883 on his honeymoon, Henry Morrison Flagler (1830-1913) made his second visit to St. Augustine where he met Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) who was visiting for the first time. Flagler soon began his development plans and included in his St. Augustine projects a suite of artist's studios adjacent to the Hotel Ponce de Leon. The first of these studios would come to be occupied by Heade, the senior and most distinguished artist to first take up full-time residency in Florida. Walker had begun his regular visits to Florida by then, but curiously he did not take up residence in one of the studios when the hotel opened in 1888, though he was certainly was more than accomplished enough to have been a part of the coterie. For whatever reasons, he stayed on his own in one of several hotels or rooming houses nearby. It is suggested that Walker may have been influenced by Heade and indeed it seems certain in such a small community over so many years they would have met and been well acquainted with each other's work.

Along with the other artists in the community, Walker showed his work in St. Augustine's galleries, shops and salons, but as he had in New Orleans, Augusta and elsewhere, he also set up his easel on busy street corners and painted the harbor views and pictures from sketches, photographs and memory. He painted his usual repertoire of genre scenes, portraits of black Southerners and nature studies. But more than twenty years after the war's end, the genre paintings and portraits on which he had depended began to lose some of their appeal. Walker began to cast about for a new subject in this new land.

Walker was a rugged outdoorsman, camping, fishing and rusticating in Florida's wilderness. On the other hand, when he lived in the cities or with friends, he exercised his refinements, drinking and dining at fine hotels, playing music, cards and attending social and cultural events. The regular sales of his work and his lack of attachments were enough to enable him to live a secure if not always comfortable lifestyle.

Walker visited many of the towns and cities in Florida, but he stayed most regularly in Ponce Park, a sparsely populated settlement, sixty miles to the south of St. Augustine, on a little windswept peninsula just below Daytona. Beginning in 1886 he stayed in a rooming house owned by the Pacetti family, and for the next twenty-odd years, with rare exception, he would make this resort a home base, setting up a studio, renting from, bartering with and at times working for the proprietors.

It was during his excursions painting and fishing along the shoreline and coastal dunes that Walker began to create more austere seascapes. His work started to reflect his interest in the region's wide-open, flat topography accentuated by the Luminist qualities of its subtropical light. He painted well-known locales and exotic scenes in response to the changing taste of the tourist market but also painted for himself; anonymous, deserted beaches, joining vast seas and broad skies with increasing simplicity, refinement and metaphysical implications. In the twilight of his life, Walker rediscovered nature, its rejuvenating spiritual power and inspirational beauty. In these elegantly simple, marine paintings of Florida's pristine coast, Walker articulates a new vocabulary for his already extensive lexicon of nature paintings.

Praised for their artistic attributes and zoological accuracy, Walker's earliest studies of fish and game date from the late 1850s, but in Florida his prior interest in ichthyologic studies was fortuitous and became more important. He rediscovered this highly marketable and locally abundant subject, and used it to explore the development of his art. He proceeded to render these subjects with increasing accuracy and precision and to regularly inscribe the scientific names of the fish on the paintings verso.

Over the years, he presented the fish in a number of settings. On some, the images float horizontally on richly colored, watery backgrounds and in a large number of these paintings, specimens hang from a simple strand of fabric or string on an ordinary nail against wood panel or stucco backgrounds. The similar treatment of still life subjects is evident in the paintings of Walker and the Baltimore artist, Andrew John Henry Way (1826-1888). The artists exhibited together and were part of the cultural milieu in Baltimore after the war.[10] (Figure 3, Plates 6, 18)

In 1899 Walker was invited to join William Henry Gregg, a wealthy publisher and sportsman on his yacht, Orian, for a fishing expedition from Daytona to Key West. The voyage lasted several months and was followed by two subsequent trips in 1902 and 1908. At the end of 1901, Gregg contracted with Ponce Park resident, John Gardner to guide him and Walker along the coast for the purpose of compiling a book that was later published entitled Where, When and How to Catch Fish on The East Coast of Florida. (Figure 4) The contract for this commission appears to constitute one of the earliest documents relating to sport fishing in the state of Florida.[11] A number of Walker's paintings of fish were used to illustrate the book.

On these trips, Walker filled his sketchbooks with exquisitely detailed drawings documenting everything of interest along the way. He annotated the drawings copiously, not only with the time and place, but travel times between towns and outposts, the number of fish caught that day, etc. These drawings gave him resource material for many paintings he would execute during the summertime in Arden, North Carolina and his other studio-abodes.

Walker was resolute in his work ethic, writing from Ponce Park in 1905, "I am very much engaged making sketches on the beach and sand hills every day, which I want to finish before it gets too cold. It is pleasant work. But alas, it is very dull. I - the only boarder, and I miss society and many things, but business is business you know, but I call in my philosophy and bear it."[12]

As the century wore on, Walker continued his migratory circuit between Florida, North and South Carolina and Georgia, but in his later years, bouts of poor health hindered his travels somewhat and after the winter of 1919, he did not return to Florida. He spent 1920 in Arden, North Carolina and died on January 3, 1921 in Charleston and is buried there in the family plot at Magnolia Cemetery.

William Aiken Walker was a very fine and exceptionally prolific artist whose place in American art and history is unique. His genre painting of this crucial phase of American history is singular. What is less well known but vitally important is his contribution to the art and history of Florida, its people and environment. William Aiken Walker was an inspired painter of Florida's transcendent beauty; a skilled, authoritative fisherman; poet and naturalist par-excel lance whose long and productive life was enhanced by his time here. In turn, his legacy enriches us all.


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