John Wilmerding, Giving His Awe for American Art
We are equal in America, and we're supposed to scowl at ranking, but in the case of Wilmerding you'd have to be a blind man not to notice that his money, his manners and his pedigree are part of what he's done.
To start with, he's a Havemeyer. Henry Osborne Havemeyer, the 19th-century "sugar king," and Louisine, his second wife, amassed the grand collection of Old Master and impressionist pictures that is now a major holding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Had he not been a Havemeyer, he might not have attended St. Paul's School and Harvard. And had his banker father not also been a yachtsman, young Wilmerding might not have spent his summers racing against such skillful sailors as Carter Brown. And if he had not known the world of hulls and rigging, he might not have selected his first fine Fitz Hugh Lane.
At first, the key Americanists took 19th-century American painting and, or so it seemed, divided it: William H. Gerdts worked on still life. Barbara Novak worked on Thomas Cole, Jules Prown on J.S. Copley, Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. on Heade and Wilmerding on Lane. And, in the 1970s, some of them worked here.
Gerdts, Joshua C. Taylor and Wilmerding all produced wonderful exhibits. Wilmerding's notably included "American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875" (1980), "Important Information Inside: The Still- Life Paintings of John F. Peto" (1983) and "Fitz Hugh Lane" (1988), though he also showed, less notably, Andrew Wyeth's "Helga" pictures in 1987. Lane and Peto and Wyeth, too, are included in his gift, though no one would contend that the Wyeth on display meets the highest standards. Though characteristically morbid -- this Wyeth shows a tattered coat hanging from a pointed hook -- its morbidity is dimmed by the sprig of holly in the jacket's pocket. In quality and size it is rather insignificant, intentionally, one gathers. It's a Christmas card, in fact.
It is there because it's personal. The Wilmerding collection doesn't overestimate Wyeth, but it doesn't ignore him, either. The painter and the collector are old friends, after all. Just as personal, though more instructive, is the show-within-a-show in the Wilmerding exhibition. All the pictures in it depict Mount Desert off the coast of Maine.
He was first taken to that island as a child. He visited again while he was in college (a roommate had grown up there). But it was not until later when, already a historian, he sailed north and east from Marblehead to see from sea the coastal sites that American painters had painted. "That got me hooked," he says.
He since has built a house on that rocky island among its mists and conifers. That he loves the place is obvious. And attentive affection is not the least thing that rises from his show. He lives in New Jersey and works at the Met, but Wilmerding has not forgotten the National Gallery. He's been nice to it.
American Masters From Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection will be on view in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, through Oct. 10. The 51 pictures on display, drawings and watercolors as well as oils, have all been given to the gallery, open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Admission is free.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Former National Gallery official John Wilmerding has given his collection of American art to the museum, where the works are now on display.
(D. Applewhite -- National Gallery Of Art)