Published: May 29, 2007
Winterthur Museum & Country Estate announces the death of John A. H. Sweeney, curator emeritus. Sweeney was senior curator of Winterthur Museum from 1960 to 1966 and went on to serve as senior deputy director for the collections and interpretation from 1967 to 1976. He was then named as assistant to the director of Winterthur, a position he held until his retirement in 1991. Sweeney died May 17, 2007, in Wilmington, at the age of 77.
“John Sweeney was central to the transformation of Henry Francis du Pont’s personal collection of American decorative arts into a museum collection that stands today as the world’s finest of its kind,” said Leslie Greene Bowman, director and CEO of Winterthur. “John’s scholarship and leadership were tremendously significant both here at Winterthur and to the American decorative arts community as a whole. During his long career, John distinguished himself as an outstanding scholar, an exceptional museum professional and educator, and a true gentleman. We are deeply saddened by the loss of our dear friend and esteemed colleague.”
Sweeney was born and raised in Wilmington, and graduated from the Tower Hill School. A 1952 graduate of Yale University, Sweeney continued his education in the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture (WPEAC), graduating with the first class of Winterthur Fellows in 1954. He joined the Winterthur staff that same year, serving as assistant curator. His subsequent appointment to succeed the venerable Joseph Downs as senior curator in 1960 positioned Sweeney as the second individual to lead the curatorial team since the museum’s founding in 1951.
“Our founder, Henry Francis du Pont, mentored John as a young scholar, and they developed a close working relationship,” said Bowman. “In addition to their pursuits at Winterthur, Mr du Pont and John Sweeney were integral to the success of the White House restoration effort spearheaded by Jacqueline Kennedy in the early 1960s.” Du Pont, the first chairman of the Fine Arts Committee for the White House, appointed Sweeney to serve on the Fine Arts Advisory Committee in 1961.
Sweeney was the author of numerous publications, including The Treasure House of Early American Rooms , 1978, Grandeur on the Appoquinimink: The House of William Corbit at Odessa, Delaware , 1989, and the 1980 reminiscence Henry Francis du Pont: 1880‱969.
When honoring Sweeney as curator emeritus in 1991, the Winterthur Board of Trustees noted, “Mr Sweeney has devoted a substantial portion of his life to Winterthur, conveying to staff, collectors, colleagues and museum professionals in the decorative arts field the remarkable quality of Winterthur’s collections and their evolution under the inspiration of Henry Francis du Pont.”
A great supporter of the arts and of historic preservation efforts, Sweeney served on the boards of the Decorative Arts Trust, the Victorian Society in America, the University of Delaware Library and Rockwood Museum. He was a member of the advisory committees for both the Delaware Antiques Show and the Philadelphia Antiques Show and was an active member of numerous organizations, including the Friends of Winterthur and Winterthur’s Port Royal Society.
Sweeney was instrumental in founding the Society of Winterthur Fellows, acting as an advisor, mentor and friend to many generations of WPEAC students. He also served as class agent for the Tower Hill School Class of 1948, and was active in alumni activities.
John Sweeney is survived by his two brothers, Dr C. Leslie Sweeney of Raleigh, N.C., and his wife Constance M., and Robert H. Sweeney of Navarre, Fla., and his wife Ann F., and by his seven nieces and nephews.
Funeral services and burial took place on May 22, at St Joseph on the Brandywine, 10 Old Church Road, Greenville, Del. The family requests that contributions in his honor be made to Winterthur Museum & Country Estate, The John Sweeney Fund, Winterthur, DE 19735.
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