William Aiken Walker came of age in antebellum Charleston, South Carolina, an experience that powerfully informed both his personal life and his extended postbellum career. Though little is known about his early artistic training, he was afforded a liberal education in the arts and letters. He became fluent in French and Spanish, was an accomplished pianist and amateur composer, and first exhibited paintings at the 1850 South Carolina Institute Fair. Much of Walker’s first work focused upon hanging game and wildlife. Walker served briefly with the Second Palmetto Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers in Virginia in 1861, but spent the balance of the war years in Charleston, working as a draftsman for the Confederate Corps of Engineers. In 1868, he departed for Baltimore, advertising himself as an “artist and teacher of languages,” initiating the series of itinerant journeys which would characterize his career. Over the years, he would travel and work in Cuba (1869), again in Baltimore (1871-1872), Louisville, Kentucky (1872), Galveston and San Antonio, Texas (1874 and 1876), and Augusta, Georgia (1879-1880). In addition to his paintings of landscapes, city landmarks, and portrait commissions, one of his principal enterprises during this period included the hand-coloring of photographs. In 1872, Currier & Ives published a lithograph after one of Walker’s many still lifes.
During the 1880s, Walker maintained a hectic peripatetic pace, making frequent trips up and down the Mississippi River. He was a regular seasonal visitor to New Orleans in the winter and the mountains of North Carolina in the summer, where he executed View from Revd. D.C. Howell's Farm, N.C. Throughout these years, he produced a prodigious quantity of genre paintings featuring the lives of African Americans engaged in agrarian enterprise on Southern plantations. These trademark works—whether of significant size and well executed with multiple layers of detailed activity or hastily created small scenes marketed on the street as souvenir postcards—were bestsellers at popular tourist attractions of the late nineteenth century South and are “the foundation on which Walker’s fame is built.”
From his earliest post-war canvases depicting the ruins of Charleston’s churches to his signature plantation landscapes such as Noon Day Pause in the Cotton Field to his African American figure studies, Walker’s paintings reflect his interpretation of the devastated cotton kingdom and its displaced inhabitants. In these scenes, Walker approached his subjects with a nostalgic sensibility that was simultaneously sympathetic and caricatural, creating works that document, in detail, their presence in a changing socioeconomic construct while avoiding any issues of personal identity.
Walker exhibited at the 1872 Louisville Industrial Exhibition, the 1885 North, Central and South American Exposition, and the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Active in the Southern Art Union and the Artists’ Association of New Orleans, his work is held in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Yale University Art Gallery, Virginia Museum of Fine Art, High Museum of Art, Parrish Art Museum, Morris Museum of Art, and Historic New Orleans Collection.