The Fascinating History of Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum

How a Gilded Age passion for artistic treasures blesses the city today

What began with a businessman’s purchase of parlor décor in the 1850s continues today to nourish his city as a grand gift of fine art and precious objects. That man, William Walters (1819-1894), and his son Henry (1848-1931) formed their collection over the course of eight decades. Fittingly, the Walters Art Museum now celebrates its 1934 opening, a second span of eight decades, with the ongoing exhibition From Rye to Raphael: the Walters Story.

Bust of William Thompson WaltersBust of Henry Walters

Rye pays tribute to a source of family wealth—the spirits business—while Raphael acknowledges the family’s acquisition of “Madonna of the Candelabra” by that Renaissance master. This work, depicting Mary and Christ as divine royals, represents the quality that the men pursued. It also represents the taste and art-market savvy of Henry, who in 1900 procured a Raphael, the artist’s first Virgin and Child to enter a United States collection.

Raphael “Madonna of the Candelabra” ca. 1513, oil on panel

The current exhibition features 200 works in dramatic new installations that fill seven galleries. One space re-creates the salon-style display of the original Walters residence at 5 West Mount Vernon Place. At first the collection focuses on American art—landscapes, portraits of Native Americans—yet it shifts to European art with the family’s relocation to Paris during the Civil War. Another room celebrates French art, matching works (Bayre, Millet) bought by the senior Walters to those (Ingres, Manet, Degas) bought later by the son. Toward the end of his life, William bought paintings by Delacroix and Asian art through well-placed dealers. Both traveled abroad on buying trips, visiting artists’ studios and world’s fairs.

To experience the full breadth of the collection, visitors stroll conjoined structures—Henry’s initial bequest, a 1909 palazzo (the Charles Street Building) with sculpture court and two-story skylight, jewelry, arms and armor, Renaissance and Baroque paintings; and a 1974 modern expansion (the Centre Street Building) with hanging staircase, soaring glass atrium and five floors of 39 intimate galleries for smaller works. (The adjacent Hackerman House, an elegant 1850 residence, remains closed for refurbishment through 2016.)

House of Fabergé Rose Trellis Egg, 1907, gold, enamel, diamondsHouse of Fabergé Gatchina Palace Egg, 1901, gold, “en plein” enamel, silver gilding, portrait diamonds, rock crystal and seed pearls

Henry Walters, who continued to manage his father’s interests in banking, steamships and railroads, showed “public mindedness” in more ways than a gift of art. In 1899, when most Baltimore citizens—many of them poor immigrants—lived without sanitary facilities, he underwrote the construction of four public bathhouses that became a progressive model for urban health care reform. True to his philanthropic history, he opened the museum’s library to scholars, and today’s policies reflect that spirit with no charge for admission, talks or walk-in tours and free access to 20,000 images on thedigitalwalters.org.

Perhaps Henry’s most spectacular purchase? The contents of an Italian palace: Roman sarcophagi, Etruscan antiquities, early Italian paintings and Renaissance and Baroque works of art. At his death in 1931, that 17,000-object inventory became part of his 22,000-object gift to the city. Now grown by later gifts and purchases to 35,000 works, the collection ranges from a 5000-4000 BC Syrian fertility figurine of terracotta to a 1993-1995 goblet of silver, enamel, amethysts and pearls by a Latvian émigré artist.

A gallery for ancient antiquities

No doubt one painting bought in 1948 would have delighted the Walters men—a 17th-century scene depicting the Archdukes Albert and Isabella on a visit to a Flemish collector’s cabinet of wonders. Out of a botanical still life attributed to Jan Brueghel the Elder rises a symbol of princely patronage, a sunflower that turns toward the light of the royal visitors. Once the property of J. Pierpont Morgan and now attributed to Hieronymus Francken II, his workshop and Brueghel, this vision of patrons immersed in fine art and oddities reflects the Walters themselves, their passion for beautiful objects and their wish to share those treasures with others. 

Hieronymus Francken II and Jan Brueghel the Elder, The Archdukes Albert and Isabella Visiting the Collection of Pierre Roose, ca. 1621-1623, oil on panel