By Debbie Wells
The Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan opened its new building to rave reviews and much excitement. To honor its founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an enchanting portrait adorns the entrance of one of the main floor galleries. Mrs. Whitney commissioned this work in 1916 from her friend Robert Henri. When Henri’s painting was finished, Harry Payne Whitney refused to allow her to hang it in their grand Fifth Avenue town house. The plaque in the museum explains: He didn’t want his friends to see a picture of his wife, as he put it, “in pants.” She is portrayed as a vibrant and stylish, yet forward-thinking – clearly someone ahead of her time. The painting intrigued me, so I decided to delve and learn more about her.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1874-1942) Gertrude, daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and Alice Claypoole Gwynne, was born in 1875 and married Harry Payne Whitney at the age of 21. From Paris to New York, young Gertrude met prominent figures in both her family’s circle and the art world, which enabled her to learn all she could about art collecting and patronage. Mrs. Whitney not only paved her own way as a professional sculptor but is also known today as one of the most influential art patrons of the twentieth century.
Edward Steichen, Portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1931, Gelatin silver print mounted on board, 16 5/8 × 13 7/16 in. , Gift of the family of Edith & Lloyd Goodrich, Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art
Mrs. Whitney always supported the arts with grand style. One of her friends, American artist Jerome Myers reminisced: “Matching it in memory is a party at Mrs. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s, on her Long Island estate, the artists there a veritable catalog of celebrities, painters and sculptors. I can hardly visualize, let alone describe, the many shifting scenes of our entertainment: sunken pools and gorgeous white peacocks as live decorations spreading into the gardens; in their swinging cages, brilliant macaws nodding their beaks at George Luks as though they remembered posing for his pictures of them; Robert Chanler showing us his exotic sea pictures, blue-green visions in a marine bathroom; and Mrs. Whitney displaying her studio, the only place on earth in which she could find solitude. Here the artists felt at home, the Whitney hospitality always gracious and sincere.”
An Accomplished Artist
While living in France at the turn of the century, she developed an interest in sculpture. She was intrigued by the creative atmosphere in Montmartre and Montparnasse and even studied with world-renowned sculptor Auguste Rodin.
Returning to New York City in 1907, she established an apartment and studio in Greenwich Village. There, she had her first solo show in 1916 and later exhibited her war-time themed sculpture collection a few years later. She also had a one-woman show at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1923. To commemorate the artist’s lifetime achievements, the Whitney Museum of American Art presented a retrospective in 1943.
In addition to sculptures shown in museums and art galleries, her large scale statuary can be seen across the United States. One of her most famous is the Women’s Titantic Memorial created to commemorate the brave men who perished in the wreck in 1912 to save the lives of women and children. Tragically, Whitney’s own brother Alfred Vanderbilt was lost in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. When looking at the sculpted figure with outstretched arms (see below), it immediately brought to mind the iconic scene in “Titanic” when Kate Winslet was in a similar pose on the bow of the great ship. I wonder if the makers of the film were inspired by Whitney’s art and recreated it with the actress.
Highlights of her public monuments include:
Victory Arch – Madison Square, New York City, 1920
World War I Memorial – Mitchell Square Park, Washington Heights, New York City, 1922
William F. Cody Memorial (Buffalo Bill – The Scout) – Cody, Wyoming, 1924
Founders of the Daughters of the American Revolution – Washington, D.C., 1929
A Patron of American Art
In1908, Mrs. Whitney opened the Whitney Studio Gallery in the same buildings as her own studio on West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. Within a few years, she unveiled the Whitney Studio Club on West Fourth Street as a club where avante-garde artists could meet and talk, as well as exhibit their works. When the club expanded its size and programming, Whitney relocated its headquarters to West Eighth Street in 1923.
Charles Sheeler, Office Interior, Whitney Studio Club, 10 West 8 Street, (c. 1928), Gelatin silver print, 7 1/2 × 9 1/4in., Gift of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art
Her generosity and influence was evident as she supported and bought works from the 1913 Armory Show, especially artists of the Ashcan School. She was also devoted to the advancement of women in art and frequently sponsored women-only art exhibitions.
These early galleries were the foundation of what would eventually become her greatest legacy – the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The Whitney Museum of American Art
In 1931, Whitney decided to establish her own museum after the Metropolitan Museum of Art turned down her offer to donate her collection of over 500 modern American artworks. Her ground-breaking mission statement was to create a museum specializing in contemporary art by American artists with a focus on the creative process and artistic vision. Her original objective remains true today as the museum strives to recognize rising artists, including their signature annual group exhibition first held in 1932, then evolving to the Whitney Bienniel in 1973.
Beginning with Mrs. Whitney’s initial gift, the museum currently includes over 21,000 works created by more than 3,000 artists in the United States during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
As an advocate of emerging American artists of her time, it was natural that her original collection included work by George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, Edward Hopper, and Reginald Marsh. The museum is now known for their extensive holdings of later major artists including Alexander Calder, Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, Willen deKooning, Joan Mitchell, Louise Nevelson, Claes Oldenburg, Ed Ruscha and Cindy Sherman. In addition, a few of Mrs. Whitney’s small sculptures are in the museum’s permanent collection, including the head from her Titantic Memorial.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Head for Titanic Memorial, 1922, Seravezza marble head, 12 3/4 × 8 1/8 × 9 5/8in., (with base): 19 × 8 1/8 × 9 5/8in., Gift of the artist, Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art
After years on the Upper East Side, the Whitney recently moved to its impressive new site in the Meatpacking District at the southern entrance of the High Line, not far from the Chelsea art gallery district. Designed by famed architect Renzo Piano, the new museum building (below) offers innovative exhibition spaces and spectacular city views.
Its strikingly asymmetrical form has a contemporary, sculptural presence – a style that would certainly reflect Mrs. Whitney’s vision of engagement with contemporaneity. The Whitney Museum of American Art’s inaugural exhibition, which closes on Sept. 27, 2015, entitled America Is Hard to See, celebrates work selected from its entire collection ranging from beloved icons to rarely seen pieces from their inventory. The unique layout of the museum with its indoor and outdoor exhibition spaces, presents the collection in fresh and exciting displays.
My Visit to “The Studio”
Since Mrs. Whitney wanted a place to work while at her estate on Long Island, she had The Studio built in 1913 by famed architects Delano and Aldrich. The Beaux Arts style pavilion with Palladian style entrance served as Mrs. Whitney’s private atelier and was the perfect spot to host gatherings for artists and friends.
I had heard about The Studio for years and knew that it was a private residence located within a secluded wooded site on the Long Island’s North Shore. The opportunity to tour it is rare, so when I received an invitation, I was thrilled. On June 20th, I attended a Summer Soiree at The Studio to benefit the Roslyn Landmark Society. The event was hosted by two of Mrs. Whitney’s great-grandchildren, a former New York Congressman and his sister. The evening was wonderful – filled with art, history and a knowledgeable, appreciative crowd.
The main event of the evening was the “objets d’art tour” of the residence. The main rooms were adorned with fresh flower arrangements and elegant furnishings. An array of vintage photographs lined a table, while paintings and murals by Howard Gardiner Cushing and Robert Winthrop Chanler graced the walls.
An arrangement of shelves displayed small sculptures created by Mrs. Whitney. However, if this was the place to showcase her art, where did she actually do the work? Our guide also explained that her working studio was in the basement. He elaborated on the themes of her art, while pointing to a hidden trap door that allowed large sculptures to be lifted from the basement studio to the first floor.
We were then invited to go downstairs. Now more of a library archive and storage area, it was nonetheless easy to see how this enormous space was ideal for the artist. Currently, there is a collection of her statuary kept here, pieces just waiting to be restored to their former glory. It was exciting to walk around and imagine the artist at work, crafting her sculptures here in this spot.
Returning upstairs, most memorable was the spectacular mural adorning the curved staircase depicting fashionable women (including a portrait of the lovely Mrs. Whitney herself) posed in settings of flowers and birds. The exquisite color scheme of soft blues, teals and burgundy was a striking complement to the black and white tiled floor.
Lastly, the formal garden was arranged with a fountain centrally located within beautiful greenery and surrounded by sculpture. The landscaping in front of The Studio, as well as along trails in the woods leading up to the property, was also beautifully planned and maintained.
Seeing this private side of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney allowed me to appreciate her as an artist in her own right. Her generosity as a patron of the arts is well known, but her commitment to create an environment for her own art and creativity clearly presented an inspiring and satisfying feature of her personal life. She used her resources to build her own art sanctuary and I am grateful to have this chance to learn more about her. Certainly, a comprehensive exhibition to portray the art of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, herself, awaits us in the future.