John Wilmerding has seen the coast of Maine through artist’s eyes. Collector, curator and scholar, Wilmerding once sailed from Marblehead, Mass., to Mount Desert Island to see the world he had observed primarily from land and on canvas. From the waterside, he came to understand Frederic Church, John Marin, Winslow Homer and Fitz Hugh Lane – all painters he had studied and written about – in new ways and in real time.
“We spent a night or two along the coast where American artists had painted to see what the landscape looked like, how it might or might not be represented by them,” said Wilmerding, 66, recalling the trip of more than 30 years ago. “That set the first crystal for me to think about the discrepancies between the way the landscape looked and the way these artists had painted them. It made me much more conscious of how artists interpreted landscape, even if they were painting in a ‘realist’ manner.'”
Now Wilmerding, a professor of art at Princeton University and longtime summer resident of Northeast Harbor, has bequeathed his private collection of art, including works by Church, Marin, Homer and Lane, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The 51 pieces in “American Masters from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection” will be on view in the East Building of the National Gallery through Oct. 10. When the show closes, the works will remain at the gallery.
The collection reflects Wilmerding’s own taste and expertise in American art, cultivated at Harvard University and activated curatorially in the 1980s when he was deputy director at the National Gallery. But his exposure to private collecting stretches back through family lineage. His great-grandparents bequeathed their collection of European and Asian works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and his grandmother’s collection of Americana, art and artifacts was the genesis of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.
Wilmerding bought his own first work of art – Lane’s “Stage Rocks and Western Shore of Gloucester Outer Harbor,” in 1960 when he was a senior at Harvard. He bought one other piece during his college years – George Caleb Bingham’s “Mississippi Boatman.” Both are in the exhibition at the National Gallery. The drive toward accumulating more art became more serious after Wilmerding began teaching at Dartmouth College, and continued during his tenure at the National Gallery.
While Wilmerding always employed high standards for his purchases, he also found that his interests tended toward images of the Maine coast, where the views had been a part of his visual world since childhood. In World War II, when his father was away, Wilmerding and his mother visited Mount Desert Island. Later, he returned in summers as a teen with his high-school roommate. The same friend became his college roommate, which continued Wilmerding’s association with the area. Eventually, he bought his own house in Northeast Harbor.
In 1994, combining scholarship and a love of Maine scenery gained through sailing, Wilmerding published “The Artist’s Mount Desert: American Painters on the Coast of Maine,” a narrative history of the painters who visited the state in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“The book was a turning point where art and life came together,” said Wilmerding. “I had realized over a number of years working in the American field and in spending time on the island and up and down the coast how many American artists had spent time there. It became clear that one could write a book, a kind of mini survey of American art using that particular focus.”
Art and life came together again in the Wilmerding collection, which includes a subdivision of works depicting Maine.
Talk to Maine artists about their work, and it’s likely they will mention the light, the interplay of land and water, the dramatic coastline and still-wild regions of the state as inspiration for their canvases. Wilmerding, too, cited these qualities as attracting his eye both as a person drawn to natural beauty and to his work as a collector. He underscored, too, that taste in art, as in collecting, is a personal act.
He agreed that Maine has played an immense part in shaping his sensibility, and that it holds a unique place in the history of American art.
“There’s some rhetoric out there about the mysterious spirit of the place,” he said, speaking particularly of Mount Desert. “I think some of that is the primal history that goes back to the Ice Age, if not the volcanic upheavals and prehistory. It’s a sense that, somehow, one is part of a landscape that has had extended rooting. You’re right to suggest a subliminal awareness not only of prehistory but of more recent histories of American society.”
The Maine segment, which largely portrays sights from Mount Desert, includes pieces by Andrew Wyeth, William Stanley Haseltine, John Frederick Peto and Jervis McEntee. Church’s “Fog off Mount Desert” and “Newport Mountain, Mount Desert,” are perhaps the most recognizably representative of the coastal scenes frequently depicted in Maine art. They also round out the National Gallery’s collection, which has South American works by Church but no North American works, according to Wilmerding.
Similarly, Homer’s “Sparrow Hall” of women on a sunlit stoop is the only oil painting the gallery has from his English period. Bingham’s “Mississippi Boatman,” which has received the most publicity, is the first by the painter in the national collection. And three works by Thomas Eakins, two of which were the last to be purchased, underscore that Wilmerding’s ranks among the finest private American collections in the country.
And one, he hopes, that will provoke Americans to think about their country. Wilmerding chose the National Gallery as the final repository for his collection because of his intimate professional association with the institution and because its mission is be a voice in an American dialogue about culture.
“I discuss this with students all the time: How does art reflect national characteristics?” he said. “I think if one pays attention to art, one can see our virtues, our foibles, our sense of vision especially during the period I’ve worked on for so long in my career – the mid century Americans – at the heart of this collection: American idealism, American’s sense of its heroic self, America’s optimism, America’s love of nature.”
On a more personal level, Wilmerding wanted to be present when the works found their rightful place in an institution devoted to covering its walls with art that addresses the very questions he has spent a career asking and answering. As he likes to say: It wouldn’t have been much fun for him if the only notice of the bequeathal appeared in his obituary.
Of course, this leaves his walls at home empty. But, as he quickly added, white walls never please a curator. American trade signs, quilts and photographs of Maine have taken the place of the collection, which has been in his possession for the last four decades.
“Like any collector, it’s pathological,” he said of his ongoing relationship with art. “You have to start filling. You abhor blank surfaces.”
Alicia Anstead can be reached at 990-8266 and firstname.lastname@example.org.