Henry Walters: Bringing Medieval Art to the American South

by Anna Grace Cole

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Portrait of Henry Walters

The Walters Family Collection History

Art of the medieval period has been a fascination to the upper classes for many years. From the 19thcentury on, elites would adorn their homes with medieval pieces while reflecting on the fantastical elements they brought to their lives. The general public, however, has not always had access to such objects. Henry Walters, following in the footsteps of his father William, made it his mission to bring medieval art to the people of the American South. By way of establishing a museum in Baltimore, Maryland, he provided the public with the opportunity to view and appreciate these objects, just as the members of the upper class had done.

Henry Walters was born to William and Ellen Harper Walters on September 26, 1848 in Baltimore, Maryland. Living and traveling around Europe for much of his childhood, Henry Walters was exposed to art at a young age. William was an art collector and involved Henry in his acquisition activities, encouraging his son to write essays and study art along with his education in school. William’s love of art was notable, and he also loved to share this passion of his with the public. After returning from Europe at the end of the Civil War, William expanded the Walters family home to house his growing collection. In an effort to share his collection with the public, in the 1880s William opened the house to the people of Baltimore on Wednesdays in February and March, and Wednesdays and Saturdays in April. The cost of admission was fifty cents, proceeds that were donated to charity. Henry Walters joined his father’s railroad business, the Atlantic Coast Line, after completing his education at Georgetown University and the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard; he started as general manager and soon rose to the position of vice president. Upon William’s death in 1894, Henry found himself in the company of not only one of the largest railway systems in the South, but also an exquisite art collection.

Medieval Feelings in the South

In the late 19thcentury, much of the United States was growing fascinated by the “fantasy” of the Middle Ages, particularly among the upper classes. For supporters of the Confederacy in the south, the Middle Ages was seen as a simpler and chivalric time highlighting the strength of manhood, whiteness, and religious purity, an ideal the South aimed to achieve. Such ideas, like those about the medieval period more broadly, has been influenced by myths and desires for the times to fit a certain narrative. A fantasy of medieval purity and chivalry contrasted to the industrialism of the age was promoted among members of the north east elite as well. These notions manifest themselves in a taste for medieval styles in architecture and art. As a family made prosperous by industrialization, it is no surprise that members of the Walters clan were taken by these medieval fantasies as well.

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Leaf from Book of Hours from Walters Art Museum. Acquired by Henry Walters in 1895 as one of his early puchases. 

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Archangel Michael Slaying a Dragon from the Walters Art Museum. Acquired by Henry Walters with the purchase of the Massarenti Collection in 1902.

The Beginning of a Gallery for the Public

The entirety of the Walters collection featured in the museum today offers a wide variety of medieval works in media such as ivories and paintings. Henry, however, personally had an affinity for manuscripts, a class of object that kickstarted his early collecting. According to records, Walters’ first manuscript purchase was a late-fifteenth-century French Book of Hours. Walters particularly loved illuminated Books of Hours, and he was even known to carry around a palm-sized example of this book type and go through it when he grew bored at meetings. Books of Hours make up nearly half of his entire collection of nearly six-hundred Western European illuminated manuscripts. Walters’ purchase of manuscripts included works from the 9thcentury onward and created in geographical locations ranging from Spain to India. Walters purchased medieval works from nearly twenty different dealers, yet over half of his collection came from two: Seligman and Daguerre. Additionally, Léon Gruel, a dealer in Paris, was foundational in Walters’ collection of manuscripts. Gruel provided Walters with 210 medieval works, many of them French illuminated manuscripts, and in total Gruel’s contributions make up about fifteen percent of the entire medieval collection. Walters favored buying individual objects over purchasing entire collections like his counterparts J P Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., yet he did so on three occasions. The most famous collection Walters purchased en masse was in 1902 with the acquisition of the Don Marcello Massarenti Collection. The collection comprised of 1700 pieces, including works such as Archangel Michael Slaying the Dragon(1380-1389) pictured at right. Walters quickly realized that, with this purchase, his collection had outgrown its current method of display in his home, so he set out to construct a new building to house the works.

In 1904, Henry Walters began plans to build a museum separate from his house to display his collection. It was completed in Baltimore, Maryland in 1907, covering a quarter of a block on Charles and Centre Street, the same location it is in today. The space was designed by New York architect William Delano, who aimed to create a space unlike any other. The basic layout of the building was inspired by palazzo-like structures of the 17thcentury, particularly the Collegio dei Gesuiti in Genoa, Italy. The heart of the building was a courtyard, off of which galleries stemmed. The exterior of the museum, however, was inspired by the Hotel Pourtales in Paris, the city in which the Walters family did much of their early collecting. The neoclassical style of the building served as a template for the façade of the Walters Art Gallery. The materials used, however, were purely modern. The industrial giant of Henry Walters used marble sparingly—only where necessary for aesthetic purposes—and instead used steel and brick wherever possible. The building officially opened on February 3, 1909, a day in which Walters himself did not even attend. A humble man, Walters seems to have had no intention of putting himself at the center of the new institution. It was for the people of Baltimore. For both Henry and his father, collecting art seems not to have been a means to express status or wealth. Instead the priority was to share magnificent works with those who could not afford to see them otherwise. In fact, the Walters Art Gallery was not a money-making venture, if not already made clear by the fact that fees for entry into the collection were donated to charity. The purchases of works were rarely documented by Walters, and if they were, prices were removed from records. Of this, Walter said, “I don’t want anyone in later years to talk of my collection in terms of money spent. That is my business, they’ll have the works of art and their pedigrees.” As William Walters had done with the collection when he displayed it in his home, the Art Gallery elected to continue to open on Wednesdays in February, March, and April and Saturdays in April for the benefit of the public who may not have been able to afford to go otherwise.

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Original Front Entrance of the Walters Art Gallery. Designed by William Delano and completed in 1907.

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Rear Addition to the Walters Art Museum. Designed by Boston architectural firm Shepley, Bullfinch, Richardson, and Abbott in 1974. Furthur renovations were completed in 2001 by Kallmann McKinnell and Wood, Architects.

The Walters Art Museum Today

Henry Walters died in 1931, leaving his entire collection and museum to the city of Baltimore for, in his own words, “the benefit of the public.” When the collection was gifted to the city it included 22,000 items but has now grown to include over 36,000. These items range from medieval to modern works. The gallery officially became a public institution in 2000 when it changed its name to the Walters Art Museum. The museum focuses on educating the public and providing all people, regardless of background, the ability to learn and view the works of the Walters’ collection. Still today, the museum does not charge entrance fees and provides many workshops and classes for those who desire to expand their viewing of the works. Without the work of Henry Walters and his father, Southerner’s access to art at such a grand level would not be the same, or it would have at least been delayed as they were at the forefront of southern collecting. Henry Walters shared his collection at a time that was crucial to Medieval Art in the United States, and thanks to him a love and fascination in the period was fostered in an area of the country that was otherwise preoccupied.

Further Reading

"ART GALLERY PLANNED." New York Times (1857-1922),Aug 22, 1904.

Burin, Elizabeth. "Henry Walters." In American Book Collectors and Bibliographers, 297-303. Detroit, MI, 1994.

Fleming, Robin. "Nineteenth-Century New England's Memory of the Middle Ages." In Memory and the Middle Ages, edited by Nancy Netzer and Virginia Reinburg. N.p.: Boston College Museum of Art, 1995.

Johnston, William R. “The Making of a Museum.” Humanities22, no. 5 (September 2001): 12.

Kernan, Michael. "William and Henry Walters, and Their Fever for Fine Arts." Smithsonian, August 1989, 102+.

"New President of Railroad.; Warren G. Elliott Succeeds Henry Walters as Head of Atlantic Coast Line Company of Connecticut." The New York Times, November 16, 1902.

Price, Marshall. "Henry Walters: Elusive Collector." In Medieval Art in America: Patterns of Collecting, 1800-1940, edited by Elizabeth Bradford Smith, 127-32. University Park (Pa.): Palmer Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania State University, 1996.

Pugh, Tison. Introduction to Queer Chivalry: Medievalism and the Myth of White Masculinity in Southern Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013. 

Sutton, Denys. “Editorial: Connoisseur’s Haven,” Apollo 84,no. 58 (December 1966): 422-33. 

"WALTERS' ART COLLECTION." The Washington Post (1877-1922),Feb 19, 1896.

Walters Art Museum. "History of the Walters Art Museum." The Walters Art Museum. Accessed November 25, 2018.

Henry Walters: Bringing Medieval Art to the American South