Walter Anderson was born in New Orleans on 29 September 1903, the second son of George Walter Anderson, a grain merchant, and Annette McConnell Anderson, an artist who taught him a love of art, music, and literature. He grew up valuing the importance of art in everyday life and developed what would become a lifelong interest in mythology. He attended grade school in New Orleans, went to boarding school in New York, and was later trained at the Parsons Institute of Design in New York (1922–23) and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1924–28). He received a scholarship that enabled him to study and travel in Europe. He read broadly in history, natural science, poetry, art history, folklore, philosophy, classical and modern literature, and epic narratives of journeying.
Anderson returned to Mississippi, working with his brother on earthenware at Shearwater Pottery in Ocean Springs. He married Agnes Grinstead Anderson in 1933, and they raised four children. His developing interest in murals coincided with his work on Works Progress Administration mural projects in Ocean Springs during the 1930s. The late 1930s saw the onset of mental illness, for which he was hospitalized for three years. After his release, he and his family moved to the estate of his wife’s family, Oldfields Plantation, in Gautier. While there, Anderson, a voracious reader, created nearly ten thousand pen-and-ink drawings to illustrate page after page of books as he read them, and he made watercolors, tempera paintings, and block prints illustrating his favorite literary works, from Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, and Pope’s Iliad to Legends of Charlemagne, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and The Magic Carpet. Anderson also made block prints for An Alphabet, a book he created for his own children. “There are many artists who explored a story but few who fused with it,” said the former curator of exhibitions at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs. “The book to Anderson was a way of life, part of the quest to find realization and meaning. It was the distillation of the timeless epics that gave him the grasp of the significance of the moment. Great books and great art are about insight, and Anderson gives us insight into both.”
Anderson had long been interested in nature, but at Oldfields natural scenes began to appear in his watercolors and tempera paintings and in the large linoleum block prints he created. In 1947 he secluded himself in a cottage at Shearwater, where he wrote, painted, decorated pottery for the family business, and carved. He rowed the twelve miles to Horn Island, one of the barrier islands off the Mississippi Coast, an unspoiled natural landscape that became his home for long stretches of time during the last decade and a half of his life. “So much depends on the dominant mode on shore,” he wrote, “that it was necessary for me to go to sea to find the conditional. Everything seems conditional on the islands.” Anderson’s paintings and drawings captured the numerous species of flora and fauna in this pristine environment, as he illustrated birds, insects, animals, flowers, trees, shrubs, and any other natural life he saw while exploring the wild underbrush and coastal lagoons. He used the term realization to suggest his hope of becoming at one with the natural species he observed. On one occasion, he tied himself to a tree during a hurricane to experience the fury of nature. He documented everything he saw, from the life of a spotted frog to the near extinction of the brown pelican as a consequence of the pesticide DDT. Anderson kept ninety journals and logs recording what he experienced, writings mostly for himself that drew from his broad artistic and philosophical knowledge.
Walter Anderson died of lung cancer in New Orleans in 1965. In honor of the centennial of his birth in 2003, the Smithsonian Institution mounted a major exhibition of his work. The Walter Anderson Museum was established in Ocean Springs in 1991. Much of Anderson’s work is there, but many of his watercolors, paintings, and ceramics were housed at his family compound at Shearwater until they were damaged or destroyed when Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi Coast in 2005. Conservators have sought to save and restore his work.
- Ellen Douglas, with the illustrations of Walter Anderson, The Magic Carpet and Other Tales (1987)
- Christopher Mauer, Fortune’s Favorite Child: The Uneasy Life of Walter Anderson (2003)
- Mary Anderson Pickard and Patricia Pinson, eds., Form and Fantasy: The Block Prints of Walter Anderson (2007)
- Patricia Pinson, ed., The Art of Walter Anderson (2003)
- Redding S. Sugg Jr., ed., The Horn Island Logs of Walter Anderson (2006)
- Redding S. Sugg Jr., ed., Illustrations of Epic and Voyage by Walter Anderson (2006)
- Walter Anderson and World Literature, 2009 exhibition, online subject guide, University of Mississippi Libraries website, http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/general_library/