Walter Henry Williams Biography

Walter Henry Williams




Walter Henry Williams, painter, printmaker, and ceramicist, was an African American artist who was born in Brooklyn, New York on 11 August 1920. As a child he became very withdrawn due the death of his mother when he was five years-old and the domineering, authoritarian nature of his father. As a young man, Williams explored Harlem where he met artists who inspired him to dream of becoming one. His dream was put on hold when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942. His assignment of burying the dead soldiers, sometimes burying them alive, would haunt his life.

He studied art at the Brooklyn Museum Art School with Ben Shahn, Reuben Tam and Gregorio Prestopino on the G.I. Bill between 1951 and 1955. Williams was included in the 1953 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the Whitney Museum of America Art. He also spent the summer of 1953 studying art on scholarship at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Madison, Maine. Upon graduating from the Brooklyn Museum Art School, Williams won a John Hay Whitney Fellowship and used it to travel to Denmark. In 1957, Williams returned from Denmark and was included in the Whitney’s 1957 Annual Exhibition: Sculpture, Paintings, Watercolors. He resided in Mexico between 1959 and 1963 and, during that time, Williams won the National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in 1960 and the Silvermine Award in 1963.

According to the History of African-American Artists by Bearden and Henderson, after Williams' four years of living in racially liberal Mexico he "felt the freedom from racial prejudice was essential for his further development." He moved to Denmark in 1964 and married Marlena Jacobson that same year.

Williams returned to the U.S. in 1967, invited by David Driskell to Fisk University as an Artist-in-Residence. During this brief return to the United States he completed a body of work informed by the experiences of being an African American living in the South. The Williams moved back to Copenhagen, Denmark in 1969 and in 1979 Walter became a Danish citizen.

Williams was commissioned to create a series of woodcuts for the International Graphic Arts Society (IGAS) in editions of 210. One hundred prints were sold in the United States and the other hundred in Europe with ten proofs reserved for the artist. This gave Williams an international following that allowed him to continue to work as a printmaker.

The work of Walter Henry Williams is represented in the collections of the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, Athens; the Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland; the Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania; and the Howard University Art Gallery, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Walter Henry Williams died in Copenhagen, Denmark on June 12, 1998.