The Walters Art Museum is a testament to the beauty and spirit of Baltimoreans and the wonderful city in which they live. Opened to the public in 1934, the Museum is home to over 35,000 pieces of art, spanning 55 centuries of world history. With everything from ancient Greek sculpture and Roman sarcophagi, to Old Master paintings, medieval fashion, Art Deco jewelry and 19th-century European and American masterpieces, the Museum has something — many things, rather — for everyone. Men, women and children of all ages will immediately appreciate and enjoy, if nothing else, the sheer breadth of the museum’s coverage of world history. A variety of tours for adults, families and students are provided by museum volunteers, and include accommodations for the blind and hearing impaired.
The museum’s mission statement is simple:
“The Walters Art Museum brings art and people together for enjoyment, discovery, and learning. We strive to create a place where people of every background can be touched by art. We are committed to exhibitions and programs that will strengthen and sustain our community.”
But even more amazing than the expansiveness of the museum’s exhibits and galleries is how it all came to fruition. The Walters Art Museum didn’t begin as a cooperation between a bureaucratic organization of rich business men from all over the world; it wasn’t a grandeur demonstration of philanthropic excellence, compiled by art collectors from far and wide to be given to the public. It all began with two men; A father and son, both of whom truly appreciated art in all of its vast and magical splendor. Families who choose to visit the museum aren’t walking into some preordained vision of a corporate-run board of directors. They are walking into what, at one point, was the vast private collection of art obtained by two ambitious, enthusiastic and visionary collectors.
These two men were William Thompson Walters and his son, Henry Walters. Despite coming from nothing, William moved to Baltimore at age 21, where he amassed a sizable fortune after both establishing one of the largest, most successful wholesale liquor firms of its kind, and investing in railroads. At some point, Walters and his wife, Ellen Harper, began collecting pieces from some of Baltimore’s more prominent local artists. After the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Walters moved himself and his family to Paris. There, he and his wife began collecting European art from dealers and artists all over Europe. Many believe Walters passion for art collecting piqued after his wife abruptly died of pneumonia in 1862.
Walters returned to Baltimore with his family after the war’s end in 1865 and continued collecting. He opened up his collection to the public in the spring of 1874, charging 50 cents for every admission. Walters donated every penny to the Baltimore Association for the Improvement in the Condition of the Poor.
Henry took over in 1894 after the death of his father. He purchased property next to his home and had it transformed into a large gallery, which he opened to the public in 1909, and left to the city of Baltimore after his death in 1931. The Walters Art Gallery — later renamed the Walters Art Museum — opened its doors as a public institution on November 3, 1934.
The rest is history.
The museum is open Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and closes at 9 p.m. on Thursdays. It is free to the public, and is a wonderful way for any family to spend an afternoon.