Abraham Walkowitz was born in Siberia. His father was a lay rabbi and cantor who died when his son was four years old, while ministering in China to Jewish Cantonists. Fearful of persecution and the possibility of her son being drafted into the Czar’s army when he came of age, Walkowitz’s mother decided to emigrate with her children to the United States. The family traveled steerage for 20 days across the Atlantic, finally settling in the Jewish ghetto of New York City.
As a youth, Walkowitz studied the violin and “drew in chalk on any available surface.” His formal art training began at age 14 at the Artists’ Institute and continued at the National Academy of Design. His studies in life drawing, etching and painting, with concurrent study of anatomy at a Fifth Avenue hospital resulted in precise, detailed renderings. He made drawings of ghetto life which were published in local newspapers. When his figurative work was criticized as being “too subjective, experimental, or realistic” at a juried Academy exhibition, he perceived the criticism as narrow-minded and became all the more open to the avant-garde ideas he would encounter in Europe.
In 1906 - 1907, Walkowitz studied at the Academie Julien in Paris and traveled in Holland and Italy. While in Paris he visited the studio of Auguste Rodin, where he first saw Isadora Duncan, considered the most celebrated and innovative dancer of her era. In the next three decades, Walkowitz was to make a series of thousands of drawings of Duncan. This body of work is now considered one of the few authentic records of her dancing, since she would never allow herself to be filmed. While Isadora Duncan took hold of Walkowitz’s imagination and became a central focus of his art, his association with Alfred Stieglitz, gallery owner and principal promoter of modern art in New York “proved an environment of trust, encouragement and professionalism in which his work could mature.” During the years that Stieglitz operated his “291” gallery, Walkowitz was a close associate, firmly committed to promoting the cause of modernism in America.
Walkowitz began to use watercolor early in his career, gradually moving from dark, subdued colors and realistic depictions, to fresher, lighter colors following the techniques of the Impressionists. He continued to paint prolifically into the 1940s when his eyesight began to fail. He was honored in 1963, three years before his death, by the American Academy of Arts and Letters with an award annually given to a distinguished elderly artist.