William Aiken Walker
(American 1838-1921 )
Couple in a Cottonfield
Oil- on panel, unsigned
Painting: 7 ¾” x 6 ½”
Frame: 10 ¼” x 9”
William Aiken Walker was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1839 to an Irish Protestant father and a mother of South Carolina background. Walker would grow up southerner through and through. He completed his first painting at age twelve and continued painting until his death in 1921 at age eighty-three.
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.
After the Civil War, Walker first moved to Baltimore and would begin traveling to southern resort areas, where he painted postcard studies and small paintings, which he sold to tourists for between fifty cents and three dollars. Walker was perhaps the earliest artist in the South to make a living from the tourist trade. His paintings served much like postcards, mementoes (just the right size to be tucked in a suitcase) of the "Old South" in all its quaintness and beauty. 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.
In the French Quarter he often sold his paintings on the corner of Royal and Dumaine Streets. The multitalented Walker sang, played the piano and violin, and wrote poetry in both French and English. An engaging conversationalist, he was a welcome houseguest on his many trips. Walker was something of an eccentric as well as debonair figure, who delighted in passing himself off as a professor when he was not playing the role of landless gentry. Welcomed as a house and hotel guest, he made regular stops annually at as many of the growing resorts of the South as he could manage in a season, working his way from New Orleans to the Blue Ridge mountains, down to Charleston, and along the coast southwards to Florida, at each stop placing some of his small-scale paintings of rural black cabins, sharecroppers working in the fields, or palmetto-lined beaches for sale to passing tourists.