William Walters and later his son Henry made a great deal of money in railroads, and beginning in the 1860s poured much of it into collecting art in Europe. In 1874, William decided to share his bounty with the public. Every April and May starting in 1878 he began opening his house to visitors each Wednesday, charging a 50-cent admission fee which he donated to the Baltimore Association for the Improvement in the Condition of the Poor. These openings became eagerly anticipated events in his hometown of Baltimore.
When William died in 1894 he bequeathed his collection to Henry, who greatly expanded it, including purchase of the entire contents of a palace in Rome that contained more than 1,700 pieces including classical antiquities, early Italian paintings, and Renaissance and Baroque art. Henry created a complex of buildings in downtown Baltimore to display all the Walters’ art, and opened it to the public in 1909. When he died in 1931 he bequeathed the institution and its contents to the city for “benefit of the public.”
The Walters Art Museum opened its doors for the first time as a public institution in late 1934. Today, the collection has grown to more than 35,000 objects, from ancient Egyptian mummy masks and medieval armor to Asian sculpture and European paintings. It is a beloved Baltimore institution.
- William Johnston, William and Henry Walters, The Reticent Collectors (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999)
- Walters Art Museum, thewalters.org