The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore offers a fantastic virtual tour. Their web presence and collection sharing on Twitter and Facebook is a model for other museums wishing to expand their exposure in the new ‘museum experience’ of the internet.
Their outreach includes ‘What Will You Discover’ on Twitter and Facebook, and public radio weekly broadcasts of ‘Museum Postcards’, continuing the vision of their founders, William Thompson and Henry Walters, to share with the public their private art collection; a diverse range of artwork from around the world-including European masters, decorative arts, Greek and Roman antiquities, and ceramics from the Far East, illuminated manuscripts, Islamic prayer books and the largest collection of Ethiopian art outside of Ethiopia; the Walters’ spent their fortune collecting over 22,000 works of art and building the foundation of this museum that now offers 55 centuries of art.
Collecting in the Gilded Age
The American art connoisseur James Jackson Jarves urged the wealthy of America’s Gilded Age to follow the example of Renaissance Italian merchants and surround themselves with great works of art. In fifteenth century Florence there existed “a public spirit which may be studied to advantage by many of our merchant princes whose fortunes are far superior.” Unlike these early collectors, the Americans bought the art of the past rather than patronizing 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 in 1909.
The unification of the Italian states also contributed to the great collecting of the day. Suppression of monastic communities and the displacement of aristocrats from hereditary positions brought a great number of works onto the market, both privately and publicly. One such collection amassed by Don Marcello Massarenti contained over 17,000 individual pieces. A former Vatican official who aided the escape of Pope Pius IX from Rome during the republican uprising of 1849, rising to become Almoner of the Pope; Massarenti’s official position allowed him to travel extensively and amass a collection that he housed in a special gallery at Pallazo Accoramboni in Rome, where he welcomed visitors. When news of the availability of the collection reached Henry Walters, he hastened to Rome, where a daunting task awaited him. The pictures were hung floor to ceiling in high, dimly lit rooms with no apparent order to the installation. Further complicating this chaos, some of the works had received overly attentive ministrations from painter-restorer Filippo Laurenzi and his colleagues. Scattered throughout the rooms were quantities of furniture and cases containing the “museums” assorted holdings.
Walters negotiated the purchase in little over a week for the final price of five million French francs or about a million dollars. The en bloc purchase in 1902 formed the nucleus of the Walters Art Museum, including the first purchase by an American of a Raphael, “Madonna of the Candelabra”. The collection has weathered a century of close study, but survives with a confidence of authenticity, providing the city of Baltimore with a first-rate gallery of art.
Unique pieces from the collection
Henry Walters served on the executive committee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1913, he became second vice president, a position he retained for the rest of his life. His experiences on a number of museum committees resulted in a change of direction in his collecting after WWI, where he became less concerned with acquiring works representative of various fields and more committed to objects of major historical and artistic significance.
In 1931, Henry Walters left his art collection, numbering 22,000 pieces, to the city of Baltimore. His death propelled the change from art gallery to art museum. After a brief re-opening to allow visitors to view the outdated, cluttered installations, the gallery closed, until emerging as a completely modern, public institution in 1934. Sarah Walters auctioned many works from the collection in her New York residence in 1941, among them a large antique vase carved from a single piece of agate, taken as plunder from Constantinople by French crusaders in 1204. Previously, the vase had passed through a number of distinguished collectors, including Peter-Paul Rubens (1577-1640).
In 1948, a purchase was made from the collection of rival collector J Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913). A 17th c. view of Infanta Isabella of Spain and her husband, Archduke Albert, visiting a collector’s cabinet of natural curiosities and artistic treasures. The authorship of this work has been attributed to Frans Francken II and his workshop, with Jan Brueghel, the elder. This piece is displayed in the museum’s Chamber of Wonders, showcasing the unique and varied items contained throughout the museum.
The Walters is full of more noteworthy works than can be shared in a single post. In next week’s Museum Monday I’ll highlight several of the known favorites of William Thompson Walters.
Have an art museum you love, one that keeps you coming back for more? Share it with me in the comments, and I will include it in a future Museum Monday!
All photos courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.