On the eve of his retirement, a professor complements the museum’s collection and leaves a legacy

As a child John Wilmerding saw paintings by Rembrandt and the French impressionists on the walls of his grandparents’ home. His grandmother, who inherited those works from her parents, collected American art. Despite that legacy, Wilmerding’s mother made no effort to push the arts on him, and he headed off to Harvard never having visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the home of the bulk of his great-grandparents’ Havemeyer Collection. “My mother was so immersed, perhaps even oppressed, by this legacy that she almost repressed it,” says Wilmerding, a professor of American art who transferred to emeritus status this month.

But at college it didn’t take much to ignite the fire: A freshman survey course in art history turned him on to the visual arts. He wrote his senior thesis on the 19th-century American marine painter Fitz Henry Lane — whose paintings his grandmother had acquired for the museum she founded, the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. A leading scholar in American art and a former senior curator of American art and deputy director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Wilmerding has followed in his family tradition: He will leave his own legacy — a collection of Pop Art — to the Princeton University Art Museum.

In May the museum announced that Wilmerding is the previously anonymous donor of a promised gift of about 50 Pop Art works featured in an exhibit that runs through Aug. 12. Among the works he is donating to the museum are three-dimensional works, sculptures by artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselmann that fill out the museum’s collection, which is strong in prints. Princeton also has acquired two works in his honor: Booster, a 1967 self-portrait by Robert Rauschenberg, purchased by the art and archaeology department and the museum; and Still Life with Watermelon, by 19th-century American painter Rubens Peale, purchased by about 100 former students and friends.

The Pop Art collection is the second collection Wilmerding has donated to a museum. In 2004, he donated his collection of 19th-century paintings and drawings to the National Gallery of Art. Five years ago, with those works already in Washington and more open space on the walls in his Princeton house, Wilmerding began focusing on building a Pop Art collection. “Collectors can’t help but collect,” he says. His acquisitions complement his scholarship and teaching interests, says Wilmerding, who came to Princeton in 1988, and among other courses, has taught an American studies seminar on the art and culture of the 1960s, centered around Pop artists.

With Wilmerding’s gift, Princeton will have a “comprehensive overview of American Pop Art,” says museum director Susan M. Taylor. “His museum perspective has been invaluable to us,” adds Taylor. To continue to build on his contribution to American art at Princeton, an anonymous donor has given the University $1 million, along with a challenge grant of $750,000, for a new endowed museum curatorship for American art to be named for Wilmerding.

“I thought [donating the Pop Art collection] would be a perfect retirement gesture,” says Wilmerding, intended not only to signify his gratitude to the University, but also to complement Princeton’s plan for expanded space and programming for the arts — which might include a new museum facility. “I see [the gift] as a vote of confidence in these plans,” says Wilmerding.