The History of the Walters Art Museum
William T. Walters' Picture Gallery
As you walk through the galleries of the Walters Art Museum, you may be struck by the remarkable beauty and breadth of its collection. More remarkable still, is the fact that this collection was born of the artistic interest and public-mindedness of just two men: William Thompson Walters and his son, Henry. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the two Baltimoreans assembled a diverse range of artwork from around the world—including everything from European master paintings and decorative arts to Greek and Roman antiquities and Far Eastern ceramics. Together, they collected nearly 22,000 works of art, and in doing so, they built the foundation for a museum that offers a one of- a-kind survey of 55 centuries of art.
Today, the collection has grown to more than 35,000 objects. From ancient Egyptian mummy masks and medieval armor, to 19th-century French impressionism and turn-of-the-century art deco, you will see significant works of art from around the world.
The Walters' redesigned galleries present the museum’s world-class collections to their fullest potential. Our installations evoke the original manner in which the art was displayed, and in turn, provide greater insights into the art and a more personal and rewarding viewer experience.
William & Henry Walters
William Thompson Walters was born on May 23, 1819, in the small mining town of Liverpool, Pennsylvania. The first of eight children, William was brought up with little education and little chance at commercial success. In search of a better life, he moved to the economically booming center of Baltimore at the age of 21. He entered the wholesale liquor trade, but also prospered through investments in East Coast railroads. At age 26, he married Ellen Harper; together the couple had three children: William, Jr., who died in early childhood; Henry, born in 1848; and Jennie, born in 1853.
Following the lead of other prosperous Baltimoreans, William moved his wife and children from the crowded downtown area to the fashionable, park-like setting of 65 Mount Vernon Place (now 5 West Mount Vernon Place). At the dawn of the Civil War, William, who had mixed loyalties, thought it best to take his family away from the United States. They arrived in Paris in the summer of 1861. During this time, he and his wife started acquiring European works of art. From artists, dealers and exhibitions throughout France, Switzerland, Italy and England, William and Ellen began building the collection that would become the museum we have today.
Sadly, tragedy struck the Walters family shortly after they arrived in Europe. While on a trip to London in November 1862, Ellen contracted pneumonia and died quickly, at the age of 40. William, perhaps to console himself, turned to collecting with even more vigor. At the end of the war, in 1865, he returned to Baltimore with his children. In the spring of 1874, in his first attempt to bring art to the public, William opened his house to visitors every Wednesday in April and May, charging a 50-cent admission fee, which he donated to the Baltimore Association for the Improvement in the Condition of the Poor. These openings became an annual event in 1878 and were eagerly anticipated by Baltimore's residents.
When William died in 1894, he bequeathed his collection to his son. Henry Walters would not only follow in his father's footsteps in business—investing and managing railroads—but would carry on the family interest in art as well. He greatly expanded the scope of acquisitions, including his astounding purchase of the contents of a palace in Rome that contained over 1,700 pieces. This acquisition added Roman and Etruscan antiquities, early Italian paintings, and Renaissance and Baroque works of art to his holdings. Although he spent little time in his native city, Henry continued the work his father had begun by opening his collection to the public. In 1900, he bought three houses on Charles Street adjoining a property he already owned. Henry had the site transformed into a palazzo-like building, which opened to the public in 1909. He died in 1931, bequeathing the building and its contents to the mayor and city council of Baltimore "for the benefit of the public." The Walters Art Gallery, now the Walters Art Museum, opened its doors for the first time as a public institution on November 3, 1934.
—To learn more about the Walters' history, read William and Henry Walters, The Reticent Collectors, by William R. Johnston, Curator Emeritus of 18th- and 19th- Century Art. The book is available at the Museum Store.