Painter. Walker was born in Charleston on March 11, 1839, the son of John Falls Walker and Mary Elizabeth Flint. Raised in Charleston and Baltimore, Maryland, Walker probably first exhibited a painting at the South Carolina Institute Fair of 1850. Early in the Civil War he enlisted in the Hampton Legion and was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. After a lengthy recuperation he returned to service as a cartographer. Following the war, Walker moved to Baltimore but returned to Charleston often to visit friends on nearby plantations, sketching their homes and the African Americans who worked for them.
Walker’s name became practically synonymous with painting in the South by the end of the century, so popular were his images of African Americans, their cabins, and their way of life. During the 1870s Walker spent the summers in Baltimore, lived part of each autumn in Charleston, and then headed further south for the winter months, either to New Orleans or to Saint Augustine or Ponce Park, Florida. He developed a particular affinity for New Orleans, which he visited again and again over a thirty-year period. He often set up his easel at the corner of Royal and Dumaine Streets and sold freshly painted boards to tourists.
Walker was a serious and accomplished artist. Nevertheless, he used an assembly-line method to generate a prodigious output of postcard-size portraits that he sold to northern tourists as souvenirs of the Old South. Walker would take a large piece of academy board, mark it off into eight-by-four-inch sections, and then go over the whole with his ground color, usually sienna. Next he would paint in the sky, then the landscape, and finally he would 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 passersby he consigned to local galleries, photography studios, and gift shops, which found a steady stream of purchasers.
Describing his style and output, 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.” Lesser-known aspects of his career include his topographical drawings, which include a series of careful renderings of Florida’s east coast, and his trompe l’oeil (a technique that creates an illusion of three-dimensionality) paintings of fish and game.
Walker died in Charleston on January 3, 1921, and was buried with other members of his family at Magnolia Cemetery. His work is held in the collections of the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, the Columbia Museum of Art, and the Greenville County Museum of Art as well as in numerous private collections.
Seibels, Cynthia. The Sunny South: The Life and Art of William Aiken Walker. Spartanburg, S.C.: Saraland, 1995.
Trovaioli, August P., and Roulhac B. Toledana. William Aiken Walker, Southern Genre Painter. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972.