John Wilmerding, professor of art and archaeology, emeritus, and monumental force in American art, dies at 86

John Wilmerding, professor of art and archaeology, emeritus, died June 6 in New York City. He was 86. A renowned scholar, curator, collector and philanthropist, prolific author and beloved mentor, Wilmerding was a monumental force in American art history.

“It is easy enough to claim that someone’s contributions are incomparable, but in John’s case it is true,” said James Steward, the Nancy A. Nasher-David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director of the Princeton University Art Museum.

“I can think of no one who has done so much for American art both historic and modern, and for American museums, with as much wit, wisdom, and quiet good grace,” Steward said.

“He was an outsize figure in the field of American art, an inimitable teacher, and a lovely person,” said the Department of Art & Archaeology’s outgoing department chair Rachael Z. DeLue, the Christopher Binyon Sarofim ’86 Professor in American Art.

John Wilmerding smiling

John Wilmerding

In a 2018 interview for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, Wilmerding recounted the advice he received to relegate the study of American art to his “back pocket” in favor of European art or risk being discredited. “I was determined to do American art, period, and take that chance,” he said.

His foresight and passion would illuminate the study of American art history and help fundamentally define the field, establishing him as “a towering figure in the field and a transformative member of the department,” said incoming Art & Archaeology chair and professor Nathan Arrington.

As a curator, art collector, and later a benefactor and adviser to museums, his impact beyond the academy was also profound. “Whether as a philanthropist whose gifts of art have enriched collections at the National Gallery of Art or here at Princeton, or advising collectors such as Alice Walton in the creation of what is now the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, John’s generosity and counsel have left the world of art and museums a better place,” Steward said.

With an A.B. (1960), M.A. (1961) and Ph.D. (1965) from Harvard University, Wilmerding taught art history at Dartmouth College until 1977. He served as curator of American art at the National Gallery of Art from 1977 to 1982, and then as its deputy director from 1983 to 1988, when he arrived at Princeton.

The inaugural Christopher Binyon Sarofim ‘86 Professor in American Art from 1988 to 2007, Wilmerding established in the Department of Art & Archaeology one of the leading programs for the study of American art in the country. A prolific and influential author, he examined major 19th and 20th-century American artists including Fitz Henry Lane, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, John F. Peto, George Bellows, Andrew Wyeth and Richard Estes as well as themes of American landscape painting and cultural and intellectual history.

From 1992 to 1999 Wilmerding served as department chair and was, from the beginning, an active participant in Princeton’s Program in American Studies, relishing its interdisciplinary approach. “I learned so much from him — about American art, of course, but also about how to be an open-minded and generous scholar and to remain curious and excited to learn at every stage of one’s career,” said DeLue. “His groundbreaking scholarship made my own work possible, and he was beyond gracious when it came to letting the ‘next generation’ take the reins of American art at Princeton.”

During his tenure at Princeton, Wilmerding served as visiting curator in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s department of American art. He was also on the boards of the Guggenheim Museum, the National Gallery of Art, Monticello, the Smithsonian, the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts and the Terra Foundation for American Art, and was a member of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House as well as commissioner of the National Portrait Gallery.

The Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, established the John Wilmerding Directorship Fund in 2021, the museum's first named position. A grandson of the museum's founder, Electra Havemeyer Webb, Wilmerding also served as president of the Board of Trustees.

From collector to benefactor and beyond

Wilmerding’s great-grandfather, Henry Osborne Havemeyer, and his wife, Louisine Waldron Havemeyer, were also art collectors who bequeathed a large group of their European and Asian works of art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, according to a 2004 story in The New York Times.

Wilmerding’s own instincts as a collector began to emerge during his final year of college when he made his first purchase, "Stage Rocks and Western Shore of Gloucester Outer Harbor" (1857) by Lane, the Times reported. Next, he bought George Caleb Bingham’s "Mississippi Boatman" (1850), followed by Martin Johnson Heade’s "Sunlight and Shadow: The Newbury Marshes" (circa 1890). "After that, there was no stopping me," he told the newspaper.

In 2004, the National Gallery of Art showcased his collection in the exhibition, "American Masters from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection," including paintings and drawings by Peto, Homer, Eakins, Frederic Edwin Church, John F. Kensett and Joseph Decker, among others. Realizing his collection filled many gaps in the National Gallery’s collection, Wilmerding announced at the opening that the works would remain there as a gift to the nation. Wilmerding was also adviser and founding board member of Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

His retirement from Princeton University in 2007 augmented the Princeton University Art Museum’s American art collection with three momentous gifts, memorializing his profound legacy. Wilmerding himself made promised gifts of 50 Pop art paintings, sculptures and works on paper to the museum, including works by artists Robert Indiana, Alex Katz, Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselmann. In addition, more than 100 donors contributed funds toward the purchase of the important painting "Still Life with Watermelon" by Rubens Peale in recognition of Wilmerding's career. And finally, a cluster of anonymous gifts established a new endowed museum curatorship titled the John Wilmerding Curator of American Art.

Steward cited “the remarkable philanthropy he inspired in others” as a force behind the vitality of American art scholarship at Princeton, “including the naming of the Wilmerding Curatorship of American Art and now the naming of the future Wilmerding Pavilion, which will be dedicated to American art expansively understood when the new museum opens next year.”

Karl Kusserow, the inaugural and current John Wilmerding Curator of American Art, said, “John was the gentle giant of American art — erudite, insightful and hugely accomplished as a scholar, curator and administrator. He was also lively, generous in deed and spirit, and fun. Infectiously curious, his interests ranged from Fitz Henry Lane to Lady Gaga. In all he studied, he excelled at discerning what was both individually distinctive and broadly meaningful. He will be widely and greatly missed.”

A legacy of ‘foundational’ mentorship

During his tenure in the Department of Art & Archaeology, Wilmerding brought his groundbreaking insights and expansive relationships with the art field to his students, many of whom maintained contact. His current and former graduate students hold positions at esteemed universities, colleges, museums, galleries and auction houses.

John’s mentorship was foundational for me, and many,” said Mark Mitchell, Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at Yale University Art Gallery, who earned his Ph.D. at Princeton in 2002. “He shaped my understanding of the role of a museum curator, rooted in the experience of art in person and dedicated to reflective connoisseurship. He delighted in art that matters and encouraged his students to do the same. John brought American art to life, and, more than that, he made it essential.” 

“John was a supportive and generous mentor,” said Justin Wolff, professor of art history and chair of the Department of Art at the University of Maine. “He had so much to share, and he shared liberally, whether his scholarly insights, his passion for specific artists, his remarkable art collection, his access to the nation's best museums, or his blunt assessments of my own scholarship. While he believed in me and advocated for me, he was always direct and transparent when he felt that I missed the mark or embellished an idea. I've tried to bring that same generosity and rigor to my teaching and advising.”

Wolff added: “John also had a wicked sense of humor, and I learned much from his sharp wit as well.”

DeLue elaborated: “John knew exactly when a bit of drollery or wit would lighten the mood of a faculty meeting or help a junior colleague understand she wasn’t alone in not wanting to take every little thing so seriously. And there really was nothing better than saying something funny enough to make John release his signature laugh, a half giggle and half cackle that resounded through the halls of McCormick.”

Wilmerding is survived by his sister, Lila Wilmerding Kirkland; her husband, David Kirkland; a brother, James Watson Webb Wilmerding, and wife Marsha M. Wilmerding; three nieces and three nephews.

View or share comments on a memorial page intended to honor Wilmerding’s life and legacy.