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June 20, 2024

John Wilmerding (1938–2024)

John Wilmerding

Washington, DC—The National Gallery of Art’s former curator, deputy director, Trustee Emeritus, and generous donor John Wilmerding passed away on June 6, 2024. A widely published and respected authority on American art, he authored more than 20 books on topics ranging from American Marine Painting to Pop Art and artists Fitz Henry Lane, Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, John F. Peto, Robert Indiana, Tom Wesselmann, and Richard Estes, as well as numerous scholarly essays and articles. Wilmerding’s contributions to the study American art through his work as a curator and a teacher and through his publications and exhibitions were of immeasurable importance in helping define the scholarly nature of the field.

“John Wilmerding is associated with a groundbreaking generation of scholars of American art that include Barbara Novak, William H. Gerdts, Jules David Prown, and Theodore E. Stebbins,” said Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art. “John will be remembered for his generosity to the nation, including his historic contributions to the field of American art and his dedication to the National Gallery of Art over many decades.”

Born in Boston in 1938, he came from a family with a rich history of art collecting. Wilmerding’s great-grandparents, Henry Osborne Havemeyer and his second wife Louisine Waldron Havemeyer, bequeathed an extraordinary group of European and Asian works of art to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. His grandmother, Electra Havemeyer Webb, founded the Shelburne Museum in Vermont in 1947 to which she gave her vast collection of folk art. 
Wilmerding received his undergraduate, master's, and doctorate degrees in art history Harvard University. He began his career teaching at Dartmouth College and then later joined the art history faculty at Princeton University, where he taught for over 19 years. In 1977, Wilmerding left Dartmouth to join the National Gallery to establish the museum's first department of American art and serve as its head curator. Three years later he organized the landmark exhibition, American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850–1875 (February 10–June 15, 1980). The exhibition was a great critical and popular success and helped establish the reputation and importance of mid-19th-century American landscape painting and bring it to much wider attention. He was promoted to deputy director in 1983 and served in that role until 1988.

He returned to full-time teaching in 1988 at Princeton University as the Christopher Binyon Sarofim Professor of American Art until 2013. He also served as trustee for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

In 1991, he donated Thomas Eakins’s The Chaperone (c. 1908) on the occasion of the National Gallery's 50th anniversary. In 2004 Wilmerding promised a gift of 50 19th-century American works from his collection that were on view in the exhibition American Masters from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection (May 9, 2004–February 6, 2005). George Caleb Bingham's Mississippi Boatman (1850) was given at the time of the exhibition and was followed by Martin Johnson Heade’s Sunlight and Shadow: The Newbury Marshes (c. 1871/1875) in 2010, Jervis McEntee’s Mount Desert Island, Maine (1864) in 2016, and Joseph Decker’s Still Life with Crab Apples and Grapes (1888) in 2020.

Wilmerding served on the Gallery's Board of Trustees from 2005 to 2013 and as chairman from 2007 to 2013. In 2016, a $10 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation established the John Wilmerding Fund for Education in American Art at the National Gallery. The fund supports programs with a broad focus on American art including the annual John Wilmerding Symposium and two academic-year internships—the annual John Wilmerding Internship in American Art and the John Wilmerding Internship in Digital Interpretation.

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