Visiting the Walters Art Museum

"Behind-the-scenes" View of  Conservation Lab Through Glass Window
"Behind-the-scenes" View of Conservation Lab Through Glass Window

Sometimes a prolonged delay of a trip only increases the yearning and the anxiety, and you begin to doubt: The momentum has been built, will the reality meet the anticipation?

The memory of my last visit to the Walters Art Museum a few years ago has faded, but the excitement of seeing a world-class collection still resides. During our stay in Baltimore for the annual Summer Antiques Show, Geo and I finally paid our second visit to the Walters. As Geo put it: This is one of the best museums in the world located at one best of the public squares in the country, we MUST visit it again.

Statue of a Man
Statue of a Man

We first stopped at the Egyptian Art galleries. It was there I saw a life-sized siliceous sandstone statue dated in the early of 26th Dynasty. The Kushite period is one of my favorite in ancient Egypt because the kings and the noblemen were the first antiquarians in history. The splendor of Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom was revived by the Kushite rulers although they did modify the canon of proportion (by extending grids in order to suit their stature), and other facial features. This statue demonstrated the mixture  of  the two: The influence of glory past is evident in the pursed lips and the serene looking. Yet the bone structure under the smooth skin is more or less Nubian. Its monumentality is in fact enhanced by a cruel cut on the right part of the body. It seemed a break happened in such a way that when the statue crushed the ground all the tension and forces propelled along a straight line so that his right shoulder split off. It is an image both ancient and modern: a stunning idealized naturalistic statue sabotaged by a un-foreseen force, nature or human, yet nevertheless the consummate artisanship does not decrease at all from the wreckage and all that geometric shadow cast from the top light only makes it mysterious and solemn.

Exquisite Japanese box at Hackerman House of Walters Art Museum
Exquisite Japanese box at Hackerman House of Walters Art Museum

Geo’s favorite was the Hackerman House. After reading the book “The Japan Idea”, a publication from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, he not only frequented Asian galleries in different museums but also helped me appreciate the aesthetic values of Japanese art of Meiji period. To see major Asian artworks displayed in an 1850’s townhouse made them very tangible. (In general, this applies to the whole museum where salon style exhibitions make one stay instead of constantly move).  A few exquisite writing boxes are made of black and golden lacquer. One of them was bought by William Walters from the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, probably one of the first few Japanese art objects obtained by American collectors. I was not an expert in Edo or Meiji period, but coming from the Chinese heritage, I can sense both the similarity and the difference of the two cultures. Where Chinese strive for subtlety and purity, Japanese put more attention in the movement and rhythm. Also the narrative characteristics becomes less noticeable from Edo to Meiji period. At one of the writing boxes, I was immediately attracted by its rich patterns and reserved golden tone, perfect for an opulent house in the Gilded Age. We also took some time on a pair of cloisonne vases from the Meiji period because a cloisonne vase was available in the antiques show. The negative space between the apricot branches gives the vase an upward svelteness, overcoming its relative small size. The one at the show, on the other hand, is compact and dazzling with enamels. “The difference between this one and the one at the show is like a real Japanese room and the Japanese Room at William Vanderbilt mansion, ” Geo commented.

The Duel After the Masquerade by Jean-Léon Gérôme
The Duel After the Masquerade Ball by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Our last stop was the 19th century art galleries on the 4th floor. In fact, I have seen part of the collections recently when Frick Art and Historical Center at Pittsburgh hosted an exhibition early this year : “The Road to Impressionism: Barbizon Landscapes from the Walters Art Museum“. (Note: I cannot remember any painting in the traveling exhibition is shown permanently in the galleries.)  Gérôme’s “Duel after a masquerade ball” is one of those paintings that I fell in love with at the first sight and cannot forget about. In this picture, the drama is hinted from the aftermath, but it still chilled my spine.  Seldom did Gérôme succumb his mastery to the necessity of reduction in the backdrop. The dramatic lighting on the bloodless face of the victim combined with the atmospherical scene may confuse the mind as if it is a staged setting. Out of this nihilities, he created a world of theatrical commotion on a canvas no bigger than 16 by 22 inches.

Still life painting
Still life by Johann Wilhelm Preyer, 1859

A surprise came when I spotted a still life painting which took my breath away (that I even forgot to look at the label thus did not have the name of the artist). Bugs and flowers are common motive in the European still life paintings, perhaps not so much different from the vanitas to remind viewers of the transient nature of life. I was not only amazed by the rendering of different surfaces (in particular glass with beer) but also a sense of fleeting time and space given by the bug and the bubbles momentarily captured in the quietness. It reminded me one of my favorite paintings at Carnegie Museum of Art by Scalp Level painter A. F. King‘s “Late Night Snack” is a consummate work that reveals the beauty of mundane through meticulous crisp details and uncanny realism. This painting is lighter and airier, with a gossamer veil.  Geo didn’t like bugs in general but accepted this one since there was only one. For me, it celebrates the colors and light in no smaller scale than those grandiose landscape paintings. What can be better than something that both pleases the eyes and increases the appetite? A similar story behind our experience with this painting is that I was interested in one still life painting offered in the antiques show, which after visiting the museum became less attractive. So the lesson is that nothing is better to refrain yourself from spending in antiques shows than going to a world-class museum first.

Before we left the floor, we spotted a conservation room right next the the elevator. A museum staff member welcomed us and patiently explained the practice in art conservation. On the easel was a Troyon painting of cows, in which part of old varnish and dirt had not been cleaned, which can be spotted immediately by the difference. This is the first time that I have seen that a major museum brings out the behind-the-scene work up to the visitors. By explaining how a Greek vase was going to be repaired, the staff member engaged me in thinking about art as tangible and perishable. Knowing the history of each object, in particular how it can be restored, provides viewers a much deeper understanding and a more interactive way. We have always regarded museum collections as high art and in a way divine; but they may have reparations or flaws beyond conservator’s scope. Only when one treats each object as if their own belonging does one opens up and feels the beauty. True, you may never be able to afford a Troyon, but thankfully the Walters Art Museum is free. In that way, we all own them.

Here is a video clip of the conversation. Interested? Find them on the 4th floor!

Note: The staff at the conservation department will spend time with visitors discussing their work in limited hours. Please read their press release for detailed information.

From Walters Art Museum:


Conservators engage the public in “making the invisible visible”

Baltimore—The Walters Art Museum is preparing a “behind-the-scenes” look at a conservation studio by cutting a 4’ by 5’ window to allow visitors to observe the techniques conservators use to examine and treat museum treasures. The public will also be able to interact with conservators with questions and conversation. The construction of this window will include a glass panel that will open and close with a gilded frame around the perimeter of the space. There will be a ribbon-cutting to celebrate the new view on Friday, Jan. 23 at 11 a.m.

Located in the Centre Street building’s fourth floor lobby, the conservation viewing space will be staffed Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to noon and 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., with conservators caring for the collection and actively engaging visitors in issues related to conservation. At other times the window will be closed, but the public will be able to observe ongoing work taking place within the space.

Walters’ Director of Conservation and Technical Research Terry Drayman-Weisser states, “This program will allow the conservation division’s work to come out from behind closed doors and demonstrate to the public how conservators work to preserve art for future generations.”

“I am so pleased with Terry’s excellent leadership and dedication to the Walters’ conservation lab for more than three decades as she continues to bring new and innovative projects to the museum,” said Walters Director Gary Vikan.

This project has been made possible by the generosity of Eleanor McMillan, who began her career with an apprenticeship in the Walters lab and is conservator emeritus of the Smithsonian Conservation Analytical Laboratory.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 – 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that “his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.


(b Rheydt, Ruhr, 19 July 1803; d Düsseldorf, 20 Feb 1889). German painter. He studied at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie (1822–31) and was recognized as a master of genre and flower painting by 1830. In 1835 he studied the Dutch masters at The Hague and Amsterdam; he also went on two study trips to Italy (1840 and 1842). He continued training in Munich and gradually began to expand his early, small-scale landscapes in the manner of Jan Breughel the elder by adding still-life motifs. By the mid-1840s he had settled on the formula that won him success: small-scale, pure still-lifes, usually of fruit. Works such as Fruit on a Porcelain Dish (1832; Berlin, Tiergarten, N.G.) moved beyond the constraints of the traditional vanitas still-life to the joy of pure decoration. His work is notable for its precise drawing, scrupulous detail, fresh colour and brilliant enamel-like texture. He also sometimes used trompe l’oeil effects. His Still-life with Fruit (1869; Milwaukee, WI, A. Mus.) exemplifies the artist’s abiding fascination with close, natural observation. The painting glows with a jewel-like finish enhanced by brilliant glazes. This kind of exquisite craftsmanship established his reputation as the foremost technician of the Düsseldorf school. His lifelong dedication to improving his work never wavered, though his late years may have witnessed a decline in his powers of concentration. Preyer, whose daughter Emilie Preyer (1849–1930) was a still-life painter, was only 1 m tall, as was his brother, the landscape painter Gustav Preyer (1801–39).

Hello. I have a Japanese box just like the one on your page. I wonder if you can tell me something about it please. Exquisite is the only word to describe it. It is dark red lacquered wood, painted with peonies.

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