Walter Inglis Anderson

For other people with the same name, see Walter Anderson (disambiguation).
Walter Inglis Anderson

"Reflection in a Pool" by Walter Anderson
Born (1903-09-29)September 29, 1903
New Orleans, Louisiana
Died November 30, 1965(1965-11-30) (aged 62)
New Orleans, Louisiana
Nationality American
Education Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Known for Painting

Walter Inglis Anderson (September 29, 1903 – November 30, 1965) was an American painter, writer, and naturalist. Known to his family as "Bob", he was born in New Orleans to George Walter Anderson, a grain broker, and Annette McConnell Anderson, member of a prominent New Orleans family, who had studied art at Newcomb College, where he had absorbed the ideals of the American Arts and Crafts movement.

Anderson was the second of three brothers, the eldest being Peter Anderson (1901–1984) and the youngest was James McConnell "Mac" Anderson (1907–1998). The two older brothers attended St. John's School in Manlius, New York until their schooling was interrupted by World War I and they enrolled in the prestigious Isidore Newman School (then called Isidore Newman Manual Training School) in New Orleans.

In 1918, the Andersons purchased a large wooded tract of coastal land in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. It was Annette's, and her husband's, firm intention that all three of her sons become artists, that they learn to make a living from it. By 1924, a year after the family moved to Ocean Springs, Peter was experimenting with pottery, and in 1928, after training with Edmund deForest Curtis at the Conestoga Pottery (Wayne, Pennsylvania) and with Charles F. Binns at the School of Clay-Working and Ceramics at Alfred, New York, the Andersons opened a family business, Shearwater Pottery, which is still in operation in Ocean Springs.

On November 30, 1965, Walter Inglis Anderson died from Lung Cancer at the age of 62

Pennsylvania Academy

In 1922, Anderson enrolled at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (now Parsons School of Design), and after a year there, devoted to the study of commercial art and to exploration of New York's museums and galleries, won a scholarship to study at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.[1] Here (1924–1928) he would study under iconoclastic modernists like Henry McCarter and Arthur Carles, winning a Packard Award for his animal drawing and a Cresson Traveling Scholarship which allowed him to spend a summer in France, where (he said) he was more impressed by the art of the caves and of the cathedrals than by the art he had seen in museums. In the late 1920s, he became interested in the teachings of Gurdjieff and Alfred Richard Orage, whom he met in NYC while studying at the Academy. During his summer in France, he is thought to have visited Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.

Ocean Springs

Returning to Ocean Springs after his years at the Academy, Anderson worked as a designer in the family business, Shearwater Pottery, founded by his older brother Peter. In 1928-29 he designed his earliest ceramic pieces: pelican and crab bookends, lampstands, peculiar “Resting” and “Sitting Geometric Cats," a "Horse and Rider" and innumerable plates and vases. His work as a designer and decorator at Shearwater Pottery, from 1928 until his death included incised pieces, sgraffito work, underglaze decoration, woodcarvings of saints, and designs for furniture.

Among his early projects, launched with his younger brother, James ("Mac"), was a "Shearwater Pottery Annex" which produced inexpensive figurines, giving Anderson enough of an income to marry Agnes Grinstead[1] in 1933, an art history graduate of Radcliffe College, who would later write a poignant memoir of their life together (Approaching the Magic Hour). During the early years, manufacturing of the figurines, which he called "widgets," prevented Anderson from painting and led to considerable tension.

In 1934, commissioned by a family friend, Ellsworth Woodward, Anderson painted an ambitious mural in the auditorium of the Ocean Springs Public School (“Ocean Springs Past and Present”) as part of Public Works of Art Project. Paintings from this period include: "Indians Hunting," "Jockeys Riding Horses," four oil portraits of Sissy, 1933–37, "Black Skimmer," "Androcles and Lion," "Man on Horse," and Birth of Achilles (Memphis Brooks Museum of Art), along with watercolors of flowers, animals, and birds; studies for a projected book on birds of the southeastern U.S.; and linoleum blockprints, including “Tourist Cards”, “Alphabet,” nursery rhymes, “On the River,” “Valkyries,” “Butterfly Book,” and scenes from Shearwater Pottery. Designs for a second mural, in the Jackson, Mississippi Court House, were accepted by an illustrious committee then rejected by a Washington bureaucrat, causing Anderson considerable frustration. This disappointment, coupled with the death of his father in 1937, lingering bouts of both malaria and undulant fever, and the struggle to eke out a living with work he detested (manufacturing figurines) led to a mental breakdown, with psychotic episodes, in 1937.

From 1938 to 1940 Walter Anderson was in and out of mental hospitals, including the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Sheppard Pratt, and the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield. At Phipps, where he spent 18 months, treated attentively by Adolf Meyer and a team of psychiatrists, he was diagnosed with severe depression ("hypothymergasia") with paranoid trends and schizophrenic ("parergasic") features. At Sheppard Pratt, the diagnosis was schizophrenia. Despite periods of psychosis and brief hospitalization in the 1950s, he led a life more productive than most, and a definitive diagnosis eluded physicians, although psychiatrist Paul Rodenhauser, who writes about Walter Anderson's creativity in relation to his mental illness, ventures a possible posthumous diagnosis: "schizo-affective disorder, bipolar type" (see "Alternative Reality and Art: The Creative World of Walter Inglis Anderson," available through Project Muse.) For others, recurring symptoms of malaria and undulant fever explain Anderson's depression and the apparent "fugue states" that occasionally accompanied it during this two-year period. Although lifelong mental illness has been suggested by some authors, others argue that there is no convincing evidence of mental problems either before or after the 1938-1940 period, and attribute psychotic episodes in the 1950s—for which he was, again, hospitalized—to the effects of alcoholism. Anderson was extremely productive and creative throughout his life. Even at Sheppard Pratt and later at Whitfield, he was well enough to draw, read, and plot elaborate escapes. After eloping from Sheppard Pratt, he walked 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from Baltimore to Ocean Springs. During one of several escapes from the Mississippi State Hospital, he lowered himself on bedsheets from a second-story window, leaving the brick walls festooned with drawings of birds in flight, done in soap.


In 1941, Anderson moved to Gautier, Mississippi, to live on his wife's father's estate (Oldfields) with his family. An extraordinarily productive period followed. Freed from his work at the Pottery, he had time to draw, paint and make block prints; to illustrate some of his favorite books; to experiment with theories of dynamic symmetry and with the drawing methods of the Mexican artist and educator Adolfo Best Maugard; and to translate from Spanish part of Jose Pijoan's history of art (probably without realizing that the work had already been translated into English). He also built his own kiln and fired a new series of figurines, kept the house stocked with firewood, built a rental cottage, wrote short stories and aphorisms, went on marvelous adventures with his children, and celebrated the passing of the seasons and daily hours in a series of watercolors and lyrical "calendar drawings" that capture the life around him. He put on puppet shows, depicted farm life in a series of large watercolors, and, using surplus linoleum and wallpaper, made huge linoleum blocks depicting the natural world and that of fairy tales. Some of these were 30' in length, the largest art prints ever produced by an American, predating those of Leonard Baskin and others, and when they were exhibited in 1949 at the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum's curator of prints, Una E. Johnson, said that she had “never seen block prints so finely executed and of such great dimension.” The fairy-tale linocuts were an attempt, Anderson said, to produce a series of imaginative “explosions” more powerful than the threat of the atomic bomb: explosions “so identified with the life of man that they stimulate, without destroying, life.”

Horn Island

The Oldfields period came to an end in 1945, when he left his family and moved back to a cottage at Shearwater. From then until his death in 1965 he lived a reclusive life, working as a decorator at the Pottery and making frequent excursions, in a rowboat sometimes rigged with a sail, from Ocean Springs to Horn Island, Mississippi where he lived in primitive conditions and portrayed the life around him - birds, sea creatures, animals, trees, landscapes - in radiant watercolors and in a series of logbooks. He also ventured abroad to Costa Rica and China, and made numerous bicycle trips, on some of which he traveled for thousands of miles. "The wheels are turning again", he once wrote. "A bicycle seems to leave no room for other evils, or goods for that matter. It is an inclusive and exclusive wheel.”

One of his greatest works from this period is a series of murals in the Ocean Springs Community House. Along one wall, he painted the landing in Ocean Springs of the 17th-century French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville. Along the opposite wall he painted what he called the “Seven Climates,” in the sense of “a belt of the earth’s surface contained between two given parallels of latitude.” The Gulf Coast—Ocean Springs in particular - is seen as a microcosm of these climates, each of which Anderson associates with a corresponding celestial body and with a season of the year: Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the Moon, beginning with Mercury and ending with Uranus. Anderson must also have been aware of the doctrine that the seven planetary spheres, with their different tones, produce a celestial music. Another, smaller mural, painted around the same time but discovered only after his death on the wooden walls of a padlocked room in his cottage at Shearwater, is inspired by Psalm 104. It is a radiant hymn to light and to the beauty of one day on the Coast, beginning on the east wall with sunrise and continuing around the room through noon, sunset and night. Both murals may be seen at the 'Walter Anderson Museum of Art.

Omitted from mainstream histories of American painting, Anderson’s work has not received sufficient critical attention, perhaps because he chose to live in a small Southern town, patiently acquiring what he called “definite knowledge” of local forms. Fiercely independent in spirit, indifferent to his own “career,” Anderson did nothing to cultivate fame or critical attention and sometimes seemed to flee them. When the Brooklyn Museum invited him to an exhibition of his linoleum block prints in 1948, he chose instead to travel to China, where he hoped to gaze upon unknown landscapes and examine Tibetan murals (the China trip ended, deep inland, when his passport and other belongings were stolen and Anderson returned, partly on foot, to his point of departure in Hong Kong.[1]) Anderson’s painting– a search for the spiritual and transcendent in the forms of the natural world – thrived on his love of limits, and the overwhelming majority of his best watercolors, undated and unsigned, were done on 8.5 x 11 typing paper with little thought for posterity. Rarely did he sign and date them. For him, painting was simply a way of turning art and nature into “a single thing,” helping the natural world “realize” itself through the artist’s intervention “Order is here,” he wrote of Horn Island, “but it needs realizing,” and to him “realization”—a term which he seems to have borrowed from Cézanne, one of his favorite painters, and adapted to his own use—meant discovering and giving memorable form to unities missed by the casual observer.

For Anderson, “realization” was more than a psychological process in the creator; it was a phase of nature itself, by means of which the natural world –and mankind– achieve a perfection they could not reach on their own. Nature, he wrote, was “only too glad to have assistance in establishing order.” In many respects, Anderson's solitary trips to the Horn Island wilderness or his still lifes rendering loving homage to "the beauty of fruit, flowers, vegetables" may best be apprehended as a mystical search for unity and transcendence, akin, say, to the "dark night of the soul" of John of the Cross or the Taoist tradition. The artist’s personality, his god-like powers of invention and imitation disappear before (as Otto Fischer once wrote) “the Taoist-inspired endeavor to interpret art as the revelation of Being through a human medium [...] to render visible the Life Force of Nature.” Not merely the "Little Room" mural, but Anderson's entire work is a psalm of thanksgiving. It is the duty of an artist, he wrote, to render thanks for "the voluptuous return" of nature, the "gift of an austere mother to her children". Anderson's attitude contrasts sharply with prevailing late-20th and early 21st-century notions of the natural world as man's "environment," a purely material world to be manipulated or managed through technology and subjected to human control.

Anderson as a writer

Among Anderson’s most vivid writings are logbooks recording his travels by bicycle to New York City (1942), New Orleans (1943), Texas (1945), China (1949), Costa Rica (1951) and Florida (1960); an account of his life among the pelican colonies of North Key, in the Chandeleurs; and about 90 journals of his trips to Horn Island,[1] off the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, in which he combines close observation of the natural world with reflection on art and nature. Another noteworthy log describes a walking tour to a colony of sand hill cranes north of Gautier, Mississippi in January 1944. Less than one fourth of Anderson’s logbooks, and only a small part of his other writings, have been published. Between 1941 and 1947, as Anderson dreamed of finding “a common language of forms” for art and of reestablishing “the relation of art to the people”, he found different ways to relate the written word to the graphic image. He produced over 9,000 pen and ink “realizations” or “visualizations” of classical works including Alice in Wonderland, the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, Hamlet, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes, The Poems of Ossian, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Faust, The Voyage of the Beagle, and Bulfinch’s Legends of Charlemagne. He also wrote short stories for children, some with his own linoleum block or crayon illustrations (e.g., Robinson: The Pleasant History of an Unusual Cat or The Golden Land) and hundreds of pages of rhymed verse, some illustrated with line drawings. A dramatic poem on Christopher Columbus and a puppet play about the rhythms of life in the “cut-over lands” (where timber companies had clear-cut the first-growth pines of the coastal forests) testify to his love of the epic and of theater. A series of love letters to his fiancée, Agnes "Sissy" Grinstead, whom he later married, written between 1930 and 1940, are notable for their passion and their reflections on his life as a struggling artist. Redding S. Sugg, Jr., an editor of Horn Island Logs, notes that Anderson had “a Blakean turn for aphorism.” His unpublished aphorisms, maxims and essays, written mostly between 1940 and 1965, cover a variety of subjects including nature, art history, politics, the mechanism of artistic creation, myth and fable, and reflections on other writers.

Patti Carr Black points out that Anderson regarded his art not as a “product”, but as a “process, a means of experiencing the world.” Writing clearly played the same role. “Why do I write this?” Anderson asks in one of the Horn Island logs. “I think writing has a cleansing effect, and although it is easy enough to keep the body clean, the mind seems to grow clogged.” He seems to have regarded his writing, like his painting, as kindling for what he called the “third poetry.” “The first poetry is always written against the wind by sailors and farmers who sing with the wind in their teeth. The second poetry is written by scholars and students, wine drinkers who [have] learned to know a good thing. The third poetry is sometimes never written; but when it is, it is written by those who have brought nature and art together into one thing.”

After Katrina

Anderson's work (his family's collection) was partially destroyed when Hurricane Katrina struck Ocean Springs in 2005, and the storm surge penetrated the small cinderblock building that had been built to house his works owned by his family safely after Hurricane Camille. There was extensive water damage to the watercolors, drawings, manuscripts, and other objects that were kept there, and much of this work, from the Anderson Family collection, was dried and removed to Mississippi State University. Some has been restored by conservator Margaret Moreland. Works housed on site at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, Ocean Springs, were undamaged, although part of the offsite collection was (in 2006 the Museum undertook the restoration of Anderson's original linoleum blocks and other works.) The condition of the Community Center mural was worsened by the storm, and it was announced in June 2006 that it would be restored by a team from the Winterthur Conservation Project. Manuscripts of Anderson's writing, much of it unpublished, were kept at Shearwater and were damaged or destroyed. Fortunately, years earlier Anderson's correspondence and much of his other writing had been microfilmed for the Archives of American Art. Still more writing and biographical materials were photocopied before Katrina by Anderson biographer Christopher Maurer and those copies have been donated, together with copies of the archives of Shearwater Pottery, to Archives and Special Collections at the JD Williams Library, University of Mississippi.

Further reading

There is no complete catalogue either of Anderson's graphic work nor of his writing, and the compilation of such a volume acquires special urgency after Katrina. A checklist of surviving works -damaged and undamaged - would be a good first step. Major works by and about Anderson are listed below. Most have been published by the University Press of Mississippi.

Some of Anderson's best watercolors, oils, drawings, and decorated pottery may be seen at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art; the Memphis Brooks Museum; the Mississippi Museum of Art (Jackson); and the Lauren Rodgers Museum of Art (Laurel). In 2003, his work was featured in an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution, titled "Everything I See is New and Strange."


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