Born in Charleston, South Carolina, William Aiken Walker was a successful itinerant artist who spent much of his life traveling throughout the South creating paintings of rural and urban genre scenes, figures and landscapes. Following a route of major port cities, railroad towns, and resort spots from Baltimore to Charleston to New Orleans, he found an eager and sustaining audience for his work among tourists and notable patrons throughout the region.
Little is known about Walker's early artistic training, but he first exhibited at the South Carolina Institute Fair in Charleston in 1850 at the age of twelve and continued to show his work in the city. In 1861, he enlisted in the Confederate Army and saw action in Virginia, where he was wounded. Walker was subsequently transferred back to Charleston, where he resumed art work as a draftsman and cartographer in the engineering corps until 1864. After the Civil War, Walker turned his attention to genre and landscape scenes of life and labor in the South during Reconstruction.
A virtuoso and prolific painter with a charming, cultured personality, he was perhaps the most active chronicler of the post-bellum South, which he envisioned in a traditional picturesque mode of idealized scenes of city and country life, with sentimental figures. Walker worked in a precise and detailed realism that he adapted to figure, genre, or landscape subjects. He portrayed cabin scenes, field workers, and cotton pickers, as well as their city counterparts--market views, with fruit vendors, dock workers, and newsboys. Most of his paintings were executed on a small scale, making them portable and less costly for tourists. With an eye for the journalistic, descriptive view, Walker also painted large, detailed panoramas of Southern working plantations. Several of his city and river scenes of Charleston and New Orleans were published as lithographs by Currier and Ives. From the 1890s until his death in 1921, Walker concentrated his travel and work between Arden, North Carolina, Charleston, and Ponce Park, Florida.
In 1995, the Charleston Renaissance Gallery published the definitive study of South Carolina's most acclaimed artist in The Sunny South: The Life and Art of William Aiken Walker.
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