In "Ode to a Grecian Urn," the 19th-century Romantic poet John Keats described a pair of lovers on the side of an ancient vase who exist in a timeless realm forever removed from the onrushing tide of history.
Keats' idea of a timeless, ideal realm of art was the conventional wisdom of his era. But as the century wore on, it became more and more tenuous as a guide for creative artists.
The 19th century was an age of unprecedented, rapid change. The invention of railroads, the telegraph and industrial mass production, the rise of universal literacy and a popular press, the expansion of cities and the huge accumulations of capital in business all served to shrink space and time. By century's end, the very idea of the eternal had been swallowed up by the relentless rush of events.
William and Henry Walters, the Baltimore father-and-son-industrialists whose art collection gave rise to the Walters Art Museum, were witnesses and active participants in these momentous transformations. As businessmen they believed in constant innovation, but, as art collectors, they largely accepted their era's sentimental view of art as a refuge for the timeless amid swirling currents of change.
The magnificent collection of 19th-century paintings, sculpture and decorative arts they assembled over the course of seven decades goes back on view today in the Walters' newly renovated fourth-floor galleries, the culmination of the museum's four-year, $24 million makeover of its 1974 Centre Street building.
Many of the paintings in the new installation have recently returned to the museum from the touring exhibition The Triumph of French Painting: Masterpieces From Ingres to Matisse, which was organized jointly by the Walters and the Baltimore Museum of Art. They have been reinstalled in refurbished galleries that trace the major developments in European and American art, from neoclassicism and romanticism to portraits, landscapes, genre scenes and the impressionist revolution.
The Walters' 19th-century collection is one of the few that have remained virtually intact as conceived by the original owners. During the first decades of the 20th century, when the advent of modern art wrought dramatic changes in taste, many important 19th-century artists fell out of fashion and their works plummeted in value as major collections were broken up and sold.
(The change in fashion was a gold mine for astute bargain-hunters like Baltimore's Haussner family, whose modest purchases over the years enabled them to assemble a sterling collection of 19th-century marble busts, saucy nudes, landscapes and sporting paintings that delighted patrons at their Highlandtown restaurant for decades. The Haussner collection was auctioned in 1999, well after the mid-1970s revival of interest in the period that produced sharply higher prices for these once-undervalued works.)
Because the Walters' collection was kept intact, it offers a unique perspective on the art of the 19th century from the point of view of men who were contemporaries or near contemporaries of the artists themselves.
William Walters (1819-1894), was a self-made man of humble origin (he made his first fortune in the wholesale liquor business during the 1840s) who began collecting pictures possibly as a way of confirming his new social status and of introducing an element of cultivation amid the rough-and-tumble of mid-19th-century Baltimore.
Walters began by patronizing local artists, such as Alfred Jacob Miller, a painter who had recorded a fur-trading expedition to the West in 1837, and Richard Caton Woodville, who depicted anecdotal, often humorous genre scenes drawn from daily life. He also commissioned works from New York artists like Asher B. Durand, a prominent member of the Hudson River School of American landscape painters.
With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, however, Walters, a Confederate sympathizer, removed his family to Paris. There he encountered fellow Baltimorean George Lucas, a collector and dealer who helped introduce him to many important European artists, including Gerome, Corot and Daumier, from whom Walters eventually would commission major works.
After the war, William Walters returned to Baltimore and went into banking and railroads, where he amassed an even greater fortune. He also redoubled his collecting activities; during this period he acquired important paintings by Delacroix and became an enthusiastic patron of French sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye, who was widely renowned for his vividly realistic renderings of exotic animals.
Unlike his father, Henry Walters (1848-1931) had the benefit of a classical education that enabled him to round out and amplify the family's art holdings in a systematic way. It was Henry who purchased such iconic works as Ingres' Odalisque With Slave as well as many fine paintings by lesser known French, Spanish and German artists that reflected important artistic currents of the era.
Perspective vs. inspiration