William Aiken Walker (1838-1921)
Property from the Jay P. Altmayer Family Collection'Palmetto Hall’ sits nestled away, hidden behind a thick row of trees on South McGregor Avenue in Mobile, Alabama. Ground broke on Palmetto Hall in 1846 but the residence was given a second life from its enthusiastic new owners, Jay and Nan Altmayer, in 1959. Stately and elegant, the mansion has retained its antebellum grandeur through the turn of the 21st century due to the impassioned interests of the Altmayers, who modified and expanded the house, and furnished it with a unique mix of classical European furnishings, Southern art, and depictions of American heroes and historic events. Their love of collecting became a worldwide adventure. The Altmayers notably amassed one of the foremost collections of Southern artist William Aiken Walker's work. Mr. Altmayer once explained of his interest in the artist, "I am confident that I have collected Walker's work for a most fundamental reason. Though I have covered much of the world, I prefer the landscape of the South to all others. I love its forests, its swamps, and its natural beauty...this man has no parallel among American genre painters as a visual recorder and preserver of life in the rural South during the post-Civil War period when cotton was still king of the economy." ("Foreword," William Aiken Walker: Southern Genre Painter, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1972)Now, an era has passed and Christie's is privileged to have been given the opportunity to honor Mr. and Mrs. Altmayer, and offer the wonderful collection they assembled together, including Lots 12, 13 and 14.
William Aiken Walker (1838-1921)

Big B Cotton Plantation

William Aiken Walker (1838-1921)
Big B Cotton Plantation
signed with conjoined initials and dated 'WAWalker. 1881.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
24 ¼ x 42 1/8 in. (61.6 x 107 cm.)
Painted in 1881.
The artist.
Stephen Minot Weld, Massachusetts, commissioned from the above.
Philip Balch Weld, Boston, Massachusetts, son of the above, gift from the above.
Mrs. Philip Balch Weld, Boston, Massachusetts, by descent.
H.A. Peterson, Boston, Massachusetts, gift from the above, circa 1938.
Howard Troutman, Lewiston, Maine, gift from the above, circa 1956.
Acquired by the late owners circa mid-1960s.
A.P. Trovaioli, R.B. Toledano, William Aiken Walker: Southern Genre Painter, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1972, pl. 18, illustrated (as Cotton Plantation on the Mississippi).
C. Seibels, The Sunny South: The Life and Art of William Aiken Walker, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 1995, pp. 91-92, 95-96, fig. 34, illustrated.
Southeastern College Art Conference Review, vol. 12, no. 5, 1995, pp. 356, 358, fig, 6, illustrated.
C.M. Akard, Southern Genre Painting and Illustration from 1830 to 1890, M.A. thesis, University of North Texas, 1997, p. 208, pl. 59, illustrated.
P.D. Escott, et al., Major Problems in the History of the American South: The Old South, Boston, Massachusetts, 1999, p. iv, cover illustration.
J.M. Vlach, The Planter's Prospect: Privilege and Slavery in Plantation Paintings, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2002, pp. 135-36, 140, illustrated.
R.M. Hicklin, Jr., Calm in the Shadow of the Palmetto & Magnolia: Southern Art from the Charleston Renaissance Gallery, Charleston, South Carolina, 2003, p. 8.

Lot Essay

This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné being prepared by John Fowler.

According to Cynthia Seibels, the present work is one of six known large plantation scenes by William Aiken Walker, which represent the most monumental and impressive paintings of his career. Commissioned by Colonel Stephen Minot Weld (1842-1920), a cotton mill owner and broker, Big B Cotton Plantation illustrates each stage of cotton production on an Old South plantation. In the fields, women are seen filling burlap sacks, which were then transferred to the large baskets atop some of the men's shoulders. The blue wagon at right carries these baskets to the gin house, visible in the left background with its tall smokestack, where the cotton would be seeded, compressed and bound into bales. These bales were then carried in carriages, as seen in the left foreground, to the steamboat that would carry them to New Orleans, and from there to their Northern or foreign buyers. In the right background, the painting also depicts the compound where the plantation owner lived: the three-story 'big house' with its icehouse, smokehouse and stable.

In addition to this detailed representation of the processes and architecture of a cotton farm, Big B Cotton Plantation also demonstrates Walker's artistic aptitude in capturing the individuality of each of the figures of the scene as well as the unique natural landscape of the American South. As Seibels explains, "As closely as he observed the human activity, Walker also described the natural environment and the physical plant of the plantation...The branches and leaves of each cotton plant edging the road are precisely drawn and carefully covered. Walker here built up paint on the canvas as a means of rendering texture. Loading his brush with white paint, he would apply the tip of it to the canvas, leaving a thick, ridged mark that convincingly portrays the deep, soft mass of a cotton boll. His sky, by contrast, is thinly painted...The clouds, also laid down with a loose hand, seem to swirl and dash across the canvas. The scene has great depth, thanks to Walker's competent handling of the principle of vanishing point perspective. The rows of cotton, the road perpendicular to the picture plane, and the angle at which the houses are aligned to the road converge the eye to a point just to the right of center, where the plantation gate opens onto the loading area and, as implied by the waiting steamboat, the world market beyond." (The Sunny South: The Life and Art of William Aiken Walker, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 1995, p. 96)

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