- The Washington Times - Friday, May 21, 2004

There are all kinds of art collectors, as the National Gallery’s exhibit “American Masters From Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection” demonstrates.

At the show’s opening, Mr. Wilmerding, the 66-year-old collector, professor and curator, announced that 51 works by 21 American artists from his collection will soon join the National Gallery’s holdings. The gallery says it is one of the finest private collections of 19th-century American art in the world.

Though it is by no means a great collection, it is a good one.

The works on view at the gallery, by Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Eakins, Eastman Johnson, Andrew Wyeth and John Marin, among others, are a mixed bag of smallish oils and works mainly on paper. The collection reflects Mr. Wilmerding’s personal taste, his limited but carefully spent funds and the restricted but admirable aims of his collecting.

As the introductory exhibition label explains, Mr. Wilmerding’s approach was scholarly and quite unlike that of other family members. He did not have the obsession, focus and riches of a great collector, but his great-grandparents Henry Osborne Havemeyer and Louisine Waldron Havemeyer did. Mr. Havemeyer liked to buy in volume with the millions inherited from his father’s monopolistic sugar business.

They were two of the most flamboyant collectors of old masters and oriental arts in the history of art collecting in America. Mr. Havemeyer died in 1907, and his widow gave their rich holdings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1929.

Electra Havemeyer Webb, their youngest daughter and Mr. Wilmerding’s grandmother, collected cigar-store indians, patchwork quilts, hooked rugs, carved eagles and American furniture. Her mother, Louisine, was appalled.

“How can you, Electra, you who have been brought up with Rembrandts and Manets, live with such American trash?” Mrs. Havemeyer demanded, according to Aline Saarinen’s “The Proud Possessors: The Lives, Times and Tastes of Some Adventurous American Art Collectors.”

Electra Webb not only lived with it but gathered a wealth of both American fine and folk arts and built the Shelburne Museum — an “outdoor museum” of old carriage houses, a schoolhouse, a Vermont bridge, a barn and much more to house the art — in Shelburne, Vt., near Burlington.

Mr. Wilmerding definitely exhibits his family’s determined spirit. Though discouraged from concentrating on American art while at Harvard College, he persevered and wrote his honors thesis on Fitz Hugh Lane, the 19th-century American painter.

However, he lacked the Havemeyer and Webb money, as he emphasized at the exhibit’s press preview. “I have never been a collector with infinite pockets,” Mr. Wilmerding said. “I started modestly. At first, I bought American works while teaching at Dartmouth College, as I liked teaching from originals. Then, when curator of American art and deputy director at the National Gallery, I bought with an eye to filling holes in the collection and increasing the areas of strengths in its American art holdings.”

There are a few “stars” in the collection, all painted with glistening oil pigments: Fitz Hugh Lane’s luminous “Stage Rocks and Western Shore of Gloucester Outer Harbor,” the collector’s initial purchase while still at Harvard; George Caleb Bingham’s “Mississippi Boatman,” the first painting by Bingham to enter the gallery’s collection; Martin Johnson Heade’s atmospheric “Sunlight and Shadow: The Newbury Marshes,” one of Heade’s approximately 100 depictions of marshes; and Thomas Eakins’ monumental “Portrait of Dr. William Thomson,” the close friend and eye doctor who treated Eakins while the painter was losing his eyesight.

The collector remains a devoted fan of Fitz Hugh Lane’s, and the museum placed “Stage Rocks and Western Shore of Gloucester Outer Harbor,” one of the largest and most powerful works in the exhibit, center stage in the show’s first gallery. The boats here form a zigzag pattern against the atmospheric setting sun. The horizon anchors the composition. The soft, rhythmic lapping of the waves toward the viewer gives the painting serenity. A marine painting like this had a natural appeal for Mr. Wilmerding, an expert sailor who inherited a passion for the sport from his father.

The strength of the sea is reflected in Bingham’s forceful characterization of the “Mississippi Boatman.” Describing the purchase in the catalog, Mr. Wilmerding writes, “Binghams were already rare then, and I knew that few boatmen pictures existed.” He was overwhelmed by the $15,000 price — but he bought it. That was in 1965.

Grim, locked in hostile eye-to-eye contact with the viewer, the boatman guards his flatbed. Men like him symbolized Western roughness for Easterners.

The third painting of the three that began Mr. Wilmerding’s collection is Martin Johnson Heade’s “Sunlight and Shadow: The Newbury Marshes.” Few painters of the time undertook marsh painting, but Heade, with a repeat of Lane’s rosy clouds, made his haystack, silhouetted tree on the left and horizontally laid out marshland attractive.

Much more hangs in these two galleries. The almost 6-foot-high, loosely and sparely painted “Portrait of Dr. William Thomson” in browns was Eakins’ last seated formal portrait. The section of small oils, watercolors and penciled sketches of Mount Desert, Maine, where Mr. Wilmerding has a home, could form a second collection all its own.

The exhibit might have been more interesting had the gallery added photomurals of the art in Mr. Wilmerding’s home and several of the art in the Havemeyer and Webb collections.

American art has been difficult to buy since the 1960s, when Mr. Wilmerding began. He is to be congratulated for collecting what he could and, finally, giving it to the National Gallery, where he once worked.

WHAT: “American Masters From Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue, NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 10

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

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