Southern coastal scenery inspired Walter Whitcomb Thompson, who skillfully captured its allure, in particular its vegetation and wildlife. His career in the South in various locations coincided with the Charleston Renaissance (circa 1915 to 1945) and his paintings have much in common with its leading lights: Alice Ravenel Huger Smith and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner. In the mid-1930s Thompson’s base, however, was seventy miles down the coast in Beaufort, South Carolina.

Thompson was born in Newton, Massachusetts, but when he was about five years old, the family moved to Palatka, Florida, located along the St. Johns River, southeast of St. Augustine. His father was employed by the railroad, perhaps explaining why the family moved, as the area was emerging as a tourist destination with the development of the railroad. Palatka has often been mistakenly listed as his birthplace along with an incorrect date of birth; he was born January 10, 1881 in Newton, not the next year as is often given. Thompson grew up in Jacksonville, took some art classes at Duval High School, and at age seventeen went to the University of Florida for a few semesters. In 1900 he was living with his parents in Woburn, Massachusetts, and was working as a sales clerk at Gilchrist’s, a Boston department store. Before 1916 he studied with the landscape painter J.J. Enneking, probably at the New School of Design in Boston, sometimes mistakenly referred to as the New England School of Art. In 1918 his draft card shows him living in nearby Melrose and indicates he was a manager at Gilchrist’s. 

From about 1925 to 1928 Thompson was living in New York and soon after he was conducting an art school in Fairfield, Connecticut. In 1930 he returned to Jacksonville and was the director of the Jacksonville Art Academy. Between 1934 and 1939 he served as director of art education for the public schools in Beaufort, South Carolina, the state’s second-oldest city after Charleston. In Who’s Who directories he is consistently identified as co-founder of the Beaufort Art Colony, which may have consisted of seasonal workshops. At times it is linked with an art colony in Brevard, North Carolina, a frequent summer destination for residents of the Carolina lowcountry. Beaufort was steeped in history and southern charm, and Thompson’s lush landscapes indicate that he was enthralled with his surroundings. He had a particular ability to render the knotty and irregular silhouettes of live oaks and their ubiquitous Spanish moss. Only occasionally do figures appear, most often for scale rather than as narrative elements.

For one year, 1939 to 1940, he oversaw the art program for the school district in Jesup, Georgia, about sixty-five miles from Savannah, and became involved with the Savannah Art Club, founded in 1920 by such local artists as Hattie Saussy, Emma Wilkins, Lila Cabiniss, Anne Nash, and Christopher Murphy. The organization was the predecessor of the Savannah Art Association and was responsible for inviting established northern artists like William Chadwick and Eliot Clark to teach winter workshops at the Telfair Academy. Thompson was a member also of the Georgia Art Association.

During 1940 and 1941 Thompson taught at Coker College in Hartsville, South Carolina, and in May 1942, he married Elizabeth Dabbs. The last six years of his life were spent forty miles south in Mayesville at “Road’s End-in-the-Pines,” the family home Elizabeth shared with her sister. A studio was built near the house, and Thompson spent his last years painting countless landscapes and creating some of his best work from his home studio.