Building the Collection: 19th-Century European and American Art

September 07, 2020–September 16, 2021

Previously known as From Rye to Raphael and now called Building the Collection: 19th-century European and American Art, these galleries have been renamed to reflect a widened lens through which the Walters collections and history are presented and are no longer primarily focused on the museum’s founders. The lobby now includes the following updated information about William and Henry Walters and their history supporting the Confederacy. The Walters is committed to making accessible the histories of its objects, its collections, and the institution, and we look forward to sharing our progress with you.

Today the Walters Art Museum has over 36,000 works of art from cultures around the world, spanning seven millennia. The museum formed from a gift by Henry Walters (1848–1931) of 22,000 works of art, two buildings, and an endowment to the city of Baltimore, “for the benefit of the public.” The foundational art collection was begun by Henry’s father, William T. Walters (1819–1894), and reflects these two men’s individual tastes and beliefs about what was culturally valuable and meaningful art. William and Henry Walters used their wealth, power, and social connections to collect art that reflected their 19th-century, Eurocentric worldview, which saw the height of human artistic production as a progression from Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome through the Italian Renaissance.

While the art William and Henry acquired is displayed throughout the museum, galleries on this floor tell the story of how some of it was collected. Here you will see European and American art purchased by the Walters’ and contemporary to their lifetimes, as well as Asian art they bought at World’s Fairs. Importantly, some works on view here have been acquired by the museum since it opened in 1934 with the aim of filling gaps in the founders’ collecting, such as works by artists of color.

William and Henry Walters and the Confederacy

In order to continue to be “for the benefit of the public” for 21st-century audiences in Baltimore and beyond, it is the responsibility of the Walters Art Museum to acknowledge its past: to be transparent about the origins and history of the museum itself and of the collection. As was true of many businessmen-philanthropists of their time, both William and Henry participated in creating, promoting, and perpetuating oppressive social, economic, and political structures whose legacies continue to create inequity and inequality today. Their wealth came from business dealings, initially in distilling and marketing liquor, and later in railroads and banking. Through these enterprises they depended on and profited from Southern economies based in slavery and its legacies.

During the Civil War, William T. Walters used his position and wealth to promote political and public support for the Confederacy. In August 1861, he left for Europe with his family and remained there for the duration of the war. There is little doubt that if he had remained in Baltimore he would have been arrested and imprisoned. Both William and Henry Walters were involved in funding Confederate monuments. In 1887 William commissioned for the City of Baltimore a statue of former chief justice Roger B. Taney, who delivered the majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (1857), which ruled that Black Americans, free or enslaved, were not and could not be citizens of the United States. In 1909 Henry provided funds for a monument in Wilmington, NC, to former Attorney General of the Confederate States George Davis, who had also served as legal counsel for railroads in which Henry was invested. These monuments were taken down in 2017 and 2020, respectively, amid civil protests against racism and efforts to acknowledge the pain of our national history.