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Walter Hancock

By Robert Pirie

Walker Hancock was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 28, 1901. He was elected a fellow of this academy in 1941 and he died on December 30, 1998, at his home in Lanesville on Cape Ann. Walker was always a student, a teacher, a dedicated professional, and a friend.

He never lost his curiosity and in his later years when he traveled less I think he questioned more because he was so keen to keep in touch and to learn. To the very end he was a teacher, as his last assistant Daniel Altshuler, amongst others can attest. He was totally dedicated to his profession, continuing to work well into his 90s and his friends were legion, not just fellow artists such as Daniel Chester French, Paul Manship, Kay Weems, and Andrew Wyeth; not just neighbors like Hyde Cox, Evelyn Bartlett, and myself, but people from all over the world and all walks of life. As in everything he did, Walker worked at his friendships. You weren’t allowed to get out of touch and letters, in his elegant hand, were written on the slightest excuse and frequency for no excuse.

Walker was a student in the Washington University school of fine arts from 1917 and received his first formal commission while there—I regret to say it was for a piggy bank in the form of a Chinese god for the anti-tuberculosis society which for some reason required that it have a “spankable bottom.” I would like to see one of these.

From there Walker went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where he studied under Charles Grafly, and in 1925 he won the Rome Prize where he spent the years 1925 to 1928. He was later to be artist·in-residence at the American Academy in Rome on two separate occasions, and served as a trustee for 19 years.

By 1929 Walker was teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy and also at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League where he took over from Mahonri Young for a year. By this time commissions flowed steadily and Walker spent more and more time in Lanesville where he met Saima Natti whom he married in 1943 while serving in the army. Walker was assigned to the monument and fine arts group whose job was to follow closely behind the front lines and save as much of the cultural heritage of the occupied areas as they could. Walker had many dramatic stories from this period but the most extraordinary was his entry into the cave at Seigen where the Nazis had stored an incredible treasure trove of loot including more than 400 paintings by everyone from Rubens and Rembrandt to Renoir, the manuscript of Beethoven’s 6th symphony, and the Aachen Cathedral treasure.

After the war a growing flood of commissions made clear Walker’s preeminent position in the ranks of American sculptors. No one who has taken the train to Philadelphia has failed to be awed by the majesty of his memorial to the employees of the Pennsylvania railroad who lost their lives in the Second World War. Historic figures such as the nine-foot-high statue of the seated James Madison for the Library of Congress, the brilliant sculpture of Lincoln in the National Cathedral, the bust of Stephen Foster also in the Library of Congress and the monumental group on Stone Mountain are heroic, as they should be, but one also gets a sense of the inner character of the subject which only a true humanist can convey.

Although Walker told me he had never intended to become a portraitist, we should all be glad that he did because the results were magnificent. They include the brilliant portrait of Robert Frost now in the Houghton Library at Harvard, Booth Tarkington, General MacArthur, Chief Justice Burger, Dillon Ripley and President Bush. He did a bust of Chief Justice Warren which his widow, when shown photographs of the clay model, told Walker she thought was so bad she just hoped it would go away. Ultimately, he moved to Washington and set it up in the basement of the Supreme Court and when Mrs. Warren and her daughters came to inspect it they could not get over how brilliantly he had captured the great Chief Justice’s expression and, carved in marble, it now graces the courthouse.

For complicated reasons Walker was commissioned to do a bust of me, and I spent many happy Saturday mornings in the studio at Lanesville. The routine was for Walker to work from 9 to 10:30 and then his friend and neighbor Hyde Cox would join us with his dog for coffee and cookies, and then we would go at it for another hour or so. I say “we” because, contrary to what I had expected Walker carried on a lively conversation on a veritable smorgasbord of subjects the whole time, and particularly on the subject of his beloved American Academy in Rome. He wanted every detail of how the restoration was coming along. One thing that came out of this was that we were able to have his original studio there named in his honor and I think that was a source of great pleasure for him. For me these Saturday mornings hearing him talk about his fascinating life much of which he later included in his wonderful autobiography, A Sculptor’s Fortune, and having the chance to poke around the cluttered studio looking at all the plaster casts, was a joy. Amongst all the clutter one bust stood out, by itself on a pedestal, a beautiful marble portrait of his beloved daughter Deane who is here today with her husband.

Walker was also renowned for his renderings of athletes, most famously the series of 42 he did of basketball players, using as models the high school team in Gloucester. He said he wanted to show the grace of the amateur rather than the discipline of the professional and anyone who has seen them would agree that he was successful. He also did a series of swimmers based on observing them in his quarry from under water while holding his breath. While swimming there once with Andrew Wyeth, Wyeth started laughing and when asked why said “well, Walker, I was just thinking that if we both were to drown it would be the end of realism in American art.”

I have talked of Walker the artist but Walker the friend is an equally inspiring subject although, perhaps, inspiring is the wrong word, for he was a kind and gentle friend. I saw him frequently both at my farm where he was a regular guest for dinner parties and for holidays, and at the home of our mutual friend Evelyn Bartlett. I well remember Walker, Hyde Cox and I at her birthday in 1997 calculating that among us we had known her for over 200 years. Mind you, it was her 109th birthday.

In the face of all his talents, his friendship with the powerful, and the acclaim he was accorded as a great artist, he remained a very modest man. Let me read you a letter he wrote to this institution in 1996.

Dear Ms. Dajani:

At the age of fourteen I considered myself an all-round artist. I showed a painting that I had done in oils on canvas to a local art dealer with the expectation of selling it. His response was:“pretty good for an amateur.” I was so upset by being thought an amateur that I decided to stick to sculpture. It is therefore only fair to say that in the Photographs of Members I should be called a sculptor and, alas, not a painter.

In the end Walker will be remembered for the magnificent sculpture with which he has embellished our nation but for me he will always be remembered for his smile.

Thank you so much for letting me reminisce about my friend.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 4, 2000.

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