Looking back on my life in Downtown Baltimore, three art exhibitions stand out in my mind. Actually, there were four. One was at that “Baltimore art gallery” that H.L. Mencken did not like because, he said, they only have modern stuff. The other three were special events at the Walter’s Art Gallery. The first was a study of art and imitations. You got to be the collector and pick out the picture or sculpture that would make the Walter’s Art Gallery the envy of many east coast cities today because of their permanent collection. The second was a collection of late Monet paintings completed while he was under the duress of glaucoma. The third was this year’s exhibition of Japanese Cloisonne Art.
William R. Johnston, in association with the Walter’s Art Gallery, has written a book titled WILLIAM AND HENRY WALTERS, THE RETICENT COLLECTORS. It has been very appropriately published by the Johns Hopkins Press even though they manage that “other museum”. Jenny Walters, the daughter of William Walters, and the sister of Henry or Harry Walters, contributed her suffragette support group’s money as a part of founding Johns Hopkins University. She and several other young women acted as founders so that Baltimore would have a university that enrolled women.
Author Johnston accuses William Walters of meticulous verisimilitude. As you may recall from your college English course, verisimilitude was art that sought to express what is real in life. In honor of the Walters family, or perhaps one should say in adoration of the Walters family, Johnston’s tedium in writing is sometimes excessive. Obviously, he has painstakingly absorbed his facts from only original documents and other family heirlooms.
William Walters left his home in Pennsylvania in the middle of the nineteenth century to move to Baltimore and start a business. He wanted to combine his knowledge of products from central Pennsylvania with Baltimore transportation facilities. He and a partner opened an office on Spear Wharf.
In those days Baltimore was known as the City of Monuments. Not long after moving to Baltimore, William Walters married Ellen Harper, the daughter of a grocer, and an unusually pretty and refined woman. The couple eventually moved to Mount Vernon Place which is where the George Washington Monument is still located today. Mount Vernon was a socially prominent place to live prior to the Civil War.
In 1861, the first casualties of the Civil War fell in riots on Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore. William Walters had strong financial ties with the South. When many affluent Baltimoreans were jailed, including Edwin Walters, William Walters knew that he had to flee the country. They set up a household in France. In Europe the family’s finances improved. Their children were both schooled in France. William and Ellen toured the continent. Evidently, both William and Ellen regarded their trip to the south of Italy as being the highlight of their married life together. Ominously, a pickpocket alleviated William of his watch while he was on tour.
In the colder climates of the north and soon afterward, Ellen contracted pneumonia and died. She had always been frail. Her body was shipped back to Baltimore for burial next to her first and infant son who had died previously.
William Walters became a more serious collector of art to allay his grief. He was also interested in horticulture and animal husbandry. A self-reliant and quiet man, his deepest relationships involved his own children. He was not interested in appearing in the society pages or even alongside the famous J.P. Morgan or Carnegie as examples of Noblesse Oblige. Walters was known to pitch in and help other Americans with the purchase of art just to improve their collections that did not even acknowledge the Walters name. Museum experts regard Henry as being the far more astute and passionate collector; though, this trait may have developed because so much wanted to create a Mount Vernon monument/gallery in honor of his father.
The Walters Art Gallery is opening an exhibit called “Treasures of Heaven: Saints Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe” today. Not at all a surprising selection for a gallery based on and seeking verisimilitude honesty. Admission is free.