(New Orleans, Louisiana, 1903 - 1965, New Orleans, Louisiana)
Mississippi artist Walter Inglis Anderson was a visionary. Equal parts idealist and eccentric, Anderson created an art that responded to and embodied his natural surroundings along the Gulf Coast as well as reflecting his private world of dreams. Although he was occasionally misunderstood for his peculiarities and fragility, Walter Anderson is considered one of the greatest Southern artists of the twentieth century. (1) His devotion to nature defined his true spirit in a body of signature work that transcends time and place. (2)
Anderson was born in New Orleans in 1903 to a Scottish grain merchant, George Walter Anderson, and his American wife, Annette McConnell Anderson, an artist and native of New Orleans. He attended St. John's in New York State, a military boarding school, then returned to New Orleans where he studied woodworking and carpentry at Manual Training School. In 1922 the family moved to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where four years earlier Mrs. Anderson had purchased twenty-six acres on the Gulf Coast.
Although his father objected, Anderson's mother had encouraged her son to develop his artistic talents. The same year that they moved, Anderson enrolled at the Parsons School of Design in New York, transferring in the fall of 1923 to Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, one of the nation's leading art schools. In Philadelphia, Anderson studied with two important teachers: Henry Benbridge McCarter (1864-1942) and Arthur B. Carles (1882-1952). McCarter had studied with the American Realist painter Thomas Eakins in Philadelphia and with the French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec in Paris. Carles was an important colorist who used color to build form.
Despite the fierce competition of gifted fellow students such as Ralston Crawford and Robert Gwathmey, Anderson excelled at the Pennsylvania Academy and won more awards than any of his peers. Among his five awards was the Packard Prize, which he won two years in a row. He received second- and third-place awards for life studies of animals in 1924 and 1925 respectively. A Cresson Traveling Scholarship of $1,000 earned him four months abroad in the summer of 1927. Based in Paris, Anderson also visited the caves at Les Eyzies, France, where he found the prehistoric paintings to be a profound and lasting influence on his developing style.
Upon completion of his studies in 1928, Anderson returned to Ocean Springs, where his family had opened a new business, Shearwater Pottery. Anderson worked at the pottery, producing decorative low-relief ceramic pots and earthenware figurines that provided him with a steady income. In 1933 he married Agnes (Sissy) Grinstead, the sister of his sister-in-law. He began to receive commissions: a mural in 1935 for the Public Works of Art Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration, is in the Ocean Springs Public Schools Administration Building. A later mural, commissioned by the City of Ocean Springs, dated 1951, is in the Ocean Springs Community Center.
In 1937 Anderson suffered a nervous breakdown, which dramatically altered the course of both his personal and artistic life. After several sojourns in mental institutions, he was advised to avoid stress. He moved with his wife and two children to Oldfields Plantation, an antebellum home in Gautier, Mississippi. During the six years he spent there with his family, he studied and sketched the farm animals of his surroundings, sitting in his yard with a clipboard and typing paper. When he moved by himself to a modest cottage on the Shearwater family compound in Ocean Springs, he devoted himself unconditionally to his art.
Anderson's self-imposed withdrawal from the world grew more and more complete. After 1950 he began to spend months at a time alone and in isolation on Horn Island, eight miles off the coast of Ocean Springs. Submerged in nature, he painted prolifically, primarily watercolors of birds.
Anderson's health began to fail towards the end of 1965. Alone on Horn Island in the fall, he miraculously survived Hurricane Betsy whose eye targeted New Orleans, but greatly devastated the Mississippi coastline. His will to survive the forces of nature was great: to keep from being blown away in the storm, Anderson tied himself to a tree at the top of the island. Nevertheless, he was indeed approaching the end of his life. Six weeks after the hurricane, Anderson came to his wife to ask that she take him to see a doctor. A malignant tumor found on his lung was successfully removed, but Anderson had an unexpected heart attack in the surgery recovery room. He died three days later in the hospital in New Orleans where he was born.
Walter Inglis Anderson was a curious mixture of sophisticated professional artist and secluded outsider. In his early life he followed the path of the properly trained art student, learning venerable traditions at officially recognized art institutions. He was influenced by the publications Dynamic Symmetry by Jay Hambridge, which dealt with Egyptian styles; and Adolpho Best-Maugard's A Method for Creative Design, which reduced the history of art to seven recurring geometric motifs: the spiral, the circle, the half-circle, the S-curve, the wavy line, the zig-zag, and the straight line. Anderson endorsed its premise that symbols continually appear throughout the history of art, and his own use of symbols is most pronounced just prior to 1950.
But in his later years Anderson withdrew more and more from the intellectual and social contact of his peers, finding his inspiration in an intense and solitary interaction with nature. The sheer quantity of his work is astonishing and indicates his obsessive insularity and dedication: almost ten thousand drawings and five thousand watercolors, many unfinished, were found after his death. He produced oil paintings, murals, textiles, ceramics, and prints; especially interesting are the three hundred or more oversized linoleum prints on wallpaper and fabric. Anderson also left hundreds of pages of notes in journals he referred to as his logs.
As might be expected of a man who alternated between knowledge and rejection of the world, Anderson's art stylistically manifests elements of contextual affinities and a hermetic self-involvement. His favorite subjects were animals, but he was as interested in their movements as in their forms. He believed that all animals––farm animals, sea creatures, pets––made beautiful music as they glided through the air or traversed the land. He sought to capture the emotions and rhythms of this harmony in visual equivalents: colors, repetitive motifs, melodic lines.(3) Anderson worked to translate the natural grace of living creatures into two-dimensional stylizations of form in bright, primary colors accentuated by repeated patterns of strong, sensuous lines.
In 1991 a museum dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of Anderson's works opened in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Also still in existence is the Shearwater Pottery where original and reproduction pots and figurines are available for purchase.
Lana A. Burgess
1. Due to Anderson's reclusive nature his work was rarely known during his lifetime. Today Anderson has become something of a treasure to the State of Mississippi. This is due in part to the finding of a trunk containing thousands of works upon his death in 1965. Since that time, Anderson's family has made great strides in marketing and publicizing his work. For example, Luise Ross Gallery in New York has dealt in Anderson's paintings since the early 1970s, consistently mounting exhibitions of his oeuvre. Also, the Anderson Estate has formed a corporation, The Family of Walter Anderson, Inc. Finally, regional museums across the South have taken an interest in collecting paintings and prints by Anderson, thereby recognizing his important contributions to Southern art.
2. A superb colorist with an interest in his native locale, Anderson created wonderfully appealing watercolors. His recognizable style and subjects offer a historic account of the unspoiled Gulf Coast of the 1940s and 1950s.
3. Anderson lived modestly but was afforded the luxury of a turntable. Classical music recordings, primarily the works of Beethoven, were his favorite. Noting the influence of music on the formation of his visual compositions and the overall development of his artistic style is important. However, the fusion of music and art was not unique to Anderson. There is often and historically has been an infusion of the fine art disciplines––music, visual arts, theatre, dance, etc.––which has contributed greatly to the creativity and proliferation of such artists as the nineteenth-century expatriate James Abbott McNeill Whistler, twentieth-century American watercolorist Charles Burchfield, Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky who founded Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider) group of German Expressionists, and many others.
Anderson, Agnes Grinstead. Approaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter Anderson. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.
Anderson, Walter Inglis. A Symphony of Animals. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.
Anderson, Walter Inglis. Birds. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
Sugg, Redding, S. Jr. ed. The Horn Island Logs of Walter Inglis Anderson. Memphis: Memphis State University Press, 1973.
Sugg, Redding, S. Jr. A Painter's Psalm: The Mural from Walter Anderson's Cottage. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.
Essay written by Lana A. Burgess, Associate Curator, from the brochure for the exhibition, Walter Anderson
A Symphony of Animals held at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts,
August 15 through November 15, 1998