Professor Emeritus John Wilmerding dies at 86

June 10, 2024

With deep regret, we report the death of John Wilmerding, Christopher Binyon Sarofim ’86 Professor in American Art, Emeritus. Professor of Art and Archaeology, Emeritus, who died on June 6, 2024. 

Professor Wilmerding joined A&A in September of 1988 and retired in July of 2007.

The University flag over East Pyne will fly at half-staff in his memory June 7 – June 11, 2024.


Published by New York Times on Jun. 9, 2024.

John Wilmerding, prolific author, esteemed professor, avid collector, generous philanthropist, and luminary in the history of American Art passed away on June 6th, at 86 years of age. 

Educated at Saint Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, and at Harvard University, where he received his Bachelor's degree in 1960, his Master's degree in 1961, and his Ph.D. in 1965 in American Art. Upon graduation, Professor Wilmerding taught at Dartmouth College until 1977, and then at Princeton University for 25 years as the Christopher Binyon Sarofim Professor of Art History. 

He had previously served as Senior Curator of American Art from 1977 until 1983 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. From 1983 until 1988, he served as the Museum's Deputy Director under J. Carter Brown. As a student, John Wilmerding had begun to collect American Art while still an undergraduate at Harvard, and by 2004, he had assembled a world-class collection of 51 paintings and drawings by American Masters such as Fitz Henry Lane, George Caleb Bingham, Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins among others. In May of 2004, at the National Gallery of Arts opening of the exhibition, "American Masters From Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection", Professor Wilmerding announced that the collection would remain in perpetuity at the National Gallery, a significant gift to the nation. In 2016, Alice Walton, and the Walton Family Foundation granted $10,000,000 to the National Gallery of Art to establish the John Wilmerding Fund for Education in honor of Professor Wilmerding's contribution to the National Gallery and to art history. In Ms. Walton's words, "John has inspired generations of museum visitors to appreciate American art, and his contributions to the field are immeasurable and enduring. He was an insightful teacher, a trusted adviser, and simply a dear friend who helped me explore American art more broadly and create a new museum. John's impact in establishing Crystal Bridges was enormous, and I cherish our time working together." 

Professor Wilmerding's numerous books and articles helped define the nature of American art, a field that had been long neglected by scholars and collectors. In addition to his long teaching career, Professor Wilmerding served as a board member at many museums, some of which honored him by naming directorships and fellowships in his name. Among those institutions is the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, which established the John Wilmerding Directorship Fund, the Museum's first named position. 

A grandson of the Museum's founder, Electra Havemeyer Webb, Professor Wilmerding served as President of the Board of Trustees, and Honorary Chair of the Campaign for Shelburne Museum. Additional posts at universities and museums were; Emeritus Professor of American Art at Princeton University; Member of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House; Chair of the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery of Art; Trustee of the Guggenheim Museum; Commissioner of The National Portrait Gallery; Visiting Curator in the Department of American Art at the Metropolitan Museum; Senior Curator of American Art at the National Gallery; Member of the Board of the Wyeth Foundation for American Art; Board Member at the Smithsonian Museum and Monticello, and a trustee of the College of The Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. 

Having given his collection of American art to the National Gallery in 2004, Professor Wilmerding started to collect Pop Art, an interest of his since his Dartmouth days. This collection has been bequeathed to Princeton University. 

Professor Wilmerding is survived by his sister, Lila Wilmerding Kirkland, her husband, David Kirkland, a brother, James Watson Webb Wilmerding and Marsha M. Wilmerding, three nieces and three nephews. Professor Wilmerding had homes in Northeast Harbor, Maine, and New York City. John Wilmerding was an inveterate and tireless hunter of antiques, a man of letters with great intellectual curiosity and a dry sense of humor, and a loyal friend with a capacity for joy and generosity. All who knew him regret his passing. Contributions in his memory can be made to Crystal Bridges Museum.