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Distinguished by his Southern heritage, Walter Biggs is considered one of the foremost American illustrators. He was born in Elliston, Virginia, where he spent his youth before moving to the city of Salem when he was ten. He attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute for one year, but left to study art in New York City. There, he enrolled at the Chase School (later known as the New York School of Art), studying with William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri, Luis Mora, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Edward Penfield.
While a student, Biggs roomed with George Bellows and was also acquainted with Rockwell Kent and Guy Pène du Bois. He embraced a loose impressionistic technique and rich colors, but cited Henri as a key influence. Daunted by the challenge of earning a living as a painter, Biggs decided to pursue illustration as a career and soon met with success. His colorful illustrations appeared in such popular journals as Harper’s, Redbook, Scribner’s, Good Housekeeping, The Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, Cosmopolitan, and Vogue.
Prodigious in his output, Biggs created numerous illustrations and other pieces for his own pleasure. He most often worked in watercolor and pursued colloquial Southern subjects, particularly street views, as in Southern Scene. Biggs’ technical mastery and refined sense of narrative is clearly evident in this depiction of two African American gentlemen, decked out in fine attire, promenading through a park. The scene also reflects Biggs’ particular penchant for social realism and for conveying a feeling of the moment, clear evidence of his study with Henri.
Biggs participated in several art organizations, including the American Water Color Society; Philadelphia Water Color Club; Allied Artists of America; Society of Illustrators; National Academy of Design; and Salmagundi Club. He taught at the Grand Central School of Art and Art Students League. The recipient of numerous awards for his work in watercolor and oil throughout his career, he was nominated to the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 1963.
Biggs returned to Salem in the 1950s, where he lived out the remainder of his life; he maintained a studio in New York into the 1960s, however, and traveled there often. He left most of his work to the city of Salem and to Roanoke College, where he was artist-in-residence for many years.
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