Dollarfish and Sheepshead

William Aiken Walker (American, 1839–1921)


61.59 x 51.12 cm (24 1/4 x 20 1/8 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

Not On View





In the decades before the American Civil War, still lifes of fish and game could be found in many of the finer homes of Charleston, South Carolina, where hunting and fishing were popular pastimes among wealthy gentleman. Such paintings announced the owner’s prosperity and his prowess as a sportsman. Walker, just twenty-one and limited in his formal art training, produced this highly naturalistic portrayal of two species of saltwater fish hanging on strings from square-headed nails. Shadows cast against the distinctive yellow of the Southern Pine planks suggest depth, completing the illusionistic effect.

In the art of the United States, such convincing “trompe l’oeil” technique is more frequently associated with artists of the late nineteenth century, among them William Michael Harnett [39.761], John Frederick Peto [62.278, 64.411], and De Scott Evans [1984.86]. Working twenty years before those painters came to prominence, Walker’s still lifes responded to an established regional tradition. Most prominently visible in Charleston during Walker’s youth was the work of Charles Fraser. A generation older than Walker, Fraser had painted similar game scenes of birds or fish hanging from square headed nails against pine board planks. Fraser’s paintings were exhibited in Charleston in 1857 and two still lifes of Sheepshead were included in the display. Walker must have been familiar with Fraser’s examples, or others of this type. Such still lifes occupied Walker for only a few years. After the Civil War, Walker turned his attention to the genre scenes for which he is best known. While his unabashedly derogatory portrayals of African Americans are troubling for modern audiences, these views of agrarian life in the Old South found a ready audience in the late nineteenth century among white Southerners who were nostalgic for the antebellum past.

Cody Hartley


Lower left: WAW 1860. [WAW in monogram]


The artist; sold at auction, Bedford Village, New York; with Arnold Seligmann, Rey, & Co., New York, 1943; to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I., 1943; to MFA, 1948, gift of Martha C. (Mrs. Maxim) Karolik.

Credit Line

Bequest of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815-1865