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The Making of a Museum

How Henry Walters Brought Art to Baltimore

By William R. Johnston | HUMANITIES, September/October 2001 | Volume 22, Number 5

In 1931, Henry Walters left his art collection, numbering twenty-two thousand pieces, to the city of Baltimore. The result was the Walters Art Museum, which reopens its permanent installations this fall after three years of renovations. With support from NEH, thirty-nine refurbished galleries incorporate new technology such as touch-screen kiosks and a three-hundred-stop audio tour.

The groundwork was laid for the city’s museum in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when Henry Walters began a campaign of collecting art that overshadowed his father’s purchases and rivaled that of J. Pierpont Morgan.

The American art connoisseur James Jackson Jarves in 1883 urged the wealthy of America’s Gilded Age to follow the example of Renaissance Italian merchants and surround themselves with great works of art. There had been in fifteenth-century Florence, Jarves noted, “a public spirit which may be studied to advantage by many of our merchant princes whose fortunes are far superior.” Unlike the legendary Florentine banker, Giovanni di Pagolo Rucellai, who assembled in his palazzo the works of such contemporaries as Domenico Veneziano and Fra Filippo Lippi, the Americans bought the art of the past rather than patronizing the artists of their own time. The trickle of Italian and Flemish primitives, Old Master paintings, and British society portraits coming into the United States grew into a torrent by the turn of the century, despite a 20 percent tariff levied on imported art until 1909.

To provide settings for their Old Masters, the new art patrons assembled antique furniture, majolica, early bronzes, and other decorative arts. Some even erected “palaces” to house their possessions. Henry G. Marquand, a railroad magnate, employed Richard Morris Hunt in 1884 to design a residence on Madison Avenue complete with a music room in the Greek style, a Moorish smoking room, and a Japanese chamber. Catholina Lambert built a baronial castle in 1892 on the crest of a hill overlooking his silk mills in Paterson, New Jersey. In Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner used architectural fragments imported from Venice to build Fenway Court, modeled after the Palazzo Barbaro. In New York, J. Pierpont Morgan hung brocades embroidered with the crest of the Roman banker Agostino Chici in his palazzo-like library. Henry Walters of Baltimore and New York -- a railroad financier like Marquand -- did not share such princely aspirations, nor did his ambulatory living arrangements permit such a lifestyle.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, who were relatively advanced in age when they began to collect, Henry had been steeped in art since childhood. The discipline of transcribing in his journal his impressions of visits to the museums and monuments of Paris during his adolescence had left its mark, and the years of close association with his father, William, had not only imbued him with a zeal to acquire, but also honed his aesthetic sensibilities.

Henry Walters is not known to have discussed with anyone his motives or intentions as a collector. However, a casual reference to the death of William Laffan -- a friend and trusted adviser -- as a loss to “our art movement” implied that he had a sense of mission and saw himself within the context of the burgeoning cultural life of the age. Walters did not particularly concern himself with documenting purchases. Only a few invoices survive in Baltimore, and many of these have had the prices systematically effaced. As Walters explained to the dealer Germain Seligmann, “I don’t want anyone in later years to talk of my collection in terms of money spent. That is my business, they’ll have the works of art and their pedigrees.”

After his father’s death, Henry Walters desultorily began to augment the collection. He frequented the New York galleries and auctions, but bought mostly abroad. Annual spring trips to Paris began with visits to his father’s elderly friend and adviser George Lucas, who, until his death in 1909, continued to seek appropriate items. One of Lucas’s most notable successes was locating Barye’s Lion Hunt, which was finally reunited in Baltimore in 1898 with other groups from the duc d’Orléans surtout de table dispersed almost fifty years earlier.

Toward the end of the century, Walters’s interests broadened and the pace of his buying accelerated. In a seemingly random fashion, he would acquire an Egyptian antiquity or an Old Master painting and then turn to modern bookbindings and porcelains. It was as if the full spectrum of artistic achievement throughout history had become his to explore. That Walters was losing neither his focus nor his sense of purpose soon became apparent with his plans for a new gallery.

On September 29, 1900, the Baltimore Sun reported that Michael Jenkins had purchased, on Walters’s behalf, three houses adjoining 606 North Charles Street. Walters’s intent, the newspaper disclosed, was to erect a new gallery vastly more substantial than the painting gallery located to the rear of the Mount Vernon Place residence. The move initiated a buying campaign that would rarely be surpassed in the annals of collecting in America. According to Francis Henry Taylor, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Walters interested himself “in more totally dissimilar types of art” than any other collector that America had yet produced. His purchases were directed to a goal, never publicly acknowledged: the creation of a comprehensive art collection appropriate for a museum. Whether he already envisaged a public institution can only be surmised.

The year 1902 was momentous for Henry Walters. While masterminding various railroad coups, he found time to negotiate the purchase of the Massarenti collection, that of an Italian priest, consisting of more than seventeen hundred works of art. It was an acquisition unprecedented in American collecting and one that provided Walters with the core for a museum of European art from ancient Etruscan times through the eighteenth century.

Though frequently identified as an archbishop or a cardinal, Don Marcello Massarenti was a priest from the central Italian town of Budrio. During the 1848 republican uprising, he helped Pius IX escape from the Quirinal and flee south to Gaëta. After his restoration, the grateful pope appointed Massarenti to the papal court. Massarenti traveled extensively in Italy and abroad. His dealings with archaeologists and art dealers led him to amass a collection that included hundreds of Renaissance works, Roman and Etruscan artifacts, and seven third-century marble sarcophagi uncovered in 1885 in the outskirts of Rome. Massarenti kept his collection in a rented space at the Palazzo Accoramboni, which he referred to in his 1897 catalog as “The Museum.” By the end of the century, the aging prelate had determined to dispose of his collection. Unable to persuade the Berlin Museum to buy it, he turned to America, where he hoped that it might be preserved intact. Massarenti retained as his representative Joseph H. Senner, a journalist and former commis-sioner of immigration for New York. Senner initially sought a New York buyer, and then, either directly or through the journalist and art expert, William M. Laffan, notified Walters of the availability of the collection.

Henry Walters and Laffan hastened to Rome, where a daunting task awaited them. The pictures were hung floor-to-ceiling in high, dimly lit rooms on the Accoramboni Palace’s piano nobile. There was no apparent order to the installation, and further complicating this chaos, some of the works had received overly attentive ministrations from the painter-restorer Filippo Laurenzi and his colleagues. Scattered throughout the rooms were quantities of furniture and cases containing the “Museum’s” assorted holdings.

Although he would later maintain that he spent a month studying the collections, Walters completed the purchase in slightly over a week. The price was five million French francs, or about one million dollars. On July 16, 1902, the SS Minterne docked in New York with a cargo of 275 crates of art, some weighing more than three tons. These were transferred to warehouses in Manhattan, where the contents were laid out for examination.

By now a building to house the Walters holdings was essential. In Venice that summer, Walters encountered William Adams Delano, who was a friend and relative of his sister ’s family and had recently received a diploma in architecture from the École des Beaux-Arts.

Delano returned to New York and joined Chester Holmes Aldrich in establishing the firm of Delano and Aldrich. That winter, Walters invited Delano to lunch. Their conversation turned to the Italian marble library being erected for J. Pierpont Morgan, adjoining his Madison Avenue residence. Later, as part of an oral history, Delano recalled Walters’s comments about its designer, Charles F. McKim: “Now McKim, I think, is the greatest architect in this country, but he is too damned stubborn. I want to build a gallery in Baltimore for all the treasures my father and I collected and I am going to give you boys the chance, provided you do what I tell you.”

“It was an astounding example of faith, hope and courage,” Delano remembered, since neither he nor Aldrich “had built even a chick-coop.”

Delano envisioned a palazzo-like structure. The proposed site on Washington Place in Baltimore had a steep incline, which reminded him of the Baroque palaces in Genoa, which were similarly situated. He took as a model the early-seventeenth-century Collegio dei Gesuiti (now the Palazzo dell’Università) built by the Balbi family for the Jesuits based on the plans of architect Bartolomeo Biachi. The core of Delano’s building was the sky-lit courtyard which, in its articulation of marble, paired columns, arches, and pilasters, and its divided staircase, approximated the Genoese protoype.

During the project Delano frequently consulted McKim, an old family friend. When they looked together at plans for the steep staircase connecting the vestibule to the first floor, the elder architect’s mind seemed to wander and he began to ruminate on the nature of stairs in general. Delano assumed, at the time, that his friend was growing senile. Only later did he realize that McKim had been tactfully cautioning him about the pitch of the stairs. “So there they are,” Delano ruefully recalled to writer Brendan Gill, “those brutal stairs of mine, because McKim was kind and I was obtuse.”

For the exterior, Delano looked to Paris. In the mid-nineteenth century the Hôtel Pourtalès housed one of France’s richest private art collections. The collection was an attraction for countless visitors, including the Walters family on its first trip abroad in the early 1860s. Delano adopted features from its neoclassical façade: the division of ashlar and rusticated masonry, the Corinthian pilasters separating the bays in the upper story, and the frieze of Roman scroll panels set with confronting winged putti.

Unlike Morgan, whose marble library epitomized an era of opulence, Walters weighed considerations of practicality and economy. His gallery was built of modern materials -- brick and steel as well as terra-cotta. Even in the central court, marble was used sparingly, primarily for columns and arches. The masonry exterior, rugged Milford pink granite below and Indiana limestone above, was simply a facing. Concern for security was reflected in the massive bronze doors and in the window shutters of sheet iron filled with cement, each weighing a ton. The skylights were of wire glass, framed in steel, copper, and brass, which allowed for expansion caused by the sun’s heat and prevented condensation within.

The site for the gallery was cleared in April 1905. A contract was awarded, reportedly for half a million dollars, and completion was projected within fifteen months. The timetable slipped when an underground stream was discovered beneath the foundations; it necessitated the use of wooden pilings and raised the cost to almost a million dollars. By the summer of 1907, the building was ready to receive art. The timing was providential. In January 1908, two months after all the art had been moved to Baltimore, fire struck the building in New York where the bulk of the collection had been stored.

With the new museum about to debut, the Walters family resumed its thirty-year tradition of annually opening its collection to the public to raise money for the Baltimore welcoming atmosphere. The Baltimore Sun observed that very few museums offered such wide-ranging displays. The hometown newspaper predicted that the city would become a mecca for art lovers and connoisseurs from all over the world.

About the Author

Adapted from William R. Johnston’s book, William and Henry Walters, the Reticent Collectors, © 1999 The Walters Art Gallery, Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted with permission. Johnston is associate director and curator of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art at the Walters Art Museum.