Woman's Home Companion

Walter J. Biggs (1886–1968)

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. MORE...

 

Early Years and Education

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

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.

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.

Time Line

  • 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.

References

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, D. W., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Walter J. Biggs (1886–1968). (2016, September 7). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Biggs_Walter_J_1886-1968.

  • MLA Citation:

    Gunter, Donald W. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Walter J. Biggs (1886–1968)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 7 Sep. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: December 16, 2014 | Last modified: September 7, 2016