Best remembered for creating monumental battle scenes that record pivotal moments in American history, James Walker lived the quintessential immigrant’s dream, rising from anonymity to the pinnacle of his chosen profession. Born in England, Walker came to the United States as a young child around 1824, when his family settled outside Albany, New York. Little is known about his formal training, though the sophistication of his paintings reveals a sure understanding of academic principles. By the mid-1840s, he was living in Mexico City where he began to execute genre works based on colonial Mexican heritage. At the onset of the Mexican War in 1846, Walker was trapped behind enemy lines for six weeks, the only American painter present in the city during its siege. After escaping to territory held by American forces, the artist was recruited into service as an interpreter for General Winfield Scott. It was in this role that Walker found himself a witness at the storming of Chapultepec; the sketches he made of that conflict would later serve as the foundation for one of his most important works.
Following the Mexican War, Walker established a studio, first in New York and subsequently in Washington, D.C. Bolstered by his connections in the nation’s capital, the artist completed a series of Mexican War battle scenes and, in 1857, was commissioned by Captain Montgomery C. Meigs to paint The Battle of Chapultepec, a work measuring over seventeen feet in width, for the United States Capitol.
From 1862 through the Civil War, Walker made sketches of Civil War scenes and battles that were later used as the foundation for panoramic views such as The Battle of Lookout Mountain and The Battle of Chickamauga. After the war, Walker began to collaborate with John Badger Bachelder (1825-1894), a photographer and topographic artist who had been attached to the Union army as an illustrator for Brigadier General John C. Caldwell. In the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, Bachelder began an on-site study of the scene and the principals involved. The resulting isometric map led to Walker’s commission to create a massive painting that details the battle’s particulars. Completed in 1870, Walker’s grand canvas captures the dramatic conclusion of the three-day battle (July 1-3, 1863) which marked a turning point in the war’s tide. Bachelder’s meticulous research and Walker’s precise technical skill combined to produce an epic visual record of the event, including regimental positions, combat vignettes, Union and Confederate soldiers, noble steeds, victory, and defeat. When publicly displayed for the first time in Boston, journalists hailed the work’s sweep and substance, praising its “remarkable minuteness and comprehensiveness and . . . fidelity” and predicted it would “take rank among the first of historical paintings.” Indeed, several of the generals depicted in the work (Longstreet, Meade, Hancock, Webb, Hall, and others) vouched for its accuracy—and its pathos. After its debut, The Battle of Gettysburg embarked on a cross-country tour. Bachelder authored an account of the various detailed scenes featured in the painting which was sold to audiences at each venue.
On the heels of this considerable success, James Walker moved to San Francisco in the 1880s. There, scenes of cattle drives, cowboys, and the western landscape captured his imagination and occupied his brush. Walker’s works are represented in the collections of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Denver Art Museum, Gilcrease Museum, United States Department of the Interior, and West Point Museum.