Henry Walters' grand art donations

Rail magnate: He collected with passion and a purpose that became clear only after his death.

Marylanders Of The Century

July 26, 1999

THE Walters Art Gallery is one of the world's great museums in the breadth and quality of its art of many civilizations. Henry Walters collected with passion, knowledge and wealth, building on the work of his father, William T. Walters.

It was Henry -- a secretive man -- who collected a museum of the world's culture and then donated it as the heritage of the people of Baltimore.

The gift was unexpected. Henry died at his home in Manhattan, age 83, in 1931. Speculation swirled about the disposition of his art. His will, filed in Baltimore Orphans Court, left the collection of 20,000 objects, the art gallery, the family home at 5 W. Mount Vernon Place and one-fourth of his estate as an endowment to the city "for the benefit of the public."

The will set a standard of selfless giving that few donors anywhere have matched.

A. D. Emmart, then The Sun's art critic, wrote: "The city has acquired at one stroke an immensely valuable accumulation of paintings and art objects which long since took high rank among the greatest private collections in the country..."

Baltimoreans knew little about their benefactor. Henry was born in 1848 to William T. Walters, a grain and whiskey merchant who collected work of local artists. Having protested the Civil War, William took his family in 1861 to polit- ical exile in France. There he expanded his art collecting.

After the war, William Walters returned to Baltimore and restored his fortunes. In 1874, he opened his art-filled home some days, with an admission charge going to charity.

He began collecting small Southern railroads, with a view to uniting them to bring Southern farm produce to northeastern markets. He sent Henry to Georgetown College in Washington, and then Harvard's engineering school.

Henry left in 1889 to manage his father's newly-merged Atlantic Coast Line. He never lived in Baltimore again.

After William Walters died in 1894, Henry moved the railroad's headquarters to New York. He made annual art-buying trips to Europe, his taste having been formed by the 1870s. He would buy no modern art.

Walters joined the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1903 and was its second vice president for decades. He joined other wealthy men in subscribing to syndicates that competed in America's Cup ocean yacht races.

All this time, Henry Walters kept his Baltimore ties. He followed his father on the board of the Safe Deposit and Trust Co. (now Mercantile Bankshares Corp.), becoming chairman. He maintained his house, but when visiting stayed in his private rail car.

He gave the Johns Hopkins University a school of medical illustration. He built four public bath houses for the city, serving families that lacked modern plumbing. One still stands on Washington Boulevard.

As he grew older and richer, Walters collected more ambitiously. In 1900, he bought Raphael's "Madonna of the Candelabra" and properties on Charles and Centre streets. In 1902, he bought the huge collection of a Vatican financial official, chartering a steamship to bring it home.

In 1904, he began to build the gallery on his new property to hold his new acquisitions, connected by abridge to the house he did not inhabit. Architect William Adams Delano modeled the interior on a 17th-century Genoese college and exterior on a 19th-century Parisian mansion. It was finished in 1908.

After Walters' death, the city created a board of trustees and hired a staff, which unpacked crates and spent years learning what it owned. The gallery's doors were opened as a public museum in 1934.

The Walters Art Gallery has been enlarged twice since then and attracted many gifts. Last year, the portion of its $55 million endowment that came from Henry Walters was about $30 million, contributing some $1.5 million of the $11 million budget. Henry Walters is still giving to Baltimore.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.