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Baltimore City Paper

'From Rye to Raphael' at the Walters highlights the collectors' thematic shifts in taste

"I think the museum needs more Gucci stuff, like dope paintings," reads one of the many comment cards strung along the walls of the final gallery in the Walters Art Museum's special exhibition "From Rye to Raphael: The Walters Story." I found this suggestion odd after walking through the galleries and seeing all of the luxury items such as porcelain dining sets, silver spoons, pocket watches—plus every artwork label in the exhibition—marked with the Walters monogram. The presence of "dope paintings" was more debatable, but many objects and the repeated "W" throughout the show strongly reminded me of the Gucci Museum in Florence, Italy.

Many of the comment cards, presumably written by children, either praise the Egyptian mummies (which are not actually in "Rye to Raphael," but remain in the Ancient World wing) or complain about the apparently excessive nudity, especially boobies, throughout the museum. A rather positive review, most likely written by someone older than 10, read, "I came here with some good friends and feel a lot better about life due to this art."

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I can't say that I felt the same way leaving the museum, though I realize leaving an art exhibition with a more optimistic worldview is a rare experience. In many ways, the show reminded me, as most art exhibitions do to a degree, of the aristocratic and entrepreneurial uses of art, when collections and exhibitions are informed by or cater to the tastes of the extremely wealthy—which, as a painter, I find particularly difficult to come to terms with. But then again, those efforts made by William T. Walters and his son Henry during the 80-year time span that "Rye to Raphael" covers ultimately led to what is now a free public resource for art and education—something I feel, despite prevailing curatorial biases and other political bullshit, is absolutely necessary in keeping culture and communities from fading.

In celebration of the museum’s 80th anniversary, “Rye to Raphael” details the evolution of the original collection acquired by William and Henry between the mid-19th century and Henry’s death in 1931. Much of the artwork on display comes from the museum’s permanent collection, while other previously unseen objects were selected from the museum’s archives. “Rye” refers to the fortune William acquired from his distilled liquor empire, which allowed him to invest in steamships, railways, and, with money from those investments, his private art collection. “Raphael” refers to the first Madonna and Child painting by Raphael to enter a North American collection, the ‘Madonna of the Candelabra,’ purchased by Henry in 1901.* Strangely, that highlight is not on view in the exhibition, but remains in the 16th Century Italian Art room. However, there is an original Walters Mountain Distillery Rye Whiskey bottle by the entrance to the exhibition, complete with “WTW” monogrammed tumblers.

The exhibition spans the entire fourth floor of the museum. Each gallery represents a different point of the collection's development: American art William purchased to decorate his townhouse on Mount Vernon Place, European and Asian art acquired from his transatlantic travels during the Civil War, French landscape paintings, European Academic art, decorative work purchased from the 1862 World's Fair in London, Henry Walters' transformation of the private collection into a public museum, Henry's rare books and manuscripts, and, finally, the continuation of the museum's development after the Walters dynasty. One room recreates William's picture gallery with salon-style walls of closely stacked paintings.

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When City Paper spoke to the newly appointed director of the museum, Julia Marciari-Alexander, in late 2013, she hinted at her plans to integrate the collection, which is normally separated by time and origin between the different galleries. She has realized that ambition with "Rye to Raphael" in which a life-size sculpture of a peasant woman—'Arayori' by early-20th-century Japanese sculptor Yoshida Homei—shares a space with French master Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' 1842 painting 'Odalisque with Slave,' and several bronze hunting scenes by French sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye are spread throughout the galleries. Rather than organizing the work into sharply divided art-historical categories, everything coexists in the same space, categorized only by thematic shifts in the Walters' interests as collectors.

The pieces in the exhibition—particularly the works acquired by William—align with the tastes of the era, which were fairly wide-ranging but here read as distinctly 19th century. Asher Brown Durand's idyllic American landscape 'The Catskills' embodies 19th-century romanticism, while Jean-François Millet's depictions of peasant laborers in 'Breaking Flax' and 'The Potato Harvest' reject that romanticism with unsentimental realism.

What is most striking and pervasive is William's interest in academic painting and Western depictions of Eastern and indigenous cultures. Highly theatrical and idealized academic paintings illustrate stories from classical Roman history, especially expressions of imperialistic power, such as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's 1885 'Triumph of Titus: AD 71, the Flavians' in which the stoic Roman emperor Vespasian leads the procession of his son Titus following his capture of Jerusalem. Edwin Lord Weeks' intricate 'Interior of a Mosque at Cordova' and Charles-Henri Joseph Cordier's paired bronze busts 'African Venus' and 'Saïd Abdullah of the Mayac, Kingdom of the Darfur (Sudan)' depict ethnographic subjects through European modes of representation and Orientalist attitudes.

Henry Walters, whose curatorial efforts were significantly more public-minded than his father's, reached further in time and space in seeking new additions for the gallery's collection. Many of the more memorable works in "Rye to Raphael" were acquired by Henry: a first-edition folio of Shakespeare's plays, samurai armor, and a large Japanese silk tapestry illustrating the Mongol invasion, as well as paintings by Manet and Degas. Henry also built on the collection's strengths previously established by his father, and continued to purchase academic painting and other work supporting imperialist themes. 'A Roman Slave Market,' by the French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, depicts an eroticized nude female slave, seen from behind standing on a scaffold as men below call out their bids. It's perhaps the most sensuous image in the show, but easily the most disturbing.

With marble Walters family busts, portraits, photographs, and monograms spread throughout the galleries, plus a final room reviewing William and Henry Walters' achievements and contributions to the city, the exhibition feels like a shrine to the Walters men, complete with their most precious treasures and stories of their conquests. While many of those conquests can be troubling, and their wealth and excess alienating, they are part of the reason why Baltimore is one of the greatest cities in America for art and history. "Rye to Raphael," as well as the entire Walters collection, serve as a place from which to amass stories that can both enlighten and disgust, but nevertheless serve as important and rare insights into history.

*In a previous version of this story, we erroneously stated that the 'Madonna of the Candelabra' was purchased by William in 1900. City Paper regrets the error.

For more information, visit thewalters.org.

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