Over the course of his career John Wilmerding has become one of the most respected and widely known authorities on American art. His many books and articles, which began appearing in the early 1960s and continue unabated today, have helped define the scholarly nature of the field as a whole and have also documented the work of key figures such as Fitz Hugh Lane, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Eakins. Wilmerding has organized many exhibitions on American art, perhaps most memorably the majestic American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875, held at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in 1980. Through his teaching and his lectures he has introduced literally thousands to the wonders and complexities of our national art.
It is less well known that Wilmerding is also an important collector of American art and has assembled over the years a superb group of paintings and drawings from the mid- to late 19th century. Other than friends and family members, relatively few have had the pleasure of seeing these works, because he has been characteristically modest about his activities as a collector. He generously agreed to let the collection be seen and enjoyed by a wider public through an exhibition in 2004-2005 at the National Gallery of Art.
Wilmerding comes from a family with a rich history of collecting art. His great-grandparents, Henry Osborne Havemeyer and his second wife, Louisine Waldron Havemeyer, amassed an extraordinary group of European and oriental works of art that was eventually bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Renowned in its own day, as it still is today, for its old master and impressionist paintings and for its Chinese and Japanese precious objects, prints, and textiles, the Havemeyer Collection is among the most magnificent gifts the Metropolitan has ever received. One of the Havemeyers' daughters, Electra Havemeyer Webb (Wilmerding's grandmother), was an eclectic acquirer of American fine and folk paintings and sculptures, decorative arts, quilts, tools, vernacular objects, toys, buildings, and transportation vehicles. Her remarkable and vast collection was the genesis of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.
While on the staff of the National Gallery of Art, Wilmerding served as curator of American art and senior curator from 1977 to 1983 and as deputy director from 1983 to 1988. He has also served as a member of the advisory board of the Gallery's Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts and, more recently, as a member of the Trustees' Council. He donated Eakins' oil sketch The Chaperone to the Gallery in honor of its fiftieth anniversary in 1991.
John Wilmerding is currently the Christopher Binyon Sarofim Professor of American Art at Princeton University and visiting curator in the department of American art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is trustee emeritus of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont and a member of the boards of trustees of the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the College of the Atlantic in Maine. Wilmerding is currently on advisory boards or committees for Smithsonian Studies in American Art, the Archives of American Art, Harvard University Art Museums, and the Terra Foundation for American Art. He also holds a presidential appointment to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.
Wilmerding is the author of many books and catalogues on American art, including American Marine Painting (Harry N. Abrams, 1987); American Views (Princeton University Press, 1991); monographic studies of Robert Salmon, Fitz Hugh Lane, John F. Peto, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Eakins; The Artist's Mount Desert: American Painters on the Maine Coast (Princeton University Press, 1994); and Compass and Clock (Harry N. Abrams, 1999). Signs of the Artist: Signatures and Self-Expression in American Painting (Yale University Press, 2003) is a study of autobiographical embodiments of artists in their works expressed through their signatures.