A photograph of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in front of her sculptural series of soldiers

Women's History Month: Meet Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

By Margie Fuchs

As the seriousness of the news continues to increase, we encourage you to pause and take a break – however briefly – with one of the most impactful women in modern art history. 

March marks Women’s History Month, the annual celebration of the contributions of women around the world. Last year, we responded to the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ prompt can you name five women artists? by sharing the stories of five artists whose work has shaped the American art historical canon. This year, we’re reversing the question and detailing five facts about a singular woman artist.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s maiden and married names show the weight of her lineage. Aside from being a member of the turn-of-the-century American elite, Whitney (1874-1942) was a virtuoso sculptor, a proponent of American Modernism and one of the most influential arts patrons of the 20th century. Learn more about Whitney and her enduring legacy.

A portrait of a young Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney standing in a white dress next to a vase with flowers.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney by John Everett Millais, 1888.

1. An accomplished artist and sculptor, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney produced commissioned works around the globe.

Raised on New York City’s tony Fifth Avenue, Whitney was fascinated by the arts from an early age. She and her siblings posed for the likes of John Everett Millais and her childhood diaries were filled with miniature drawings and watercolors.[1] After marrying polo champion Henry Payne Whitney, of the esteemed Whitney oil and tobacco business, in 1896, Whitney’s interest in the arts grew more serious. Exposure to the bohemian Parisian artistic scene in the early 1900s inspired her to become a sculptor and, upon returning to the United States, she enrolled at the prestigious Art Students League of New York. She also returned to Paris to study with American-Irish sculptor Andrew O’Connor; her French studio work was even critiqued by Auguste Rodin.[2]

Whitney received her first public commission in 1901. Aspiration, a life-size plaster nude, appeared in front of the New York State Building in Buffalo, New York during the Pan-American Exposition of 1901. She initially worked under a pseudonym for fear that her pedigree would prevent her work from being taken seriously. However, by the next decade Whitney was publicly exhibiting under her own name, presenting works at the 1910 National Academy of Design, 1911 Paris Salon and 1915 San Francisco Exhibition.

Washington Heights-Inwood War Memorial, commemorating those who fought in World War I.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, American, 1875-1942. Washington Heights-Inwood War Memorial, 1923. Bronze, Deer Isle granite. 12 feet 10 in high; 12 feet in diameter.

The 1910s saw Whitney’s reputation as a preeminent American sculptor take off. She was commissioned for a number of public works, including the Aztec Fountain at the Pan American Union Building in Washington, D.C., the Fountain of El Dorado at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco and two reliefs on Madison Square Park’s Victory Arch in New York City. When public taste shifted toward commemorative sculptures, Whitney took up the mantle, creating memorial works for the sinking of the Titanic (Women’s Titanic Memorial, Washington, D.C.) and World War I (Washington Heights-Inwood War Memorial, New York City). Internationally, Whitney’s works can be found in France, Spain and Canada.

2. World War I had a fundamental impact on Whitney’s art.

Like many Americans, Whitney donated her time and money to the relief effort during the first World War. She established a hospital for wounded soldiers northwest of Paris and relocated to France to oversee the maintenance of the facility.[3] Her drawings from that time captured the suffering seen on the frontlines, often depicting the physical and emotional impact of the war on soldiers. Sketched from the hospital, many of these works became the inspiration for memorials back in the United States, including the Washington Heights-Inwood War Memorial in Manhattan.

The sinking of the RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915 struck Whitney directly. Her brother, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, businessman and heir to the vast Vanderbilt estate, perished onboard after giving his life vest to save a young mother and her baby.[4]

World War I haunted Whitney and, following armistice, she completed a series of miniature sculptures portraying soldiers on and off of the battlefield. Works including Chateau Thierry (1919, Engineers (1919), His Last Charge (1919) and Found (1919) trace the chronology of a battle, from troops’ arrival at a location and the construction of fortifications to offensive attacks and rescuing fallen comrades. Standing over four feet tall, Whitney’s bronze statue Honorably Discharged (1919) realistically portrays a wounded fighter with grace and honor. Save for a singular show of Whitney’s wartime sculptures at her Eighth Street Studio in November 1919, these smaller works were largely overlooked during Whitney’s lifetime.[5] With time, critics have come to recognize the expert craftsmanship and emotional impact of these works. Jonathan Boos is proud to have placed Honorably Discharged into the permanent collection at The Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.

A bronze sculpture of a wounded solider.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (American, 1875-1942). Honorably Discharged, 1919, bronze. 53 ¾ inches high. Inscribed Gertrude V. Whitney and dated 1919 on the base.

3. Whitney was one of the most prominent arts patrons of the last century.

Aside from being an artist, Whitney was a fervent supporter of the arts. According to the Whitney Museum (more on the institution’s name later), she noticed the turn-of-the-century struggle of American artists in breaking into the global art market and began purchasing and showcasing their work. The heiress was particularly interested in realist and modernist works, actively buying pieces from the Ashcan School, John Singer Sargent and other emerging artists. She cultivated the careers of fellow New York creatives, including Robert Henri, Arthur B. Davies and George Luks, and even provided housing and living stipends so that artists could focus on their work. In the words of art critic Henry McBride, “there was not a contemporary artist of note in America who has not been helped by Mrs. Whitney.”[6]

She commissioned Henri to paint a portrait of her in 1916. Lounging on a daybed in the traditional reclining nude position, Whitney wears pants – radical for the day – and exudes a self-possessed demeanor. Henri thus transformed his patron into a quintessential “modern” woman. Whitney’s husband was so shocked by the progressive nature of the portrait that he refused to hang the work in their Manhattan townhouse.[7]

Whitney championed the exhibition of local, national and international artwork across the United States.  She financially supported the landmark 1913 Armory Show in New York City, which is credited with bringing European Modernism to North America, and donated to John Sloan’s struggling Society of Independent Artists.[8] She organized exhibitions at galleries across the country and aided other American art institutions, including the National Sculpture Society and the National Academy of Design. She even financed the Defense in the 1926 Supreme Court case Brancusi vs. The U.S., which argued that non-figurative artworks, including Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space, legally qualified as sculpture.[9] Outside of the visual arts, Whitney was the primary financial backer of the International Composer’s Guild, which advocated for the performance of modern music.[10] Today, she is remembered as “the leading patron of American art from 1907 until her death in 1942.”[11]

4. She founded the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan.

Exterior of The Whitney Museum of Art.
The Whitney Museum of American Art. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art

Whitney’s legacy and cultural impact live on in the Whitney Museum of American Art, the first museum dedicated to contemporary American art. Now located in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, The Whitney is the outgrowth of the Whitney Studio and the adjoining Whitney Studio Gallery. The latter opened in 1908 in the bohemian Greenwich Village as a space to exhibit new American art. Six years later, Whitney launched the Whitney Studio Club, an artists’ club for the city’s bourgeoning creative scene to mingle, attend programming and debut new pieces.

In 1929, Whitney offered to donate her collection of over 600 American modern artworks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as pay for the construction of a new wing in which to house these pieces. The Met declined Whitney’s proposal, stating that it was not currently collecting American art. Undeterred, Whitney elected to establish her own museum dedicated to modernism in the United States. The Whitney Museum formally opened in 1931. Its collection has grown to feature over 25,000 artworks by more than 3,000 artists in the US during the 20th and 21st centuries.[12]

5. Whitney advocated for the advancement of women in the arts throughout her lifetime.

To cap off this Women’s History Month piece, we would be remiss not to note Whitney’s central role in advancing women in the arts. Throughout her decades of patronage, Whitney supported the shows of women artists and pushed for greater inclusion of women in mixed exhibitions.[13] Whitney founded the exclusive Manhattan women’s Colony Club and organized an exhibition of antique lace, member portraits and contemporary American painting in 1907. She did not discriminate by sex in her support for artists, and supported Peggy Bacon, Mabel Dwight and more women artists.

“Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was a good citizen…it was not enough to put her thoughts into concrete, stone, and bronze, she wished the entire country to share her pleasure in the arts, and from the moment of her first emergence into public life she began a system of philanthropies that finally placed the entire country in her debt,” McBride noted in his memorial essay following Whitney’s death in 1942.[14] We couldn’t have said it better. 

 

Cover image: Jean de Strelecki, Polish, 1882–1947. “Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Working at Her MacDougal Alley Studio,” circa 1919. Courtesy Library of Congress.

[1] McNeal, Patricia (2008). “Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney”. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia Research Starters – via EBSCO.

[2] Friedman, B.H., Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Doubleday and Company New York, 1978.

[3] Grimm, Jr., Robert T. (2002). Notable American philanthropists: biographies of giving and volunteering. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. pp. 341–344.

[4] Preston, Diane (May 2002). Torpedoed! The Sinking of the Lusitania. Smithsonian Magazine. pp. 64–65. Archived from the original on 2006-09-01.

[5] Roberts, Mary Fanton (1919). Sculpture of War: The Work of Gertrude V. Whitney. The Touchstone and the American Art Student Magazine. 6: 188–194.

[6] Clarice Stasz. The Vanderbilt Women: Dynasty of Wealth, Glamour and Tragedy. 1991. iUniverse.

[7] The Whitney Museum of American Art.

[8] Shircliff, Jennifer Pfeifer (May 2014). Women of the 1913 Armory Show: Their Contributions to the Development of American Modern Art. Louisville, Kentucky: University of Louisville. 

[9] Mary Kate Cleary, “But Is It Art?” Constantin Brancusi vs. the United States. Inside/Out blog. Museum of Modern Art.

[10] Locke, Ralph P., ed. (1997). Cultivating music in America: Women Patrons and Activists Since 1860. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. pp. 239–241.

[11] The Whitney Museum of American Art.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Whitney, Gertrude Vanderbilt (1875–1942)”. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia.com.

[14] Clarice Stasz. The Vanderbilt Women: Dynasty of Wealth, Glamour and Tragedy. 1991. iUniverse.