Value of Set Limits: A Discerning Eye

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The World and I, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Value of Set Limits: A Discerning Eye


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The World and I


Joanna Shaw-Eagle is a staff writer for The Washington Times.

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, 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 nineteenth-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 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, 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. 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. 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 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?" 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, Vermont, near Burlington.

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 nineteenth-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," 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. …

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