ENTRY

Biggs, Walter J. (1886–1968)

SUMMARY

Walter J. Biggs enjoyed success as a popular illustrator for most of his career, and then became an accomplished painter later in life. Growing up in Salem, he attended the New York School of Art (later Parsons The New School for Design) early in the 1900s. His romantic, impressionistic-style works soon began appearing on the covers of major magazines of the period, as well as in books. Biggs won praise for his renderings of the American South, particularly for sympathetic portrayals of African American life. He started working with watercolors in the 1940s, developing a national reputation with competition prizes and exhibitions in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. He returned to Salem permanently after retiring as an illustrator late in the 1950s. In 1963 he was inducted into the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame and died five years later in Roanoke. In 1986 Roanoke College, which owns a large collection of Biggs’s paintings and sketchbooks, dedicated the Walter Biggs Studio in the Olin Hall Student Art Center.

Early Years and Education

Charles Schreyvogel

Walter Joseph Biggs was born on June 4, 1886, at Big Spring Depot in Montgomery County, the youngest of three sons and three daughters of Walter Joseph Biggs, a prosperous farmer and businessman, and Annie Southall Biggs. Only he and one of his sisters survived early childhood. When he was twelve years old his family moved to Salem, where he attended public school. Biggs displayed artistic talent and later enrolled in a correspondence course in pen-and-ink drawing. His parents sent him to Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (later Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) in the autumn of 1902 to study engineering, but Biggs was unhappy there. In 1903 he sent a sample of his drawings to Charles Schreyvogel, a well-known artist of the era, who advised him to apply to the National Academy of Design in New York City. Armed with this evidence of his talent, Biggs persuaded his reluctant parents to allow him to enroll that autumn at the New York School of Art (later Parsons The New School for Design).

For more than two years Biggs studied painting under various teachers, including Robert Henri, leader of the Ashcan School. Several of Biggs’s classmates became influential artists, among them fellow Virginian F. Graham Cootes, as well as Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, and George Wesley Bellows, with whom Biggs reportedly shared living quarters and a studio during his early days in New York.

Professional Success

John Arrowsmith—Planter

Biggs began achieving commercial success in 1905, when his illustrations appeared on the covers of Young’s Magazine in January and Field and Stream in July. After completing his formal art studies he rented a small studio and worked on a variety of projects. His early assignments included illustrations for a story in the McClure’s Magazine of October 1908, a color frontispiece for Myrtle Reed’s novel Old Rose and Silver (1909), and drawings for Belle Bushnell’s John Arrowsmith—Planter (1910). In May 1912 he illustrated a story in Harper’s Monthly Magazine, launching a twelve-year relationship as a contributor to that magazine. In 1913 Biggs’s illustrations appeared in the January issue of the Delineator, in Kate Langley Bosher’s novel The House of Happiness, and in The Land of the Spirit, a collection of short stories by Thomas Nelson Page. He illustrated a series of stories by Armistead Churchill Gordon that appeared in Scribner’s from 1914 to 1916 and were also published as Ommirandy: Plantation Life at Kingsmill (1917). In 1918 he illustrated a story by Alice Hegan Rice for the Century. Many of those illustrations were set in the American South, and Biggs won praise during his career for his sympathetic portrayals of African American life.

Walter J. Biggs’s Sketches and Memorabilia

  • Dog Sketch
    Dog Sketch

    This pencil sketch of dogs is included in a notebook kept by the Virginia-born artist Walter Biggs. The popular illustrator lived full-time in New York City, but in 1921 he had a studio built behind his mother's house in Salem for use during his frequent visits. He kept notebooks with sketches like this one of the local people and sights in the Roanoke Valley.

  • Woman in a Chair
    Woman in a Chair

    The seated woman in this sketch is probably Annie Southall Biggs of Salem, the mother of the artist Walter Biggs. Known as "Mother Biggs" to the local Roanoke College students, she took in some of the students as boarders and chaperoned their dances. In 1921 Walter Biggs, who lived full-time in New York City, had a studio built behind his mother's house for use during his frequent visits. He kept notebooks with sketches like this one of the local people and sights in the Roanoke Valley. 

  • Figures inside a Room
    Figures inside a Room

    An unfinished sketch by the Virginia-born artist Walter J. Biggs depicts several figures inside a room. In 1921 Biggs, who lived full-time in New York City, had a studio built behind his mother's house in Salem for use during his frequent visits. He kept notebooks with sketches like this one of the local people and sights in the Roanoke Valley.

  • Rose Tie
    Rose Tie

    This Arrow silk tie, probably from the 1950s, is embellished with a painting of a rose. Walter Biggs, a Virginia-born artist who became a well-known illustrator in New York City, painted this tie and gave it to a member of a Salem men's club devoted to the cultivation of roses. This tie is part of the Walter Biggs collection of art and memorabilia at the Roanoke College Archives in Salem.

  • Unidentified Portrait
    Unidentified Portrait

    This portrait by the Virginia-born illustrator Walter J. Biggs is of an unidentified young woman. The artist used a combination of pastels, watercolor, charcoal, and graphite to make the image. In 1921 Biggs, who lived full-time in New York City, had a studio built behind his mother's house in Salem for use during his frequent visits. He kept notebooks with sketches like this one of the local people and sights in the Roanoke Valley.

In 1919 Biggs moved to an apartment on the top floor of a building on West Sixty-Seventh Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. By the 1930s that city block had become a haven for writers and artists, and Biggs was among those mentioned by the syndicated columnist Oscar Odd McIntyre in a piece that compared the area to Paris’s Latin Quarter. In 1921 Biggs had a studio built behind his mother’s house so that he could work during his frequent visits to Salem. He filled his notebooks with sketches of the Roanoke Valley’s people and places for use in his illustrations. On August 4, 1923, he married one of his models, Mildred Armstrong, but by 1937 the childless marriage had ended in divorce.

During the 1920s and 1930s Biggs acquired a national reputation as a leading illustrator. His romantic, impressionistic style, the beauty and artistic quality of his palette, and his mastery of images of the American South impressed the art editors of major magazines. He also became a popular advertising artist, portraying products of major manufacturers in engaging settings that appealed to readers of mass magazines. Biggs’s work appeared in nearly all of them, including Cosmopolitan Magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, Saturday Evening Post, Scribner’s, and Vogue. He also illustrated an Ellen Glasgow story in the December 1924 issue of Woman’s Home Companion. By the mid-1940s Biggs had put aside oils in favor of the spontaneity of watercolor, using a minimum of water to work the paint and draw out detail, one of his trademarks. Biggs’s illustrations rank with those of Howard Chandler Christy and N. C. Wyeth and have achieved the stature of fine art.

Biggs exhibited paintings in shows in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, winning many prizes at competitions. Art museums and private collectors acquired his canvasses. He also taught at the Art Students League, the Grand Central School of Art, and the Phoenix Art Institute, and several of his students went on to distinguished careers. Biggs was honored by many arts organizations and became a member of the National Academy of Design, the American Water Color Society, the Philadelphia Water Color Club, the Society of Illustrators, the Salmagundi Club, and Allied Artists of America. On November 20, 1963, he was inducted into the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame.

Retirement and Reputation

Biggs retired from illustrating late in the 1950s and returned to Salem to live with his sister Lucy Biggs Langhorne in their mother’s house. He closed his studio in New York soon after. With more leisure time he resumed working in oil and produced numerous paintings. On June 4, 1961, Biggs received an honorary degree of doctor of fine arts from Roanoke College. In 1965 he was an artist in residence at the college, but by then he was suffering from cataracts and failing health. Remembered with affection as a courtly, modest man, and one of the Roanoke Valley’s most celebrated artists, Biggs died at the Roanoke Rehabilitation Center on February 11, 1968. He was buried in Sherwood Memorial Park in Salem.

Interest in Biggs’s work did not diminish after his death. At a 1968 estate auction that attracted 1,500 people to the Salem–Roanoke Valley Civic Center, more than 100 of his works were sold. The Roanoke Fine Arts Center mounted a show of his art in February 1969. Roanoke College, which owns a large collection of Biggs’s paintings and sketchbooks, hosted an exhibition of his work in May 1980 and sponsored a second show in the centennial year of his birth, when it dedicated the Walter Biggs Studio in the Olin Hall Student Art Center.

MAP
TIMELINE
June 4, 1886
Walter J. Biggs is born at Big Spring Depot, Montgomery County, the youngest of three sons and three daughters of Walter Joseph Biggs, a prosperous farmer and businessman, and Annie Southall Biggs.
1889
Walter J. Biggs and his family move to Salem, where he attends public school and displays artistic talent.
Autumn 1902
Walter J. Biggs's parents send him to Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (later Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) to study engineering.
1903
Walter J. Biggs sends a sample of his drawings to Charles Schreyvogel, a well-known artist, who advises him to apply to National Academy of Design in New York City.
Autumn 1903
Walter J. Biggs enrolls at the New York School of Art (later Parsons The New School for Design).
1903-1905
Walter J. Biggs studies painting under various teachers, including Robert Henri, leader of the Ashcan School.
January 1905
Walter J. Biggs's illustrations appear on the cover of Young's Magazine.
July 1905
Walter J. Biggs's illustrations appear on the cover of Field and Stream.
October 1908
Walter J. Biggs's art appears in a story in the McClure's Magazine.
1909
Walter J. Biggs's art appears as the color frontispiece for Myrtle Reed's novel Old Rose and Silver (1909).
1910
Walter J. Biggs's illustrations appear in Belle Bunshell's John Arrowsmith—Planter (1910).
May 1912
Walter J. Biggs illustrates a story in Harper's Monthly magazine, which launches a twelve-year relationship as a contributor to that magazine.
1913
Walter J. Biggs's illustrations appear in the January issue of the Delineator, in Kate Langley Bosher's novel, The House of Happiness, and in The Land of the Spirit, a collection of short stories by Thomas Nelson Page.
1914-1916
Walter J. Biggs illustrates stories by Armistead Churchill Gordon that appear in Scribner's and are also published as Ommirandy: Plantation Life at Kingsmill (1917).
1918
Walter J. Biggs illustrates a story by Alice Hegan Rice for the Century.
1919
Walter J. Biggs moves to an apartment on the top floor of a building on West Sixty-Seventh Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue in New York City, which by the 1930s will become a haven for writers and artists.
1920s-1930s
Walter J. Biggs's illustrations appear in major magazines, including Cosmopolitan Magazine, Ladies' Home Journal, McCall's, Saturday Evening Post, Scribner's, and Vogue, as well as in advertisements.
1921
Walter J. Biggs has a studio built behind his mother's house so that he can work during his frequent visits to Salem.
August 4, 1923
Walter J. Biggs and Mildred Armstrong, one of his models, marry. They will not have any children.
December 1924
Walter J. Biggs's illustrations appear in a story by Ellen Glasgow in Woman's Home Companion.
1937
By this year Walter J. Biggs and Mildred Armstrong are divorced.
Mid-1940s
By around this time Walter J. Biggs has put aside oils in favor of watercolor, using a minimum of water to work the paint and draw out the detail, one of his trademarks.
Late 1950s
Walter J. Biggs retires from illustrating and returns to Salem to live with his sister Lucy Biggs Langhorn in their mother's house. He closes his studio in New York.
June 4, 1961
Walter J. Biggs receives an honorary degree of doctor of fine arts from Roanoke College.
November 20, 1963
Walter J. Biggs is inducted into the Society of Illustrators' Hall of Fame.
1965
Walter J. Biggs is an artist in residence at Roanoke College.
1968
At an estate auction that attracts 1,500 people, more than 100 of Walter J. Biggs's works are sold.
February 11, 1968
Walter J. Biggs dies at the Roanoke Rehabilitation Center. He is buried in Sherwood Memorial Park in Salem.
February 1969
The Roanoke Fine Arts Center mounts a show of Walter J. Biggs's art.
May 1980
Roanoke College hosts an exhibition of Walter J. Biggs's art.
1986
Roanoke College sponsors an exhibition of Walter J. Biggs's art in celebration of the centennial year of his birth, and dedicates the Walter Briggs Studio in the Olin Hall Student Art Center.
FURTHER READING
  • Gunter, Don. “Wedded to His Easel: A Life in Illustration, Walter Biggs, 1886–1968.” Virginia Cavalcade 49 (Summer 2000): 100–119.
  • Gunter, Donald W. “Biggs, Walter Joseph.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 1, edited by John T. Kneebone, et al., 487–489. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.
  • Ramsey, Michael. “Walter Biggs: Celebrated Artist Never Forgot His Hometown.” Roanoker 6 (July–August 1979): 76–78.
  • Taraba, Frederic B. “The Poetic Light of Walter Biggs.” Step-By-Step Graphics 6 (May–June 1990): 124–134.
  • Watson, Ernest William. Forty Illustrators and How They Work 1953 ed., 34–41. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, Inc., 1946.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Gunter, Donald. Biggs, Walter J. (1886–1968). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/biggs-walter-j-1886-1968.
MLA Citation:
Gunter, Donald. "Biggs, Walter J. (1886–1968)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 04 Aug. 2021
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