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 received a liberal education in the arts and letters. He became fluent in French and Spanish, was an accomplished pianist and amateur composer, and 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,” thereby 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 portraits, 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. Active in both the Southern Art Union and the Artists’ Association of New Orleans, Walker exhibited at the 1872 Louisville Industrial Exhibition, the 1885 North, Central, and South American Exposition, and the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

During the 1880s, Walker maintained a hectic peripatetic pace, making frequent trips up and down the Mississippi River in search of customers and commissions. 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 and labors of African Americans on Southern plantations. These trademark works—whether of significant size and meticulously detailed or the small, hastily created images marketed on the street as souvenir postcards—were bestsellers at popular tourist attractions of the late nineteenth-century South. Their sale represented the bulk of Walker’s income.

From his earliest post-war canvases depicting the ruins of Charleston’s churches to his signature plantation landscapes and African American figure studies, Walker’s paintings reveal a nostalgic affinity for his homeland—a prejudiced perception fueled by Lost Cause mythology. The African American men, women, and children who populate his canvases are presented as placid participants in an environment and economy in which they had no voice or choice. They are at once caricature and commentary, evidence of Walker’s personal sentimentality and broader contemporary bias.

The artist’s once vigorous rate of production waned in his later years and his subject matter shifted to scenes of picturesque locales in Florida and North Carolina. Works by William Aiken Walker are 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.