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A biography of Agnes Grinstead Anderson and her tumultuous marriage to Walter Anderson

Updated on September 17, 2014
Walter and Agnes at their wedding.
Walter and Agnes at their wedding. | Source

Walter Anderson has forever claimed a place as one of America’s great artists, having changed the face of watercolor painting through his vivid works of nature subjects. While his place in art history is certainly well earned, it did not come without a price. His genius came with a price, as he suffered from multiple mood related disorders. He had trouble relating with others and maintaining personal relationships. Because of this, his personal and family life was always strained and often abusive, and his commitment to his art saw him neglect his responsibilities as a father and husband. Sadly, to this day his art so overshadows his family that little has been written or said about his wife, Agnes Grinstead Anderson, his children, or his life as an ordinary man rather than an artistic genius.

Agnes Grinstead Anderson was born simply Agnes Grinstead in 1909 in Gautier, Mississippi. She spent her childhood at Oldfields Plantation, her parents’ family home, where her father worked as an attorney. She attended Radcliff University, graduating with a degree in Art History. Later in life she went on to work as a grade school teacher, though not until after Watler’s death in November 1965.


Oldfields plantation.
Oldfields plantation. | Source

It was in 1927 that Agnes Grinstead met her future husband and began her strange courtship with him. During this time, Walter was working summers at Shearwater Pottery, which had been started by his brother Peter in 1928. During a summer break from Radcliff, Agnes chose to spend the summer at Oldfields. During that summer, through her sister Paticia’s marriage to Walter’s brother Peter, Agnes met Walter and the two began to spend time together. During their courtship, Walter wrote Agnes many love letters, and a short year later asked her to marry him. Though Agnes’ father disapproved of Walter, the two wed in April 1933.

Walter during one of his hospital stays.
Walter during one of his hospital stays. | Source

From the beginning, Walter did not take much interest in his family life. Agnes once said, "He was a painter always, a lover at times, a husband and father never.” Walter never wanted to have children and in fact never accepted their first two children as being his. Agnes remained on birth control throughout their marriage because Walter did not want to bring a child into a world "so filled with pain and terror." So he and Agnes lived together without children of their own in the cabin gifted to them after their marriage for the first 5 years of their marriage.

Walter was released from Phipps in July of 1938 into Agnes’ care, and along with his new daughter moved back into their cabin in Ocean Springs. Open his return, Walter was profoundly frightened of his books and art and had no interest in continuing to pursue art any further. Agnes tried to help her husband overcome his fears by presenting him with a clipboard, paper, and pencils. He proceeded to tear the paper to shreds and hit Agnes over the head with the clipboard. After this incident, he was once again hospitalized at Shepard Pratt Hospital in Towson, Maryland. He was there for six weeks before pushing a bookcase over on his attendant and walking home.

One of Walter Anderson's numerous self portraits.  His watercolor painting style was revolutionary at the time and has shaped the art of countless contemporaries.
One of Walter Anderson's numerous self portraits. His watercolor painting style was revolutionary at the time and has shaped the art of countless contemporaries.

Agnes and Walter’s second child, a son named Billy, was born in October of 1939. Walter Anderson continued to accept neither Billy nor Mary as being his children and soon after Billy’s birth he attempted once again to kill not only Agnes but both children. After this violent outburst, Walter was soon in Whitfield Mental Hospital in Mississippi. As a patient at Whitfield, he finally began to draw again. His main subject during this time was birds, something he enjoyed drawing in his youth. After a short stay, he jumped out of his window, leaving behind soap pictures of birds on his wall. He then lived in Jackson, Mississippi, seeking outpatient care until his return to Agnes in 1940.

In 1941, the Andersons moved out of their cabin in Ocean Springs to Oldfields to watch over Agnes' father, who had recently become very ill in his old age. Although he had learned to accept care of his children and treat them with a certain kindness, Walter bucked at the responsibility of caring for Agnes’ father and became increasingly bitter about the relocation. In May the Anderson's third child was born, Lief, a girl. Lief was the only child Walter would ever admit to fathering . During their years at Oldfields, Walter became increasingly disturbed and isolated from Agnes. One Sunday at church he told her: "Normalcy. All that you give yourself for is to see that I remain normal, to see that I live in the world and not in a hospital. I am grateful for these beautiful years, but you have to understand something, too. I am normal...I must paint. I am going to try to order my life so that this becomes possible.” In short, he had no interest in her or their children, only in his pursuits as a painter.

Part of the mural discovered in Walter's cabin after his death.
Part of the mural discovered in Walter's cabin after his death. | Source

One night in December, 1946, Mary was suffering from a nagging cough, and Agnes was pregnant with a fourth child. Mary’s cough was keeping Walter awake, and in the middle of the night he stormed into the room and declared, "I came to tell you I'm leaving. I'm not coming back, ever! I can't take it. I'm an artist; I have to be.” Agnes and the children rarely saw Walter from that night until his death in November, 1965. He had to "escape the dominant mode on shore," as he put it. He spent the remainder of his life alone, either on the offshore islands dotting the Gulf Coast or back at the cabin he and Agnes had shared during the first years of their marriage. After his death, Agnes and her sister Paticia opened the cabin for the first time since his abrupt departure and discovered a veritable treasure: literally thousands of paintings. Even more amazing was the mural they discovered in his little room. Upon entering the room, Pat exclaimed, "It's the creation at sunrise!”, and the name has stuck ever since.

Another piece of Walter's famous mural.
Another piece of Walter's famous mural. | Source

There is no doubt that Walter Anderson was a visionary and artistic genius. His place among the greats is more than deserved. His brilliance shines through his most famous and most controversial work, the mural he painted across the walls of his little room in the cabin he shared the majority of his married life with Agnes. There are many different opinions as to what the mural represents and why it was he painted it. There is even more speculation over what the female figure on the chimney is and or whether or not it was intentionally left unfinished. Agnes and her children believe that the woman is a representation of Mississippi river, and the mural a tribute to God. Others think that the entire mural is a depiction of Psalms 104, and the female figure is an angel. Still others think he painted the mural as a tribute to nature as a whole and all the wonders it had provided him. It is also possible, in light of his difficult marriage and personal life, that he painted the mural to create a world that he could live in, a place where he could be accepted and allowed to simply be, away from the stress of a family life he was ill-suited to bear.

How familiar with Walter Anderson's artwork are you?

See results
  • Agnes and Walter met in 1928; one year later they were engaged.
  • Agnes and Walter wed in 1933.
  • Walter spent 1937-1940 in mental institutions, following the death of his father
  • Walter never believed his first two children, Mary and Billy, were his children.
  • Walter left his family in 1946 to pursue painting full time.
  • After his death in 1965, Agnes worked as a school teacher.

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