Two Itinerant Southern Artists: William Aiken Walker and Daniel O’ Driscoll

By John Mann
Wed, Apr 24, 2024 at 12:15PM

William Aiken Walker was not the wealthiest or most noteworthy of boarders at Ponce Park’s Pacetti Hotel in the late 1800s, but he was beyond doubt one of the most interesting of all guests. In addition to occasionally selling his paintings to pay for his room and board, he sometimes clerked the front desk when Martha Jane Pacetti was cooking her famous Sheepshead Stew, or while her husband Bartolo was busy helping the other guests catch the sheepshead fish that gave the stew its name. Walker was very popular among the well-to-do sportsmen who lodged there. His personal fondness for fishing, sailing, good food, music and song, along with his personal charm and storytelling ability, endeared him to the other guests.

William Aiken Walker self-portrait (1914)
William Aiken Walker self-portrait (1914)

Walker, a celebrated iconic American artist of the South, studied for a short time in Dusseldorf in the early 1860’s. Even with that formal training, Walker’s art was essentially self-taught. And in the tradition of those days, like so many other American painters of the period, he was an authentic itinerant or a wandering artist. For approximately fifty years, until about the beginning of the War to End All Wars (WW1), Walker regularly spent the winter of each year traveling, painting and selling his works here in Ponce Inlet and the greater Daytona area. In early spring, he would travel to New Orleans’ French Quarter where he could be regularly found on the corner of Royal and Dumaine streets. In addition to Ponce Inlet and New Orleans, Walker would often return to his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, where he continued to paint, sell, and/or barter his work. Walker was a good businessman as well as an artist. He was regularly commissioned to do large works, but he preferred small art formats, as they were his bread and butter.

The Charleston Connection

Born in Charleston in 1839, to an affluent Irish father and an American mother with deep Carolina roots, Walker was a true southern gentleman. His education was typical of the genteel male-child of a socially prominent family. Charleston was (and is still) an artists’ haven, and many exhibitions of American and classical art were regularly available to him as he was growing up. Being raised in a culture which appreciated art and music certainly influenced him. It is noteworthy to this story that Walker completed his first painting when he was 12 and that he continued to paint throughout his life until passing away in 1921, at the age of 83

A member of a South Carolina Confederate infantry unit, Walker was seriously wounded in a battle in 1862. He recovered, but instead of being sent back to rejoin his regiment, he was transferred to Charleston and placed on limited duty. This allowed him to continue practicing his art. He drew maps, sketches, and illustrations of Charleston’s defenses for the Confederate Army until he was mustered out in 1864. During this time and even after, he worked as a photographer’s colorist, adding color to black and white images. The almost painstaking detail involved in this became characteristic of his later work.

After the war, William began to travel to Southern resort areas where he painted postcard studies or small paintings which he sold to Northern tourists. It is said by art historians that Walker was the first of American artists in the South to make his living from the tourist trade. His early “Old South” subjects and river landscapes were usually small enough to fit into a traveler’s satchel, making them ideal souvenirs for tourists returning home.

Walker’s Art: Genre Painting

William Aiken Walker’s art is best described as genre painting of landscapes featuring small cabins or the typical palmetto-lined beaches of the South. Additional subjects commonly featured in his paintings included black field hands, sharecroppers, and their families. Biographers August P. Trovaioli and Roulhac B. Toledano said, “No other Southern artist so prolifically interpreted his homeland during the post-Civil War Reconstruction and the developing new South than William Aiken Walker. In fact, Walker produced such a massive body of work on Southern subjects, that it can be said that he left the most extensive record of black life by any artist of the period.” (1).

Lighthouse & Pacetti Hotel (1898)
Lighthouse & Pacetti Hotel (1898)
There are even some echoes of the dialect writing of Mark Twain in Walker’s iconic images, but for the most part, the first buyers of Walker’s art, Northern tourists, were not those who had actually experienced or lived in the rural South. Many who bought his art admired the mythical, untroubled South in the paintings, which really existed only in their imagination. None the less, Walker’s work is hugely admired for the detail and accuracy in its portrayal.
Cove at Ponce Park (1895)
Cove at Ponce Park (1895)
The Forgotten Man: Black life in the South
When artists like Remington and others were painting the American West, making a record of the slaughter of the buffalo, the nobility of the Indian, and the grueling journey of the American pioneers westward, Walker found the forgotten man. “He portrayed the black cotton field worker, obviously the least popular subject at the time, with dignity and realism. For me, his paintings have some sociological overtones. He found in these newly freed slaves a group of incredibly poor people, not in the least way sorry for themselves but proudly trying to adjust to a new way of life. None of his subjects show hostility or bitterness. Instead of painting the indolent life of the plantation owner, Walker chose to focus on the far less popular or romantic character, the field hand. He was avante guard. He was a half century ahead of the social changes that are occurring at this moment. There are those who will not see the subtle sociological overtones in his paintings, but I will,” said Cynthia Seibels (2).
Beach at Ponce Park (1904)
Beach at Ponce Park (1904)
Daniel O’Driscoll
One of those who marvel at William Aiken Walker for the fine artist he was is his great-great-great-nephew, Daniel O’ Driscoll, known to the art world as Danny. The two have more in common than just familial genes. It is almost eerie the way their stories parallel each other. O’Driscoll, also a talented artist and painter, has too many life similarities to Walker not to be sprung from the same Walker stock. The first, it is correct to say, is that art came naturally to both of them at a young age.
Dunes at Ponce Park
Dunes at Ponce Park
O’Driscoll also grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. Like Walker, O’Driscoll spent a lot of time enjoying the outdoors. While Walker’s first painting was done at age twelve, O’Driscoll began at an even earlier age, ten. “Art is my avenue to get away from it all, and always has been. I was always drawing. In fact I never bought a birthday card, I always created one,” laughed O’Driscoll. “My mom still has every one I ever made for her.” In high school he joined the art club and later studied art history at the College of Charleston. “It wasn’t what I wanted in an art education.
Palms at Ponce Park
Palms at Ponce Park
My ‘college’ art education began at Columbia, South Carolina’s Riverbank Zoo. I realized that I wanted to paint things I loved. I learned how to be a photographer, how to do research on the animals and birds, and even created some of the zoo signage. I recall spending weeks at a time in a cage with Toucans, large South American birds, observing their behavior and habitat, before I even began to draw and eventually paint them. I learned from my study of them that birds and animals are not really picture-perfect. There may be a missing feather or another natural imperfection. I want the tree or branch they are perched on to be what that particular bird would be found on. I make it inherent, as naturally occurring in the wild. There is very little man-made in my paintings and drawings. Ornithologists sometimes laugh at bird paintings or drawings because the birds are pictured way out of their habitat,” he continued.
William Aiken Walker
Danny O’Driscoll strikes a modern-day pose on the front porch of the Pacetti Hotel
William Aiken Walker’s great, great, grandnephew Danny O’Driscoll strikes a modern-day pose on the front porch of the Pacetti Hotel
O’Driscoll has been creating original fine artwork since 1983. While he specializes in wildlife art paintings, O’Driscoll is equally renowned for his ornithological prints of hawks, ducks, songbirds, and eagles. With his background in zoological illustrations, he strives to embody realism, accuracy, and anatomical correctness. At first glance, some of his work gives the impression that it is photography, but it is all hand-painted in acrylic using a combination of brush and airbrush.
O’Driscoll’s work has appeared in magazines, best-selling books, and major wildlife and juried art shows across the Southeast. For a time before working for the zoo, he even created the illustrations, logo, and graphics for many of Charleston’s iconic wrought-iron historic signs.
O’ Driscoll opened his 2013 travels by being invited to the prestigious New Smyrna Beach art show Images this past January, and has an extremely busy schedule of shows for the spring and summer. “Í travel just like Walker did, selling from venue to venue and place to place” stated Daniel. “During the first ten years of my marriage, my wife Mundina, who is also a professional wildlife artist, would accompany me to the shows. My daughter grew up at the shows, and could often be found in the playpen behind our tent.”
When asked what he liked most about attending art shows O’Driscoll replied, “Actually, in addition to being able to sell some of my work, the best part of art shows is the opportunity to greet and interact with the patrons and customers. I listen closely. The anecdotes that people share with me are the best way that I can make my subjects more natural and believable.”
Ocean Skimmer by Danny O’Driscoll
Ocean Skimmerby Danny O’Driscoll
It’s funny, but attending art shows is exactly how I came to know about the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, the Pacetti Hotel, and William Aiken Walker’s very close association with them. At Images, Julie Davis (daughter of Ponce Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Association pioneers and Board members Gladys and Earl Davis) noticed a painting I had done of the Morris Island Lighthouse which was Charleston’s harbor light for many years. Julie mentioned that her grandfather, former Ponce Inlet Lighthouse Principal Keeper Edward Meyer, was a keeper at Morris Island Light when her mother Gladys Meyer Davis was a child. Julie went on to explain how Gladys was the last child to be born at the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse under the aegis of the United State Lighthouse Service. With an opener like that, the conversation quickly evolved into making plans to visit the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse with Julie, Gladys and Earl.
Watching and Waiting by Danny O’Driscoll
Watching and Waiting by Danny O’Driscoll
Of course, it was a delight to be able to actually visit the outside of the Pacetti Hotel and pose for a photograph in the exact same place on the porch that William Aiken Walker did when he boarded there for so many years. If memory serves, I think his feet were on a different step and facing slightly different. But that’s the artist in me, always noticing those details that make the difference.”
Morris Island Lighthouse by Danny O’Driscoll
Morris Island Lighthouse by Danny O’Driscoll
When asked what he knew about William Aiken Walker and his work, Daniel replied, “My grandmother Edna Ruth Walker had some of Uncle William’s paintings. A relative who lived in Tallassee named Elizabeth A. Walker told me many stories about him and had a large number of paintings that he had originally given to family and friends as gifts. When William again became recognized and famous in the 1970s, some of my family sold what they had to collectors,” said O’Driscoll
When asked to share his thoughts on the works of William Aiken Walker and to compare his artistic style with that of his uncle, Daniel replied “There is a progression in his work and in his life which is similar to mine. He broadened his horizons. He was incredibly detail oriented, as I am. He captured his subjects as I do. A lot of people paint the ideal, the way it ‘should’ be. He and I paint the way we see it, all of the details, if you will. Uncle William was way ahead of his time. He recognized the importance of documenting the southern black sharecropper and the hardworking cotton field pickers of the period as they really were. Just like William Aiken Walker, I just paint and illustrate to pay my bills and be happy and fulfilled. I feel that I too have been blessed in that life on the road.”
About the Author: John Mann is one of the Preservation Association’s most dedicated volunteers. He can regularly be found at the Lighthouse and within the community educating the public about the unique maritime and social history of the Ponce de Leon Inlet Light Station.
⦁ Trovaioli, August P., and Tolrdano, Roulhac B., William Aiken Walker Southern Genre Painter 1st ed. By Pelican; Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, 2008.

⦁ Seibels, Cynthia, The Sunny South, The Art and Life of William Aiken Walker, Spartanburg, South Carolina, Saraland Press, 1995.

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