Wilmerding to leave a legacy of Pop art to Princeton

Renowned curator, collector, art historian and professor of American art John Wilmerding revealed May 4 at a reception and dinner in honor of his retirement that he is the individual who has promised a major gift of Pop art to the Princeton University Art Museum.

It also was announced that, in recognition of his distinguished career, more than 100 donors have collectively purchased a painting by Rubens Peale, which will become a part of the museum's permanent collection.

In addition, Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman announced that a gift of $1 million, along with a challenge grant of $750,000, has been made for a new endowed museum curatorship. The benefactor, who wishes to remain anonymous, has given the gift in honor of Wilmerding; the endowed curatorship will be titled the John Wilmerding Curator of American Art.
"For 20 years John Wilmerding has advanced the growth and appreciation of American art at Princeton," said Museum Director Susan M. Taylor, "and it is especially appropriate that this curatorship be established in his name."

The museum's collection of American art was formed under the visionary leadership of Frank Jewett Mather Jr., and its history is intertwined with Princeton's pioneering role in establishing art history as a discipline in the United States. From famous early portraits to significant but understudied collections such as the Edward Duff Balken Collection of American Folk Art, the museum's collection has remarkable and unexpected areas of strength.
The new curator of American art will have the important job of continuing to publish the collection, carrying on the work begun by Wilmerding and Laura Giles, curator of prints and drawings, in "American Art in the Princeton University Art Museum, Volume 1: Drawings and Watercolors" (2004).

The nearly 50 paintings, sculptures and works on paper that make up Wilmerding's promised gift to the museum are especially significant for the strong concentration of rarely discussed later works by artists including Robert Indiana, Alex Katz, Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselmann. These join important holdings in the museum's collection by James Rosenquist, Edward Ruscha and George Segal.

"John Wilmerding's scholarship in the field of American art will continue to have an impact on students and scholars for generations to come," said Taylor. "Though he is retiring from the Princeton faculty, these extraordinary works will be here to continue and celebrate his legacy. We are grateful to Professor Wilmerding for his generosity and the inspiration he has given, and will continue to give, to generations of students in the field."

His promised donation enhances Princeton's already stellar collection of Pop art, making it one of the strongest and most complete collections of Pop art in the country. In 2004, Wilmerding donated a collection of 51 paintings and drawings dating from the mid- to late-19th century by such artists as Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Martin Johnson Heade and George Caleb Bingham to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The Peale painting, "Still Life With Watermelon," purchased in recognition of Wilmerding's career, was chosen for its significance in the field of American art and because it, like the Pop-art promised gift, complements the permanent collection of the museum. American painter Rubens Peale (1784-1864) was the son of Charles Willson Peale, who painted the iconic image of "George Washington at the Battle of Princeton" -- the first portrait commissioned by the trustees of the College of New Jersey, as Princeton was then known. The jewel-like still life painting reflects the abundance and exuberance of mid-19th-century American painting.

"I am most thankful to my friends and colleagues for having chosen this remarkable work in honor of my tenure here at Princeton," said Wilmerding. "The painting will join the three other mid-19th-century still life paintings in the collection as well as other works by members of the Peale family."

Wilmerding has been the Christopher Binyon Sarofim '86 Professor in American Art in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton since 1988. He is scheduled to transfer to emeritus status this summer. His groundbreaking monographs and exhibition catalogs have defined scholarship in the field of American art.

Before joining the faculty at Princeton, Wilmerding was curator of American art and senior curator at the National Gallery of Art from 1977 to 1983, and deputy director from 1983 to 1988. He holds a presidential appointment to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House and is on the board of trustees of the National Gallery and the Guggenheim Museum. He also serves on boards or committees for the Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture in Washington, the Harvard University Art Museums and the planned Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.

The works from Wilmerding's promised gift of Pop art are on view through Aug. 12 at the Princeton University Art Museum.