19th century collection at home in renovated gallery

March 08, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Step off the elevator at the fourth floor of the Walters Art Gallery's 1974 building and there, waiting to show you his collection, is William Walters himself. Not in the flesh, exactly, but in oil and marble: the bust (1866-1867) by sculptor William Henry Rinehart, and the painting (1883) by that fashionable 19th century portraitist Leon Bonnat.

In the painting, there is a certain tension evident in the figure, and the expression is a cross between severe and anxious: anxious, perhaps, that the world should like what it sees and prepared to be severe if it doesn't show the proper admiration.

Well, Mr. Walters, who made his fortune from liquor, banking and railroads and spent a great deal of it on art, should be happy about one thing: The world can now see his 19th century art better than ever before, thanks to a new, more complete and highly successful installation.

For many years, the Walters collections that everybody knew best were those amassed by son Henry: primarily Western art from ancient times through the 18th century. But with the opening of Hackerman House last spring, father William's Asian collection found a proper home. And now, with the reopening today, after six months of renovating and reinstalling the fourth floor, William's other passion, 19th century art, has been given a handsome and intelligent treatment.

The 19th century collection was on this floor before, but it had to share the space with a small part of the Asian collection. Now it has inherited the entire floor, and as a result more than 250 works of art, 60 more than before, can be shown.

And before, the 19th century paintings never looked quite at home in the context of a modern building. This time around, with the help of a $513,000 grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, curator William R. Johnston and chief preparator John Klink have been able to make the setting comfortable for the art.

They have not totally overridden the nature of the building, but they have softened the effect. A chair rail below the paintings and a molding above break up the walls and make them look more room-size in scale. A door frame at the beginning of the galleries, modeled after those in the Walters house at 5 West Mount Vernon Place, adds a bit of 19th century architectural flavor. Rich wall colors -- blues, greens, a deep red -- set off the paintings in their gilt frames, and different colors in different areas provide a sense of change and progression that counteracts fatigue. The long, L-shaped principal gallery area is broken visually here and there by sculptures and a case of period decorative arts.

And the imaginative installation of the art makes for a trip through the collection that's both instructive and enjoyable. Except for putting most of the American works at the beginning, the paintings are not grouped strictly by chronology or country, but by style or type of subject matter (for instance, romanticism or genre), with works from different nationalities mixed. This approach helps the viewer to understand the works, and the frequent change from one kind of painting to another keeps interest from flagging.

It's logical to start the series of galleries with American painting, since that's what William Walters (1819-1894) started collecting, before the Civil War. Here we have a mixture of landscape, portraiture, genre and still life painting: Gilbert Stuart's 1825 replica of his 1796 portrait of "George Washington," Asher B. Durand's "The Catskills" (1859), Eastman Johnson's "The Nantucket School of Philosophy" (1887), A. J. H. Way's "Bunch of Grapes" (1873) and no fewer than seven paintings by the Baltimore-born but internationally known genre painter Richard Caton Woodville, including the well-known "Politics in an Oyster House" (1848), "Old '76 and Young '48" (1849) and "A Sailor's Wedding" (1852).

A smaller gallery off this one, to be devoted to rotating shows of American art, has been inaugurated with a selection from the 200 watercolors William Walters commissioned from Alfred Jacob Miller recording Miller's trip to the American West in 1837, together with a few Miller oils including a "Self-Portrait" (about 1850).

Despite the fact that he had been born in Pennsylvania, William ** Walters was a Southern sympathizer, and found it wise to take his family to Europe during the Civil War. There, aided by Baltimore-born expatriate collector and art agent George A. Lucas, his tastes changed from contemporary American to contemporary European painting, which occupied much of his collecting fervor for the rest of his life. Therefore, the vast majority of the fourth floor's spaces is devoted to European painting.

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