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Walker, Nellie Verne

Published onNov 08, 2021
Walker, Nellie Verne

(December 8, 1874 — July 10, 1973)

Quick Facts

Artist Walker was asked to create two panels in 1925 for what was then the façade of the new library at Iowa State - the first public art at Iowa State College.

Source: 1987 Iowa Women's Hall of Fame Honoree: Nellie Verne Walker (1874-1973).

Nellie Verne Walker was an American sculptor who specialized in monuments, portraits, and historical subjects. Her style was fundamentally realist although, like most late 19th century American sculptors, she incorporated classicizing elements such as Greco-Roman costume, especially in her female figures. Born in Red Oak, Iowa, she grew up in Moulton where her father was a real estate agent and tombstone carver.

Around 1892, when she was about seventeen, she carved a block of Bedford limestone from her father’s workshop into a portrait bust of Abraham Lincoln, using as her model an engraving of the president. This first sculpture was exhibited in the Iowa Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, during which she attended classes at the Chicago Art Institute. Her family, however, could not afford to continue her education in Chicago, so she returned home, took a secretarial course, and began a six-year employment with an Ottumwa lawyer, saving money in hopes of pursuing a career in sculpture.

In 1900, she was able to move to Chicago where she found work as an assistant to Lorado Taft (1860-1936), a renowned and well-patronized sculptor who specialized in large public monuments. Taft was also a gifted teacher and Walker absorbed his Beaux-Arts style with its mixture of naturalism and classicism. Her work increased in skill and polish, her narrative resources broadened, and she soon began to receive commissions on her own, mostly for portraiture and memorials. Her first major public sculpture was a 1907 life-size bronze of Iowa Senator James Harlan (1820-1899), one of two sculptures representing Iowa in the United States Capitol (until her statue of Harlan was replaced in 2014 with one of the scientist, Norman Borlaug). In 1913, she produced perhaps her best known work, an over life-size (8 ft.) sculpture of the Sauk leader, Keokuk (1767 – 1848), installed on a massive pedestal overlooking the Mississippi River at Keokuk, Iowa.

The following year, Walker took her second trip to Europe (the first had been in 1910) where she rented a studio and planned to stay for two years, but the outbreak of World War I in 1914 caused her return to the United States. The following years saw Walker’s career expand as she gained public and private commissions, while she also continued to assist Taft in his projects. She maintained her participation in the artistic life of Chicago, joining Taft and other Midwestern artists in the Midway Studios, where she lived and worked until 1948.

In the upper corners of the east facade of the original Library building are two bas relief panels designed by Iowa-born sculptor Nellie Verne Walker (1874-1973). To complete the library commission Ms. Walker worked on scaffolding after the stones had been put in place in 1924. She was assisted in much of the actual carving by the Swiss-born sculptor J.G. Zimmerman, who was employed at the Midway Art Studio and had space in the same building in which Ms. Walker had her studio.

Walker’s 1934 relief sculpture in the Iowa State Capitol, the Iowa Suffrage Memorial, uses a similar compositional and narrative format, with classically draped females in a stately procession, passing along a torch in the struggle for women’s rights. Walker continued to produce such public monuments, along with portraiture, until failing eyesight ended her artistic career. She died in Colorado Springs at the age of 98.

"As children, we knew of the unusual career of our aunt, Nellie Verne Walker, because our mother spoke often of Nellie's work in Chicago. We were in awe of this tiny lady, especially since no one else we knew had an aunt who was a sculptor."
— Genevieve Lewis Szaton, 1985 

Selected Sources

Lilian Hall Crowley, “Beauty on the Campus: Nellie Verne Walker, Sculptor, Carries the Best in Art to the State of Iowa,” Social Progress (March, 1925), 72-73, 72.

Campus Beautiful: Shaping the Aesthetic Identity of Iowa State University, (Ames: University Museums, Iowa State University), 2015.

Inez Hunt, The Lady Who Lived on Ladders, (Palmer Lake, Colorado: Filter Press), 1970

Louise Rosenfield Noun, “Making Her Mark: Nellie Verne Walker, Sculptor,” The Palimpsest, 68, no.4 (Winter 1987), 160-173.

“Nellie Verne Walker: An Appreciation” by Josephine Craven Chandler. The American Magazine of Art, Vol. 15, No. 7 (July, 1924), pp. 366-370

1987 Iowa Women's Hall of Fame Honoree: Nellie Verne Walker (1874-1973).

Personal papers and archives related to Walker are found in the Iowa State Historical Library, the Archives of American Art (Smithsonian Institution), and the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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