A Stroll Through Art History: Interview with William Chapman Sharpe

by David Ebony   

For many during the pandemic, from March 2020 on, long walks were a means of gaining exercise and staying fit when gyms and most sports activities were in lockdown mode. An extensive stroll outdoors—in urban or nature settings—also served as a way to stay connected with friends and family while maintaining the social distance guidelines recommended by most health officials to thwart the spread of COVID-19. For that reason alone, The Art of Walking: A History in 100 Images by author and scholar William Chapman Sharpe marks the era in an unusual and inspired way.

In the book, Sharpe offers succinct and thought-provoking commentary on key works of mostly Western art that show people walking—from 10,000-year-old pictographs of ambling figures covering the walls of caves in the then-fertile Libyan desert, to British artist Richard Long’s conceptual photo work from 1967, A Line Made by Walking. The short chapters or essays explore the historical and cultural context of each artwork, and in many case its sociopolitical implications.

Sharpe also writes about organized walks and walking contests, as well as various momentous walks in history, such as the Women’s March to Versailles in 1798, and the walks out of slavery in the U.S., from south to north, along the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s. Recent migration along the U.S.-Mexico border is also examined, as are the increasing concerns about privacy in the ever-expanding technology of public surveillance. There is also a chapter on the way the smartphone has changed the way humans walk through the world. The pandemic was certainly not the only impetus for the creation of this extraordinary book, which I learned in a recent Zoom meeting with the author who was in Paris.

Jacob Sempler and Emil Tiismann, artist-installed traffic signs warning motorists to watch out for cell phone users, Stockholm, 2015. Photo: Courtesy Jacob Sempler

David Ebony How did The Art of Walking come about? How did you develop the concept? And I guess the main thing I wanted to ask at the start is what came first, the images or the stories?   

William Chapman Sharpe The idea came about when I was on a walk in New York. I was walking along Broadway near Columbia University, where I was working, and suddenly it hit me. I had been teaching a course on walking at Columbia and Barnard College in the last several years. It’s a course called, “Walk this Way,” where I examine not just how people walk, but for what reason, and the historical background of walking in all sorts of different disciplines. It suddenly struck me that we had plenty of histories of walking from a literary standpoint, but we really didn’t have a history of the image of a walker. So, it seemed to me that I could do something about that. My past few books have been a combination of images and texts. I thought that here I could provide, on one hand, images of walking history and on the other hand the history of the walking image. It became a balancing act between the two.

The pictures came first in the sense that I wanted to talk about pictures, and the research involved selecting 100 images. Once I chose them, I sat down to write 100 essays. I worked through them in chronological order, and that was pretty much my occupation in the most confining period of the pandemic—about one year. 

Ebony My initial thought was that the book must have been inspired by the pandemic. A number of my friends, especially artist-friends in New York City and in the country, in upstate New York, started an almost daily walking routine alone, or accompanied by a number of friends or family members.  

Sharpe The pandemic situation pushed me in two directions. I was here in Paris, and the entire city was pretty much shut down. There was no walking. You needed a piece of paper attesting that you were going to the grocery store to get a loaf of bread or whatever. You could not be more than a half a kilometer from where you lived. So walking was eliminated from my life. I eventually relocated to Vermont, and there was a lot of freedom there to walk out in the woods. People are not too close together there anyway, so social distancing was never a problem. I discovered there were a lot of trails near my place, including the Appalachian Trail, so I was able to go on that frequently.

Ebony You mentioned in the book’s introduction that the essays do not necessarily need to be read in order, in the more or less chronological sequence that they appear.     

Sharpe I wrote the essays in a certain order because I wanted to tell the story of walking in Western culture. But I also wanted a book in which readers could be free to just skip around. You don’t have to go on the entire Appalachian Trail, for instance—you can just go on a little slice of it.  

Ebony You do start out with ancient art, including the Gradiva (she who steps), a Roman copy of a Greek marble relief sculpture of a full-length walking female figure, a goddess, from the 4th century BCE. The sculpture suggests to me the devotees in the annual religious processions by foot from the Athens Acropolis to Eleusis (now Elefsina), which I visited last year.

“Gradiva,” Neo-Attic Roman bas-relief, c. 2nd century CE, probably a copy of a Greek original, 4th century BCE. Marble, height 28 15/16 in. (73.5 cm). Chiaramonte Museum, Vatican, Rome [1284].

Sharpe The processions of the Eleusinian Mysteries, yes. 

Ebony The Eleusis archeological site is fantastic; Elefsina, incidentally, is one of the cultural capitals of Europe this year. You mention in reference to Gradiva’s gait, that the goddess could, by a single step, unlock the Unconscious. . .”

Sharpe Sigmund Freud actually possessed a copy of that sculpture from the Vatican Museum that he had specially made for him. The line refers to a 1902 novella titled Gradiva by Freud’s colleague Wilhelm Jensen. In the book, he imagines that the woman depicted in the sculpture was taking her last walk in Pompeii before Vesuvius erupted. In the story, the one who has been pursuing Gradiva thinks he has rediscovered her in the late 19th century, when he visits Pompeii and sees a woman there, walking among the remains of the ancient city, who he thinks closely resembles the woman in the sculpture.

He falls in love with her, and it turns out that she is a young woman from his hometown who has been in love with him all along. It is an instance of art and life converging. Freud was fascinated by this story, and he psychoanalyzed it as if it were told by an actual person lying on his famous couch. The author of the tale, in a sense, cures himself of his obsession with the ancient sculpture by transferring his feelings to the living woman that he found among the ruins of Pompeii.  

Ebony One idea or question that arises periodically throughout the book is “Does walking make you a better thinker”?

Sharpe The short answer is yes, it does! There’s a study from Stanford University that’s often cited these days. They gave college students various tasks, and they were able to do almost all of them better if a walk was involved, particularly having to do with creative thinking. It helps with recall, and especially in thinking of different ways to proceed in solving a problem, and so on. For centuries philosophers claimed they get their ideas from walks. And in working on this book, if I got stuck on a paragraph, I’d go out for a walk and see what I could do. 

Ebony There is a great deal of humor that runs through the book, such as the chapter about the origin of high heels.      

Sharpe That was fun to write, and fun to learn about, too. During the Renaissance, high heels came to Italy via the Middle East. The problem for Italian authorities of the day was that the rich women wanted to wear high heels, and so did the prostitutes. They started to make laws that say that prostitutes can have heels of only a certain height, and wealthy women were allowed to have higher heels.

Ebony Looking back on the book, was there any area or subject that you wish you had covered more, or any aspect of walking or examples not here that you would have included?

Sharpe Actually, there is one topic that has been haunting me—and that is, zombies. I wish I had put zombies in a section called The Walking Dead. It would be about how zombies come back to life and scare people to death by simply walking around. 

Ebony The book does take some dark turns, like the chapter “Night Walks,” with scenes of vice and crime that nightwalkers might encounter.  

Sharpe Yes. It’s about the author Restif de la Bretonne, who in 1788 claimed to have spent a thousand and one nights walking around the city of Paris. He was apparently a policeman fascinated by what went on in the city after dark. He wrote a multivolume book that claimed to be a record of things that actually happened to him. Obviously, he made a lot of it up. He was able to walk around with a guard, but he did have access to the stories that other policemen told.

The frontispiece of the book, which illustrates the chapter, shows the Nightwalker standing in the middle of the street with an owl atop his head. In the background you see a woman being abducted and a guard rushing to save her. Around the corner, some housebreakers are trying to knock down a door to try to get into a house and steal something. Also visible is the latest thing in Paris at the time, which was the streetlamp. It’s doing its job of illuminating the criminals, but not much in the way of preventing the attacks.

Jean-Michel Moreau, known as Moreau le Jeune, “The Owl-Spectator, Walking at Night in the Streets of theCapital,” engraving, frontispiece for Nicolas Edme Restif de La Bretonne,Les nuits de Paris (Paris, 1788). 6 7/8×4 1/16 in. (17.5 × 10.3 cm). Bibliothèque Nationale / Gallica, Paris.

Ebony When I was in Dublin some years ago, there were nighttime ghost-walk tours of the city. I regret that I didn’t go on one of those. After reading your book, I’ll definitely sign up for one anywhere, at the next opportunity. 

Sharpe I wrote a book about New York City at night (New York Nocturne, 2008), and I started the narrative in the 1850s with a book of stories that deal with the same kinds of things—what goes on in the city after dark. It was a time when people felt a little more comfortable going out at night as there was gaslighting on the streets. But at the same time the book is written for armchair travelers who don’t want to go out at all, so they get their thrill by imagining what goes on while their front door is locked.   

Ebony From nightwalkers you shift to romantic walkers in your book. “The Romantic Walker” focuses on Caspar David Freidrich’s 1818 painting Chalk Cliffs of Rügen, one of his “sublime” images of a couple looking out over an infinite landscape.    

Caspar David Friedrich, Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, 1818

Sharpe Modern walking really begins in the 18th century. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was behind the idea that you take a walk not because you have to, but because you like to—in other words a walk for its own sake becomes a thing to do. We also find this in the novels of Jane Austen. People go out for a walk just to enjoy nature. This is a relatively new thing. In Freidrich’s painting, it is a social event—a man and a woman walking in nature—but it is also a spiritual event—we see figures from the back, and they are looking out at something astonishing in nature, something mystical.     

Ebony You say that Freidrich is exceptional in this period for allowing women to share in such sublime moments. This ties in with the political issues you bring up in other essays—women’s rights, women’s protest marches, and Black Lives Matter demonstrations, among others. How do you approach those sensitive issues? 

Sharpe What I say to my classes is that as soon as you think of a political context then walking becomes speech, a form of speech, a form of expression. To walk in a certain place and in a certain way, particularly with certain company, is making a statement. Walking politically has its own long history. What I focus on particularly in the book is the French Revolution, and the march of about 20,000 women from Paris to Versailles. It was that standoff that caused the king to flee the palace. It really changed the course of the revolution.

Ebony One of the chapters I found most fascinating was “Drifting,” about Guy Debord’s psychogeography.

Sharpe Debord invented the idea of psychogeography—in France in the 1950s—which involved letting yourself being pushed and pulled by the feelings you get as you walk down the street. If we’re not out walking toward a specific chore or errand, we let ourselves be attracted by the light, trees, and perhaps noise in the city, motion or music. We then engage in psychogeography and just let the city surround us as if we were floating on an ocean, subjected to the currents and the wind. Debord felt that it was tremendously important for us to unhook ourselves from all of our capitalist obligations, to make us freer in the city and freer psychologically. For him, psychogeography offered a chance to initiate “the drift” that then was revolutionary. A favorite expression was, “you shouldn’t go out and work, but just let life happen.” His advocated against being a cog in the system.

Ebony The range of artworks you selected for the book is very impressive: from Masaccio and Monet, to Christo and Jeanne Claude’s The Floating Piers, and Pope L.’s The Great White Way. And Richard Long’s work is key among the relatively recent works.   

Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol: Madame Monet and Her Son, 1875. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8×31 7/8 in. (100×81 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon [1983.1.29].

Sharpe Basically, I divided the walking images into three categories: pictures of people walking, and then there are artworks that require walking to experience—I’m thinking of sculpture, for instance, that you have to walk around. In the 1950s and ’60s, artists started to create artworks that you walk onto like Carl Andre, or walk into—installations by Robert Morris or Yoko Ono, as examples. For Richard Long, the walk became the artwork itself. What he does is propose a philosophical question. He took this walk in 1968; we don’t have the walk itself, but instead, a photograph that he took of the grass that he flattened on the walk. So, is the artwork the flattened grass or the photograph of the flattened grass, which has been called a work of art? There are a number of layers here, questioning what makes a work or art “art.” Long made a really lengthy and profound career from this basic question.

Ebony Near the end of the book, you say that life has always been an extended form of walking. Can you say more about that?

Sharpe To go back to the very beginning for the book, it seems to be scientifically established at this point that it is walking that makes us human. Standing upright enabled our craniums to expand, and freed our hands to create things; taking the first step is crucial to us as human beings. We’re always taking steps to do such and such, constantly moving forward. And we’re still evolving in that way. Walking is both a metaphor and a reality.


William Chapman Sharpe is professor of English at Barnard College.    

David Ebony is a Contributing Editor of Art in America and the author of numerous artist monographs. 

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