The Walters Art Museum
By Mary Jo Gibson
Born in 1819 in the small mining town of Liverpool Pennsylvania, William Walters was the first of eight children. The future not holding much promise of success, and with little education, William moved to the economic center of Baltimore at the age of 21. He began work in the wholesale liquor business, but investments in the East Coast railroad brought the financial accomplishment he sought. He married Ellen Harper at 26 and a family soon followed with three children.
As the Civil War loomed on the horizon, William felt the pressure of mixed loyalties, and took his family to Europe in the summer of 1861. Passing the days in museums and galleries, he and his wife began acquiring European works of art, building a collection from artists, dealers and exhibitions in France, Switzerland, Italy and England. Walters did not buy art that was fashionable, he bought what he liked, trusting his own preferences would maintain their investment value and appeal to others. The first money he remembered earning independently William spent on art, fueling a passion for collection that continued with his son Henry.
Taking my cue from William Walters, I perused some of the paintings and sculptures he acquired during the Grand Tour. These are only a taste of what is available at the Walters Art Museum web site, or their Twitter/Facebook feature What Will You Discover?
The Woman of Samaria (1859-61)
William Henry Rinehart (1825-74)
A native of Maryland and financially backed by William Walters, Rinehart moved to Rome in 1858 sculpting idealized figures and painting portraits of visiting Americans. This commissioned piece reflects his neoclassical style.
The Sailor’s Wedding (1852)
Richard Catoon Woodville (1825-1855)
Another expatriate of Baltimore, Woodville studied in Dusseldorf with noted German genre painter, Ferdinand Sohn, painting from memory a number of scenes recalled from his youth. He remained abroad for the majority of his life, dying in London at the age of 30. This work shows the artist’s remarkable powers of characterization and meticulous attention to detail; an example from the artist’s time in Paris showed a sailor’s wedding party interrupting a justice of the peace during the course of his dinner. The look of rebuke on his face is priceless.
Sappho and Alcaeus (1881)
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912)
The Dutch born, Belgian trained artist moved to London in 1870, where he found a ready market among the wealthy middle class for his paintings. His genre was recreating scenes of domestic life from Roman and Greek times. Illustrating a passage from the Greek poet Hermesianax, Sappho and her companions listen rapturously as the poet Alcaeus plays a kithara. Alma-Tadema copied the marble seating of the theater of Dionysos in Athens, substituting the names of Sappho’s sorority for those officials incised on the Athenian prototype.
Alexandre Cabanel (1832-1889)
A professor of painting at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, Cabanel specialized in portraits of high society. The Swedish soprano, Christine Nilsson, is depicted as Pandora, the woman in Greek mythology who opened the forbidden box to release all the troubles that afflict humanity.
Scarlet Letter (1861)
Hugues Merle (1823-1881)
Commissioned by Walters, Nathaniel Hawthorne regarded this painting as the finest illustration of his novel “The Scarlet Letter” (1850). Set in Puritan Boston, the novel relates how Hester Prynne was publicly disgraced and condemned to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ for adultery. By depicting Hester and her daughter Pearl in a pose recalling the Madonna and child, Merle underlines the book’s themes of sin and redemption.
Spain, 1812, French Occupation (1866)
Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala (1841-1871)
Two Spanish soldiers struggle to dispose of the corpse of a French cuirassier by dumping it in a well. The old woman carries the helmets and swords of their victims. Zamacois, a pupil of JLE Meissoier and associate of Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, pursued a brief career in Paris depicting scenes from the Napoleonic era, showing the point of view of the Spanish victims.
Portrait of King Louis XVI
Louis Marie Sicard (1746-1825)
Sicard was a painter at the French court between 1780 and 1784. The signature R. Fortin is a later addition. Fortin, a French artist who fled to England during the French revolution, exhibited at the Royal Academy in London, falsely listing himself as a ‘member of France’s Royal Academy’ and ‘painter to the French King’.
The Confessional (1867)
James Tissot (1836-1902)
Painted in the early stages of his career before he left Paris for London, Tissot’s women were the paradigm of contemporary feminine beauty and grace. The rich velvet of the woman’s dress, the fine striped shawl with long fringe show her to be a woman of class and refinement. Only the linen handkerchief she holds in her right hand signals any remorse for the sins just confessed.
The Cold Day (1858)
Pierre Edouard Frere (1819-1886)
Frere specialized in sentimental scenes of childhood. Thanks to the complimentary reviews by English critic John Ruskin, he enjoyed phenomenal international success during the mid 19th century. He established an artist’s colony in Ecouen a village outside of Paris, attracting both French and foreign visitors including American Mary Cassatt and George H. Boughton.
The Duel after the Masquerade (1857-1859)
Jean Leon Gerome (1824-1904)
Saving the best for last, this painting is my favorite. Depicting the outcome of a duel after a costume ball, Gerome replicated a composition he had executed for the Duc d’Aumale in 1857. It is dawn on a wintry day in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris. Pierrot succumbs in the arms of the Duc de Guise. A Venetian doge examines Pierrot’s wounds while Domino clasps his head in despair. To the right, the victorious American Indian departs, accompanied by Harlequin.
I hope you have enjoyed this Museum Monday with the Walters Art Museum. The next visit on my tour will be the Chicago Art Institute. Do you have a favorite piece of art there? Mention it in the comments below and I will include it in my tour of their collection.