Walter Henry Williams, Jr.'s favorite subjects were black children playing in fields of flowers—reflective perhaps of his own restricted childhood and his lifelong desire for freedom. His mother had encouraged his art making, but she died when he was age five; his father gained custody and was very strict. As a result, Williams became introverted, retreating into a dream world of his own making.

Williams was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up there, working as a house painter until he was drafted into the United States Army. He served from 1942 to 1945 in France and was assigned the grim task of burying soldiers. Using the GI Bill, he went to the Brooklyn Museum Art School from 1951 until 1955 where his instructors were Ben Shahn and Reuben Tam. He was given a scholarship to attend the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine for the summer of 1953, where he roomed with David Driskell; they were the only black students that session and became lifelong friends. The school attracted aspiring artists who were taught and mentored by a diverse group of practicing artists; for instance, the following year both Shahn and Jacob Lawrence were on the faculty. Williams won a first-place award for painting. That same year he won a third-prize gold medal in an exhibition held at the Harlem branch of the YWCA and at the award ceremony Charles White was the speaker.

Three years later, in 1956, Williams used a John Hay Whitney Foundation Fellowship to travel to Denmark, chosen because his maternal grandfather was from the Danish West Indies (now part of the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean) and thought highly of the country. Denmark was a transformative experience for Williams; prior to this time his subjects were primarily urban and included paintings with such titles as Store Front Jesus and Poultry Market. He spent time on Bornholm, an island in the Baltic Sea known as the “sunshine island,” where the dramatic landscape influenced his work. He began to depict birds, butterflies, sunflowers, and watermelons which have been interpreted as symbols of rebirth and freedom. Many years later, in a review of the artist’s work, Driskell explained that Williams has “used nature as metaphor: the birds in flight and the butterflies in his compositions symbolize the freedom that African Americans desired to have to move about freely, undisturbed. The sunflowers symbolize hope of a brighter day ahead, as does the beautiful pink and orange sky so often seen in many of the artist’s works. Sunflowers offer both hope and beauty, while their missing petals suggest the incompleteness of the story–the work still to be done.”

Upon his return to the States, Williams met with some success. In 1958 Ebony magazine featured him in a cover story. Soon after, from 1959 to 1963, he was in Mexico, traveling and painting, and he told a reporter there that “freedom from racial prejudice was essential for his further development.” His work was included in exhibitions in Mexico, as well as in Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Sydney, Australia. In 1963 he was chosen for an award by the Silvermine Guild of Artists of New Canaan, Connecticut. He returned to Copenhagen where he organized an exhibition, Ten American Negro Artists Living and Working in Europe; Beauford Delaney was one of the artists Williams selected. Back in the United States Williams was recruited by his friend Driskell to join the art department at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where, accompanied by his wife Marlena, Williams was artist-in-residence from 1968 to 1969. At the end of his appointment at Fisk he returned to Denmark, and ten years later became a Danish citizen. Unfortunately, in 1980 a studio fire destroyed much of his work. 

In addition to being a painter, Williams was a printmaker who also made a few three-dimensional pieces. He was commissioned to do a number of prints for the International Graphic Arts Society in editions of 210. Half of these works were sold in the United States and the other half in Europe, with ten proofs reserved for the artist. This gave Williams an international following that allowed him to continue his work as a printmaker. Much of his art is dominated by the same theme, that of a child or children outdoors accompanied by birds and various insects, especially butterflies. Typically, the children have very dark skin and bold faces, while the flowers and background radiate with bright colors. In 1973 Driskell visited Denmark and told a reporter that Williams had explained: “All my life I have been painting one picture. It is one that reflects my own image and the inner thoughts of my mind. I feel the naivete of a child when I paint yet I have the passions of the father that I am. I am an artist who is full of love for the world and all the images it holds.”