Walter Inglis Anderson was born in 1903 in New Orleans to George Walter Anderson, a grain merchant, and Annette McConnell Anderson, an artist.
His mother’s love of art, music, and literature strongly influenced Walter (called “Bob” by his friends and family) and his two brothers, Peter and Mac. Anderson was educated at a private boarding school, then attended the Parsons Institute of Design in New York and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where his drawings earned him a scholarship for study abroad.
He traveled through Europe and was particularly impressed with the cave art he saw at Les Eyzies in France. His wide-ranging interests included extensive reading of poetry, history, natural science and art history. He was an life-long learner, searching for meaning in books of folklore, mythology, philosophy, and epics of voyage and discovery.
Anderson returned to Ocean Springs and married a Radcliffe graduate, Agnes (Sissy) Grinstead, started a family, and went to work creating molds and decorating earthenware at Shearwater Pottery, founded by his brother Peter.
Anderson felt that an artist should create affordable work that brought pleasure to others, and in return, the artist should be able to pursue his artistic passions. In the 1930s, he worked on regional Works Progress Administration mural projects and began to view his role in art as a muralist.
In the late 1930s Anderson first succumbed to mental illness. He was diagnosed with profound depression and spent three years in and out of hospitals. Following his hospitalizations, Anderson joined his wife and small children at her father’s antebellum home in Gautier, Mississippi.
The pastoral tranquillity of the plantation, called Oldfields, provided an ideal setting for recuperation. During this period he rendered thousands of disciplined and compelling works of art which reflected his training, intellect, and extraordinary grasp of the history of art.
In 1947, with the understanding of his family, Anderson left his wife and children and embarked on a private and very solitary existence.
He lived alone in a cottage on the Shearwater compound, and increased his visits to Horn Island, one of a group of barrier islands along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, rowing the 12 miles in a small skiff, carrying minimal necessities and his art supplies.
Anderson spent long periods of time on this uninhabited island over the last 18 years of his life. There he lived primitively, working in the open and sleeping under his boat, sometimes for weeks at a time.
He endured extreme weather conditions, from blistering summers to hurricane winds and freezing winters. He painted and drew a multitude of species of island vegetation, animals, birds, and insects, penetrating the wild thickets on hands and knees and lying in lagoons in his search to record his beloved island paradise.
Anderson’s obsession to “realize” his subjects through his art, to be one with the natural world instead of an intruder, created works that are intense and evocative.
Walter Anderson died at the age of 62 in a New Orleans hospital of lung cancer. Much of the work survived only by chance; it was discovered in drifts, like autumn leaves, throughout his cottage after his death. Those found treasures present the viewer today with a fascinating opportunity to share Anderson’s vision.
Walter Anderson Museum of Art: