The Walters Art Museum

Five Must-See Pieces of Art

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Patrick O'Brien

Baltimore, MD, is a beautiful city with its scenic Inner Harbor and classic American architecture -- it's also home to 1 of the most spectacular collections of art in North America. Here are 5 must-see pieces at The Walters Art Museum.

Death of Caesar, 1867
Jean-Léon Gérôme
In 44 B.C., the Roman Senate declared Julius Caesar dictator for life; however, many of the senators were strongly opposed to this decision. On March 15, the Ides of March, 60 senators arrived to a session with swords beneath their robes. With 23 ruthless stabs, they murdered Julius Caesar.

Gérôme spent 8 years researching the event to create this incredibly detailed and accurate depiction. His polished technique and the painting's vividness led a critic to comment, "If photography had existed in Caesar's day, one could believe that the picture was painted from a photograph taken on the spot at the very moment of the catastrophe."

Aphrodite of Knidos, 350 B.C.
Praxiteles
Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, is no stranger in the art world. Paintings, sculptures, sonnets and songs have praised her for millennia -- and 1 of the most important pieces is at Baltimore's Walters Museum. This sculpture by the famed Praxiteles was the first freestanding female nude sculpture in ancient Greece.

Although male nudes were present in the art world long before, this sculpture literally created an artistic revolution. Praxiteles lived on the Greek island Kos, and many of his fellow citizens disapproved of the sculpture. In their eyes, a respectable Greek woman -- especially a goddess -- was properly dressed as a mark of her character and chastity. Not only was Praxiteles' Aphrodite nude, she was sensually depicted.

Thankfully, some Greek citizens appreciated the sculpture, and Aphrodite found a home on the island of Knidos. The statue was placed in an open-air temple where it was visible from all directions, allowing admirers an unobstructed 360-degree view. In fact, the more traditional, draped image of Aphrodite commissioned by the people of Kos to replace this 1 has not survived, and Praxiteles' representation has become 1 of the most famous sculptures in antiquity.

Rubens Vase, 400 B.C.
Anonymous
This must-see piece truly is one of a kind. In fact, the director of the Walters Art Museum was once asked, "If the museum was burning and you only had time to save 1 piece, which would it be?" Without a moment's hesitation, he chose the Rubens Vase, explaining "there are hundreds of Monets in the world, there are over 30 Vermeers in the world, but there is only 1 Rubens Vase." Its history is just as unique as the piece itself.

An unknown artist carved the "Rubens Vase" out of a single piece of volcanic rock in the 4th century for a Byzantine emperor in Constantinople. For nearly 1,000 years the vase was housed in a Byzantine imperial palace, but during the Fourth Christian Crusade in 1204, Constantinople was ransacked, and the vase was among the items stolen. For the next 400 years the French royalty treasured the vase.

In 1590 the vase was stolen from the palace and remained unseen until 1620 when the famed Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens spotted it at a flea market. He bought the vase, and it took on his name. The vase was not safe for long. Rubens fell on hard times and attempted to sell the vase in India. The ship carrying the case crashed into the rocks off the coast of modern-day Australia. Before sinking to the bottom of the ocean, pirates stole the vase and it vanished for almost a century.

In 1918, Henry Walters procured the vase at a London auction for only $4,000. With such a history, the Walters does not let the "Rubens Vase" out of its sight.

Portrait of George Washington, 1825
Gilbert Stuart
The "Portrait of Washington" by Gilbert Stuart is the same image that's on the $1 bill. In 1796, first lady Martha Washington commissioned Gilbert Stuart to create a pair of portraits featuring herself and her husband for their Virginia home. Gilbert was a well-known artist of the time who had painted several of the founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

Our first president didn't enjoy the painstakingly boring process of sitting for a portrait, and Stuart was determined to keep him engaged through conversation. It is said that Stuart tried to animate the president by discussing war, unfortunately for Stuart, Washington didn't seem to enjoy the topic. However, Stuart soon discovered that Washington loved to talk about horses -- and this discovery enabled Stuart to bring the president's face to life in this iconic image.

Stuart didn't deliver this portrait to Martha Washington. In a shrewd business move, he kept the painting and soon sold more than 60 reproductions. The image was so popular that it seemed the obvious choice when the US Treasury was choosing an image of President Washington for the $1 bill.

Madonna of the Candelabra, 1513
Raphael
Raphael's depictions of Madonna and child were highly sought-after in the late 19th century, particularly by American collectors. No painter captured the powerful bond between mother and child like the famed Italian, and Americans owned none of his paintings.

For American millionaires interested in art, owning 1 of Raphael's canvases would become the ultimate status symbol. Henry Walters led the pack, hiring a European art dealer to find him a Madonna and child. In 1900, the dealer delivered, making Walters the first American to own a Madonna and child painted by Raphael.

However, some experts believe this piece is not an authentic Raphael. The devil's in the details: her face is slightly fuzzy, the eyes a little baggy, the detailing in the hands and feet are lacking. Perhaps Raphael's assistants had a heavy hand in helping to create this piece -- nevertheless, a personal viewing is a must.