Whitney, Gertrude Vanderbilt
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney
Born January 9, 1875, in New York, NY; died, April 18, 1942, in New York, NY; buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, NY; daughter of Cornelius and Alice Claypoole (Gwynne) Vanderbilt; married Harry Payne Whitney, August 25, 1896; children: Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Flora Payne, Barbara. Education: Attended Brearley School.
Honorary degrees from New York University, 1922, Tufts University, 1924, Rutgers University, 1934, and Russell Sage College, 1940; named associate of National Academy of Design, 1940.
Memorial Exhibition: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY), 1943.
A collection of Whitney's correspondence and other papers is housed at the Whitney Museum of American Art Research Library, New York, NY.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was a leading sculptor and arts benefactor of the early twentieth century. Whitney was born an heiress to the great family fortune established by her great-grandfather, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. Gertrude was the second daughter and the fourth of seven children of Cornelius and Alice Claypoole Vanderbilt. Her father was a railroad magnate who indulged his interests as an art patron and collector. Gertrude was brought up in an atmosphere of wealth and luxury and spent most of her youth shuttling between her family's two homes: a luxurious mansion in New York City and a summer estate in Newport, Rhode Island. She was educated by private tutors both at home and in Europe. Later, she attended New York's exclusive, all-female Brearley School. During her youth, she wrote avidly in personal journals and showed promising skill in watercolor and drawing.
A Growing Interest in Sculpture
Whitney was born on January 9, 1875, and educated by private tutors and at the Brearley School. On August 25, 1896, she married Harry Payne Whitney, an avid sportsman who spent his days traveling on hunting trips and playing polo. His father was William C. Whitney, a financier and secretary of the Navy under President Grover Cleveland. The couple maintained a town house on Fifth Avenue in New York City and a country estate at Westbury, Long Island. Gertrude bore three children, a son, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, and two daughters, Flora Payne and Barbara. Over the years, Gertrude Whitney and her husband became estranged, yet they were often there for each other in times of crises and in relation to family issues.
Whitney accepted the responsibility of rearing her three children and fulfilled her many social obligations. These obligations did not deter her from studying sculpture. She had three teachers from whom she learned her craft. The first was sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen. Next, she studied with James Earle Fraser, who instructed her at the New Students League in New York City. Her last mentor, Andrew O'Connor, completed her education in Paris. Both Fraser and O'Connor were sculptors of public monuments and channeled her interests in the same direction. Her works soon became well known and highly regarded in the American and European art communities.
During the first ten years of her work as a sculptor, Whitney exhibited under a pseudonym. She believed that her famous family name would never allow her the freedom of unbiased criticism from her viewers. It was not until 1910, when her statue, Paganism Immortal, won a distinguished rating at the National Academy that she began to exhibit under her own name. It was during these early years that Whitney set up her own studio in Greenwich Village. Though not taken seriously by the art community at first, she worked hard at perfecting her craft in her studio. Her dedication and perseverance soon won her the respect and companionship of other artists.
It was also during this time that Whitney became known as a patron of the arts. In 1908, when the "Eight of the Ash Can" group held an exhibit at the Macbeth Gallery, Whitney purchased four canvases from the exhibit. After witnessing the difficulties such young artists had in finding exhibition venues, she began to provide space in her studio where they could display their work. This temporary solution led her to establish the Whitney Studio in an adjacent building in 1914. It soon became a gathering place for various artists and developed into the Whitney Studio Club in 1918. Whitney stayed true to her original intentions for the gallery by continuing to exhibit and sell works by young artists who were either too poor or too unknown to afford dealers.
The Whitney Museum
By this point, Whitney had built up her personal holdings in contemporary American art. In 1929, she chose to make her vast private art collection available to the public by offering her entire collection to New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, complete with an endowment to build a new museum wing in which to house her collection. After this offer was rejected, she established her own museum in 1931, known as the Whitney Museum of American Art. Whitney appointed Juliana Force, who had served as her assistant since 1914, as the museum's first director. For the remainder of her life, Whitney continued to make private gifts to young artists in the hope of advancing their study and work.
The camaraderie Whitney experienced during her early years in Greenwich Village helped her to become more focused on her art and gave her great self-confidence in her abilities as a sculptor. Others, too, increasingly recognized her talent. In 1912, she was hired to construct the terra cotta fountain in the Aztec style for the patio of the Pan American Union Building in Washington, D. C. Also, her marble sculpture titled Fountain of El Dorado, which depicted man's frantic search for gold, won a bronze medal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. This fountain was later erected as a permanent fixture in Lima, Peru.
Whitney's next large-scale work was the result of a 1914 competition in which she won the $50,000 Titanic Memorial commission. Her design and its execution are considered by many critics to be her most important work. This monument to American citizens who lost their lives in the famous sea tragedy is eighteen feet high and was installed on the banks of the Potomac in Washington, D. C., in 1931. A seminude figure of a man, carved in granite, takes the shape of a cross atop the sculpture's pedestal, thus contributing to the sculpture's powerful symbolism of sacrifice and resurrection. Critics contend that the work of French sculptor Auguste Rodin profoundly influenced Whitney in her execution of this monument.
Reacts to the War
As it did for many of her generation, World War I had a profound influence on Whitney. The awful realities of the war and the resulting bloodshed prompted her to establish a field hospital at Juilly, France, in the fall of 1914. She personally administered to the wounded soldiers until the spring of 1915, when exhaustion and anguish compelled her to return home. The war forced her to turn away from aesthetic abstraction in her art work, and her later works expressed greater realism, particularly her memorials to the soldiers of World War I. These pieces bore titles such as At His Post, His Last Charge, Gassed, Blinded, His Bunkie, Private in the 15th, and The Aviator. After she returned to New York, she had begun throwing together masses of clay to recreate images of the soldiers she had seen, and these statues formed the foundation for her larger war memorials of the 1920s. Whitney completed two panels for the Victory Arch in New York City as well as the Washington Heights Memorial at 168th Street and Broadway. The latter won the New York Society of Architects' Medal as the most meritorious work of 1922. In 1926, Whitney designed a large memorial for the harbor of St. Nazaire, France, to commemorate the 1917 landing of the first American Expeditionary Forces. Sadly, the Germans destroyed this monument during World War II.
Most of Whitney's later work of the 1920s and 1930s was completed at her studio in Paris. Whitney produced significant works during these two decades that diverged from the war theme. In 1924, she produced a larger-than-life bronze equestrian statue of Colonel William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, which was eventually installed at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. Whitney then created the Columbus Monument, a 114-foot statue that was placed at the port of Palos, Spain, in 1933.
In 1934, Whitney attracted national attention—not as a result of her work, but because of a highly publicized child custody case concerning her niece, Gloria Vanderbilt. Whitney fought for, and won, custody of Gloria. The stress and publicity surrounding the prolonged case greatly undermined Whitney's already failing health. She refused to give in to her illness, however, and continued to exhibit her work publicly until after the unveiling of her sculpture The Spirit of Flight at the New York World's Fair of 1939. Three years later Whitney died, reportedly of a heart condition, at the age of sixty-seven.
Whitney is one of the few American women to hold such a prominent position in the history of American art as a traditional sculptor of public monuments. Her work as an artist is often downplayed in light of her generosity as patron of modern American art. Ironically, the founding of the Whitney Museum is often viewed as her greatest creation. Although her work as a philanthropist was crucial in generating greater respect and attention for modern American artists and their work, Whitney is equally notable for her own struggle to establish herself as a sculptor of public monuments in an era when her gender and her social background made the realization of her dream nearly impossible.
If you enjoy the works of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney
you might want to check out the following:
The sculptures of Angela Gregory, a Louisiana artist who was a contemporary of Whitney and shared the status, in the 1920s, as one of the first female sculptors to obtain public commissions.
The work of Philip Martiny (1858-1927), an Italian-born artist whose numerous commissioned sculptures were installed in public spaces throughout New York City.
The work of Enid Bland Yandell (1869-1934), whose commissioned sculptures include decorative statuary at the Women's Pavillion at the Columbia Exposition in 1893.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Auchincloss, Louis, The Vanderbilt Era: Profiles of a Gilded Age, Scribner (New York, NY), 1989.
Berman, Avis, Rebels on Eight Street: Juliana Force and the Whitney Museum of American Art, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1990.
Friedman, Bernard H., Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1978.
Patterson, Jerry E., The Vanderbilts, Abrams (New York, NY), 1989.
Sims, Patterson, Whitney Museum of America Art, Norton (New York, NY), 1985.
Whitney Museum of American Art, Memorial Exhibition: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Whitney Museum of Art (New York, NY), 1943.
Art Digest, April 1, 1936; October 1, 1939; May 1, 1942; May 15, 1942; February 1, 1943.
Art in America, September, 1999, Jonathan Weinberg, "The Three Gertrudes," p. 45.
Art News, January 11, 1930; March 12, 1932; March 28, 1936; February 1, 1943.
Business Journal, June 5, 1995, Lorna Fernandes, "Whitney Exhibit Painting Pretty Picture for Museum," p. 2.
Creative Art, November, 1931.
House and Garden, September, 1985, Linda Nochlin and Karen Radkai, "High Bohemia; Sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's Long Island Studio Evokes the American Artistic Taste of the Twenties," p. 180.
International Studio, January, 1923, Guy Pène du Bois, "Mrs. Whitney's Journey in Art."
Magazine of Art, October, 1939, Forbes Watson, "The Growth of the Whitney Museum"; February, 1943, Margaret Breuning, "Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's Sculpture."
New York Times, April 18, 1942; April 21, 1942.
Vogue, March, 1998, Kennedy Fraser, "The Heiress," p. 468.
Buffalo Bill Historical Center,http://www.bbhc.org/ (January 18, 2004).
Whitney Museum of American Art,http://www.whitney.org/ (March 26, 2004).*