The Walters Art Museum, so named for William Walters and his son Henry, began as a private art collection. Born in 1819, William was the first of eight children. At age 21 he moved to Baltimore and entered the wholesale liquor trade. He prospered in this and in his dealings with the East Coast railroads. He married Ellen Harper and had three children. The eldest died in early childhood, leaving only Henry and Jennie. In 1861, the family moved away from the Civil War in the U.S. to Paris. There, William and Ellen began collecting European art. Shortly thereafter, Ellen died of pneumonia.
The spring of 1874 brought the family back to Baltimore. William began allowing the public into his private collection every Wednesday in April and May. He donated the 50-cent admission fee to the Baltimore Association for the Improvement in the Condition of the Poor. His collection focused heavily on modern European paintings and Asian art. Upon his death in 1894, the collection passed to his son Henry.
Henry followed in his father’s footsteps as a railway magnate and art collector. His success in business made him one of the wealthiest men in nineteenth century America. He greatly expanded his collection of art with a $1 million purchase of 1,700 pieces, the first of its kind in American art collecting, from priest Don Marcello Massarenti. The purchase contained Greek, Etruscan, and Roman antiquities, Medieval and Renaissance bronzes, ivories and furniture, as well as a wealth of Italian paintings from the 12th through 18th centuries. This would come to be the second largest collection of Italian paintings in North America (the first being the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York).
However, the public doubted the authenticity of the collection he purchased after the self-portrait of Raphael turned out to be a forgery. Unknown to the public, Henry had purchased the collection with several forgeries he intended to resell. The purchase still held many valuable, authentic pieces of art that would serve to better complete his personal collection. He broadened the collection with Egyptian, Ancient Near Eastern, Islamic and Western Medieval art.
Later in life, Henry continued to make individual purchases for his collection, including bringing the first “Madonna” by Raphael into America: Madonna of the Candelabra. After his passing in 1931, Henry bequeathed the building and his collection to the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore for public use. In 1934, the Walters Art Gallery opened to the public. As it added more art to its collection through purchases and gifts, it renamed itself in 2000 to the Walters Art Museum.