Nowadays, when the achievements of 19th-century American painters enjoy the attention and support of the critics, the academy, the museums, the art market and a significant segment of the art public, it may be worth recalling that the elevation of these painters to their current status as American classics is a relatively recent historical development. For perfectly sound reasons, the discipline of art history, itself a “late” development in Western cultural life, remained focused on classical antiquity and the masterworks of Western Europe. It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that 19th-century American painting was deemed sufficiently accomplished to merit serious academic study and attract serious collectors.
This is but one of the fascinating stories that is now recalled for us in the exhibition American Masters from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection at the National Gallery in Washington. Another is John Wilmerding’s personal history as a collector and connoisseur of American art. Mr. Wilmerding has long been recognized as one of our most prolific and accomplished writers on American art; the “Bibliography of John Wilmerding’s Published Works” in the catalog of this exhibition contains over 150 citations. And with the exhibition itself, Mr. Wilmerding makes his public debut as one of the great collectors of American art.
He made his first acquisition nearly 45 years ago-Fitz Hugh Lane’s Stage Rocks and Western Shore of Gloucester Outer Harbor (1857)-while he was still a student at Harvard, where American art was not yet part of the art-history program. He did receive encouragement, however, from Benjamin Rowland, a member of the university’s art-history faculty whose academic specialties were in the fields of Italian, Indian and Middle Eastern art, but who was also a painter with a keen interest in contemporary American art. It was Rowland who introduced the first Harvard course in American art.
Fitz Hugh Lane was also the subject of Mr. Wilmerding’s first scholarly publication, Fitz Hugh Lane, 1804-1865, American Marine Painter , a subject that combined his passion for sailing with his art interests. Mr. Wilmerding seems, in any case, to have been destined to become an art collector through his family connections. As Franklin Kelly writes in the catalog of the current exhibition: “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 …. 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” (which was founded in 1947).
With these advantages, it was to be expected that Mr. Wilmerding would become a collector of distinction, and so he has. The sheer quality of the paintings of this exhibition, by such masters as George Caleb Bingham, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Eakins, Martin Johnson Heade, Winslow Homer and, of course, Fitz Hugh Lane, is amazing, and the very ample selection of 19th-century American drawings in the exhibition is certainly the finest I’ve ever seen. The only disappointment is the few and not very distinguished examples of 20th-century drawing. But modern art is not, after all, Mr. Wilmerding’s forte.
What has to be understood about his distinction as a collector and scholar of 19th-century American art is that he belonged to the generation of writers, dealers, collectors and curators that codified the achievements of our 19th-century masters for the first time. All were confronted by works of art that were familiar to very few people and for which there was no existing literature. It was a generation that effectively changed our understanding of the American cultural past, and for that crucial accomplishment we are all in their debt.
American Masters from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection remains on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington through Jan. 30, 2005.