“(…) exquisite butterflies trapped in an evil honey, toiling away their lives in an era, a century, that did not acknowledge them (…) They forced their minds to desert their bodies, and their striving spirits sought to rise, like frail whirlwinds from the hard red clay. And when those frail whirlwinds fell, in scattered particles, upon the ground, no one mourned (…) For these grandmothers and mothers of ours were not Saints, but Artists; driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release. They were Creators, who lived lives of spiritual waste, because they were so rich in spirituality – which is the basis of Art — that the strain of enduring their unused and unwanted talent drove them insane.”
Written by poet, novelist, and social activist Alice Walker, the above epigraph can be found in an essay titled In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1983). The essay explores the legacy of black women, their suppressed creativity and the many forms it took.
For a black woman in the 19th century, there was rarely time to “care about feeding the creative spirit”, let alone have “a moment (…) to sit down, undisturbed, to unravel her own private thoughts.”
Such was the case of the artist Annie E. Anderson Walker (no relation to Alice Walker). Though able to study and travel in her youth, after a brief period of pure creative activity, Annie E. A. Walker had to see the immensity of her vision squeezed into the role of a wife of an important lawyer in Washington, D.C., overburdened by domestic duties and hosting social gatherings.
An Intuitive Youth
There seems to be a fog surrounding the details of Annie’s life, as well as her death. There are no photographs, no mention of any children, and the latter years of her life were marked by a deteriorating emotional and mental state.
Born to Nancy Cassidy and Francis Anderson on October 5, 1856 and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Annie Walker was the youngest of five children. Her father Francis is buried in Brooklyn, in the historic and majestic Green-Wood Cemetery.
Annie’s physical appearance can be gleaned from her passport application for her travels through Europe in 1895 (retrieved from the Art Students League archives).
Annie Walker’s physical qualities are listed alongside one-word adjectives towards the bottom of the application: She was 5 feet 3 inches tall. Her nose and chin, prominent; her mouth, large. Dark brown eyes softened by a light brown complexion and crowning Annie’s oval face lay her black hair.
There is some confusion surrounding Annie’s birth place. According to several art historians, including Lisa E. Farrington and Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, Annie was born in Flatbush, her childhood neighborhood (her passport application confirms this).
Other sources claim an entirely different place of origin: Alabama. This includes the archives of Annie’s alma mater, Cooper Union, as well as in an article published in April 1942 in The Crisis – a monthly publication founded by W.E.B Du Bois in 1910.
In this article, titled “The American Negro as Craftsman and Artist”, James V. Herring (original founder of the Department of Art at Howard University) briefly outlined Annie’s life and work. Centered on the “early years of Negro art”, Herring described Annie’s artwork as “strikingly personal and self-sustaining”, indicative of an “active intuitive ability and spirit, as well as discipline”.
Annie Walker began teaching at a young age, traveling to Jacksonville, Florida as well as Orville and Selma, Alabama in order to do so. According to her obituary, after having passed exams held by the Selma Board of Education, Annie taught at the Burwell Academy in Selma for several years.
While in Selma, Annie met Thomas Walker. Born into slavery in 1850 in a river town called Cahawba, Thomas was emancipated at age fifteen. He went on to work for Union soldiers and apprenticed as a carpenter before going into law.
They married on the 27th of May, 1875. In addition to being a “great philanthropist”, Thomas would be remembered as “one of the wealthiest and most successful lawyers in Washington, D.C.”.
The couple moved from Selma to Washington, D.C., where Annie began her artistic practice. In 1890, she took private lessons in drawing and painting, showing rapid progress after a year of tutelage.
Shortly after, Annie applied to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The exceptional quality of her work was immediately recognized. Corcoran admissions sent Annie a letter of acceptance; in spite of this, when she arrived, they immediately had a change of heart.
CORCORAN GALLERY OF ART
The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. was founded on the principle of “encourag[ing] American Genius”. This mission, however, did not extend to black women in 1891.
Upon Annie’s arrival for her first elementary class in drawing, the instructor’s very words to her were as follows:
“The trustees have directed me not to admit colored people. If we had known that you were colored, the committee would not have examined your work.”
Annie Walker did not let this unjust rejection hinder her artistic pursuits. Adamant and persistent, she sought the aid of then minister to Haiti and esteemed abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.
On November 3, 1891, Douglass spoke on behalf of this “very worthy and (…) earnest art student”.
In a three-page letter (its full contents accessible in the Philip Butcher Papers archive at Columbia University), Douglass addressed the committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, pleading for an acknowledgment of Annie’s initial acceptance to Corcoran and her total compliance with admission procedure.
“Her pictures were duly sent, received and acted upon. I was admitted that her work came up to the standard of excellence required…shown by the fact that a plain ticket of admission was sent to her by management”.
Douglass goes on to speak on the hypocrisy of this action; that a school existing in Washington, D.C., the “freest capital of this the freest nation on the globe”, would reject Annie Walker “upon so frail and unworthy a pretext as that of the tint of the skin”.
On page two of the letter, he refers to the abolition of slavery and how the nation vowed to no longer follow through with such prejudice:
“It cannot be that in this enlightened period of our national life, when the nation has cast off and put away the system of slavery; when the organic law of the land has declared that there shall be no discrimination against citizens on account of face, color or previous condition (…) when our National Capital is becoming glorious as the center of science, art and religion (…) it cannot be that the Corcoran Gallery of Art will upon reflection persist in the exclusion of a worthy woman from its benefits because God has given her a different color from that of others.”
This is one of many cases of racial prejudice, indicative of a much larger trend. “By the mid-nineteenth century, as slavery ended, African American women artists faced (…) escalating bigotry, economic hardship, and the reconciliation of their racial statues with their new roles as ‘free’ American women,” expounds art historian Lisa E. Farrington. Black women artists were not treated with respect, even when it was blatantly earned.
Making one last plea to the Corcoran admission committee to reverse their decision, Douglass writes:
“I would earnestly but most respectfully plead in the hope that upon reflection you may (…) reconsider this exclusion and admit Mrs. Walker to the Corcoran Art School and thus remove a hardship and redress a grievous wrong imposed upon a person guilty of no crime and one every way qualified.”
Despite having the representation and support of a most distinguished figure, the Corcoran Gallery of Art refused to cede. Instead of giving into discouragement, Annie looked to her home for answers: New York City.
THE ART STUDENTS LEAGUE OF NEW YORK
A group of young artists, comprised of women and men eager to study the human form, founded the Art Students League in 1875. A safe haven for those who have been cast off, the Art Students League of New York became a welcome home for wandering travelers.
Temporarily taking leave of Washington, D.C., Annie sought instruction at the Art Students League in 1891. At the time of Annie’s attendance, League classes were being held in a factory building in the Flat Iron District between third and Lexington Avenue (previously in use by a piano manufacturer.).
Annie Walker participated in two classes between 1891-94. The first, what seems to have been an 8-day workshop in February 1891; the second (most likely a class), for a period of six months, from December 1893 to May 1894.
A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America includes certain details regarding the restrictions placed on women within art institutions of the 19th century:
“By the 1880s, the first African Americans were being admitted to art schools. Women were still not allowed to see nude people; they were drawing from statues. And African American women found that whatever small concessions were made for black men or white women were still not being made for them.”
At the League, Annie Walker was introduced to the atelier style, based on the French model of art training. Annie worked alongside other art students in an unstructured workshop with the guidance of a master artist – unknowingly preparing for her future stay in Paris. The Art Students League became a steppingstone in Annie’s journey, where she gathered knowledge and forged connections, before ultimately pursuing higher education in another prominent NYC art institution.
Annie Walker began her studies at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1892.
In the Report of the Woman’s Art School (1892), the principal at Cooper Union, Susan N. Carter recorded her thoughts on the students in attendance and dedicated several passages to describing Annie’s character as well as her artistic evolution.
“I would mention one which has much impressed me. A young colored woman came to the Cooper Union a few months ago. She was most lady-like and prepossessing in appearance. She brought with her a roll of drawings.”
Annie Walker shared her experience of rejection in Washington, D.C., showing Carter the “long letters from Frederick Douglass and others protesting against such an injustice”. Carter recognized, as had Frederick Douglass, the disappointing irony of an art school in the capitol making such a decision. In response, Carter opened the doors of her own office to Annie:
“Recognizing the wrong done to her race in her exclusion from a school in the Capitol city of our country, twenty-seven years after our war was over, I felt that I was honoring New York City (…) if I let her at once have a place in my own office (as the classrooms were full), till a vacancy should occur in the drawing-classroom.”
Carter noted Annie’s progress at Cooper Union:
“This young colored girl is doing exceptionally well, and the kindness of her teacher and companions has helped to soothe her former grief.”
Cooper Union alumna and photojournalist, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe cites that aside from a drawing found in a “catalogue from an exhibition held at Howard University in 1967”, the university “had no other information on [Annie Walker]”.
This drawing, Seated Woman (1896), is seen published alongside an article by the Washington Post (generously provided by Emory University from the James Porter archives in the Rose Library). Despite remaining unnamed in the body of the article, it is implied that Annie’s drawing was included in one of traveling shows, hosted by the American Federation of Arts in 1948.
The model in the drawing is depicted in charcoal against a muted canary cream. She has her hair drawn swiftly back, gently swooping over her ears, tucked all together in a small bun directly behind. Although there are no available reflections by Annie on her own work, her soft sensitivity and attention to detail are plainly seen.
The solemn woman is gazing downward, her eyelids appearing heavy and nearly shut. A blouse, peeking through her dress, adds a titanium white highlight to the drawing. Her nose is pronounced, and her lips slightly pursed above her small chin.
The length of her facial features is accentuated by the long curve of her exposed forearm, sloped shoulder, and broad ballooning sleeve. Fashionable in 1890s, the puff sleeve (known as the “leg-o-mutton sleeve”) was tailored to accommodate “freedom of movement and expression”, in a time when women began to regularly exercise and pursue employment.
Famed Philadelphian realist painter of The Gross Clinic, Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins was a frequent anatomy lecturer at the League and Cooper Union. Eakins confidently advocated for Paris as Annie’s next step; inspired by a former student’s fruitful experience there, he suggested that Annie could have more success if she relocated her artistic pursuits to Europe after graduation.
In Carter’s annual student report for 1895, she revisits her evaluation of Annie, noting her achievements and promise:
“Mrs. Walker has been a very satisfactory scholar and now graduates. She has earned and saved more than $600 since she entered the Cooper Union, and will use this money for a year’s study in Paris (…) The energy, ability and fine character of this colored woman are very encouraging (…).”
Annie Walker graduated from Cooper Union in 1895.With her cumulative savings of 600 dollars, equivalent to approximately $21,370 (an impressive amount, even by current day standards), Annie set off for Paris.
The sparkling promise of Paris
Despite Paris’s long history of colonialism, the beautifully eloquent novelist James Baldwin referred to the City of Light as a “refuge from American madness”.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Annie’s contemporary and student at L’Académie Julian, could attest to this sentiment. A year after returning to Philadelphia, during which he painted The Banjo Lesson, Tanner made his way back to Paris, “driven away by racial prejudice.”
Following her graduation from Cooper Union, Annie went to L’Académie Julian in September 1895, seeking artistic growth in painting and drawing. As described by Farrington:
“At Julien’s, Walker was able to hone her skills and receive weekly criticism from established academic masters who made the rounds to the school’s various ateliers.”
L’Académie Julian was a private art atelier that welcomed women aspiring to receive instruction on human anatomy. The atelier had no entry requirements and was progressive while also offering strict academic instruction in painting and sculpture.
In contrast, École des Beaux-Arts – the most prestigious and renowned art institution in Paris – barred women entirely, up until 1897. Additionally, École des Beaux-Arts had fixed requirements, including a complex language evaluation, making it very difficult for non-French natives to enter. Thus, L’Academie Julian became the best option for foreigners as well as women, both of which include Annie Walker.
L’Académie Julian had three main priorities for its students: training for admission to École des Beaux-Arts, prepararing for the Prix de Rome (an annual scholarship awarded for study in Rome), and exhibiting at the annual Salon. To aid in the accomplishment of said goals, painter and founder Rodolphe Julian established an “elaborate system of concours”:
“Once a month all the students competed together and the examining professor were not told the name or the sex of the competitors till the results were declared (…) often women ha[d] the best of it in these trials.’”
Since women were not accepted at École des Beaux-Artes nor permitted to enter the Prix de Rome, they were limited to the Académie’s third goal – exhibition at the Salon.
With the guidance of the Académie, Annie Walker became one of the students chosen to display at the Paris Salon of 1986.
Annie Walker’s name appears listed in the Paris Salon catalog, under “drawings” (dessins).
The drawing chosen, titled La Parisienne (1896), is a pastel portrait of a woman “in somber late-Victorian attire against a muted grey background”, as portrayed by art historian Tritobia Hayes Benjamin.
There is a keen awareness and sharp documentation of women’s fashion in Annie Walker’s delicately stoic drawing. Poised elegantly in deep indigo garb, the model’s face is partially hidden, her neck fully concealed by her dress. Her fine wispy hair is “arranged (…) in high, neat chignons with soft curls at the front” as was customary. Women’s hats in the 1890s were often “wide and heavily trimmed with tall upwardly curling feathers, ribbons, and flowers”. This particular hat, with a single upright feather, is called a toque: “a hat without a brim (…) worn perched at the top of the head”. The woman holds a steady gaze, and amidst her luminescent skin are peach pink lips, contrasting greatly with the blackness of the feathery mass draped over her arm.
After her stay in Paris, Annie proceeded to spend “a second year abroad during her Grand Tour visiting Switzerland, England and Italy.”
Annie Walker did not remain in Europe as Eakins had advised. Instead, in December 1896, Annie returned to Washington, D.C. and resumed her position beside her spouse Thomas Walker.
For the following two years, Annie attempted to strike a balance between working diligently towards “perfecting her artistry” and carrying out “responsibilities as the wife of a successful lawyer”.
The third (and last) of Annie Walker’s documented works is Studies of a Man in 16th Century Dress (date unclear, c. 1903). Once more, we see Annie’s fascination with dress.
In this watercolor painting, reminiscent of spring with its warm yet brilliant colors, an older bearded man sits pensively on a wood chair, left leg extended displaying the red stripes across his thighs, ruffles around his wrists and neck, “legs covered in hose” of a rosy maroon, with a “soft bonnet” and “duckbill shoes”.
In Susan N. Carter’s last report regarding Annie Walker, Carter mentions Annie’s plans following her studies in Paris: “She proposes to open a studio for portrait painting.” Here, there is a glimmer of a dream. But being an artist was often incompatible with fulfilling the role of a wife. Perpetually stuck in a loop of domestic tasks, the work performed by a woman is never done.
Annie Walker eventually “stopped painting altogether” – her struggle to maintain both roles as wife and artist “proved too much”. Consumed by household chores and hosting functions for her husband’s affluent connections, Annie’s health declined, leaving her depleted, with no energy to dedicate towards achieving her creative purpose:
“Walker suffered a nervous breakdown and never again engaged in artistic pursuits, remaining a homebound invalid until her death (…).”
In her essay, Alice Walker recounts the story of Phillis Wheatley, a young girl (both poet and slave) with a similar fate to that of Annie E. A. Walker:
“Yet, because she did try to use her gift for poetry in a world that made her a slave, she was ‘so thwarted and hindered’ (…) burdened not only with the need to express her gift but also with a penniless, friendless ‘freedom’ and several small children (…) she lost her health (…) Suffering from malnutrition and neglect and who knows what mental agonies (…).”
These exterior obligations led to a turbulent stagnancy within. Left with few (if any) outlets for self-expression, these black women artists – “spiritually (…) so intense, so deep, so unconscious (…) they themselves unaware of the richness they held” –were forced to live an existence of suppressed desires and dormant dreams.
A Garden for the Spirit
So – what are the correct conditions to nurture creativity? Alice Walker alludes to an essay dedicated to addressing this quandary – A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Specifically focused on women who write fiction, Woolf’s proposition can be applied to any woman with artistic ambitions: “a woman must have money and a room of her own”.
“[L]ike a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly (…) these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.”
Annie Walker lacked a space for contemplation, to absorb and bask in her surroundings, to let her mind and spirit roam free (much like the yin-nature of soil, its blackness cradling the seed, preparing for what is to come). Every one of us hopes to create our own space where we can bloom and thrive, and in turn create “a garden so brilliant with colors, so original in its design, so magnificent with life and creativity.”
Alas, Annie was unable to fully blossom, her growth stunted by the frost of domesticity.
At age 73, Annie E. Anderson Walker died on June 9, 1929 and was buried in Harmony Cemetery in Washington, D.C. (later relocated to National Harmony Memorial Park in Maryland in 1960). Her obituary, published in The Evening Star, summarized her artistic accomplishments, including her recognition in Paris and years of teaching.
“And so, our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see: or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.”