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Sharing the riches of art

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- Over a 40-year career as a professor and a museum curator, John Wilmerding has shared the pleasures of art with thousands of students and museum-goers through teaching, delivering guest lectures at campuses all over the country and writing more than 20 books on art.


To celebrate the exhibition's opening, John Wilmerding, the Christopher Sarofim '86 Professor in American Art, will deliver a lecture titled ''Princeton's Paper Trail: American Drawings and Watercolors in the Art Museum'' at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16, in McCosh 10. A reception will follow at the art museum.

Throughout those years, Wilmerding also amassed a private collection of 19th-century American art that grew to be formidable. This year, he chose to give it all away so that others can enjoy it.

''I decided to do it in my lifetime, instead of in a dreary obituary that I would never read,'' said Wilmerding, the Christopher Sarofim '86 Professor in American Art. ''Part of it was the pleasure of doing something I could enjoy.''

The collection, which has landscapes, still-lifes, portraits and genre scenes, includes important paintings by George Caleb Bingham, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Eakins, Martin Johnson Heade and Winslow Homer.

The director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., approached Wilmerding a few years ago about holding an exhibition of his collection, which had never been shown publicly. Small groups of students and a few colleagues and friends were the only ones who had ever seen the works, which hung in Wilmerding's house in Princeton.

Wilmerding agreed to loan the pieces for an exhibition at the gallery, where he had worked as a curator and deputy director from 1977 to 1988. Then last May, just as the show was about to open, he decided to donate all 51 paintings and drawings to the gallery.

''My particular holdings beautifully augment and complement the National Gallery,'' Wilmerding said. ''It adds artists they don't have, or it adds works by artists they do have but subjects by those artists that they haven't had. So in almost every instance it makes a huge addition to an important national collection.''

Highlights from the Wilmerding collection include ''Western Shore of Gloucester, Outer Harbor,'' a radiant view of sailing vessels on calm water by Fitz Hugh Lane, and ''Sparrow Hall,'' a rare oil from Homer's English period.

It also includes several firsts for the gallery: ''Drifting,'' the gallery's first watercolor by Eakins; ''Sunlight and Shadow: The Newbury Marshes,'' the gallery's first marsh painting by Heade; and ''Newport Mountain, Mount Desert,'' the first North American work by Church at the gallery.

When his collection was off at the National Gallery in preparation for the exhibition, Wilmerding began thinking about the artworks' future.

''They really deserved a wider audience,'' he said. ''I miss them, but on the other hand it's so satisfying to have done this. It's like your children, I suppose, getting a job or getting married. They're so happy in their new life. I feel totally at ease with where they are and what they mean to the world at large.''

And now he has a clean slate with which to start a new collection.

''I come from a collecting family, so the impulse to collect -- or the pathology to collect -- is still there,'' he said. ''Any collector abhors a vacuum -- and a blank wall.''

The exhibition, ''American Masters from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection,'' is open at the National Gallery through Jan. 30.