Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

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Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (c 1909).jpg
circa 1909
Born Gertrude Vanderbilt
9 January 1875
New York City
Died 18 April 1942 (aged 67)
New York City
Nationality American
Occupation Sculptor
Art collector
Spouse(s) Harry Payne Whitney
Children Flora Whitney Miller
Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney
Barbara Whitney Headley
Parents Cornelius Vanderbilt II
Alice Claypoole Gwynne

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (January 9, 1875 – April 18, 1942) was an American sculptor, art patron and collector, and founder in 1931 of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. She was a prominent social figure and hostess, who was born into the wealthy Vanderbilt family and married into the Whitney family.

Biography[edit]

Gertrude, 13 years of age. (John Everett Millais, 1888)

Gertrude Vanderbilt was born in New York City on January 9, 1875. She was the second daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843–1899) and Alice Claypoole Gwynne (1852–1934) and a great-granddaughter of "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt. As a young girl, Gertrude Vanderbilt spent her summers in Newport, Rhode Island, at the family's mansion, The Breakers, where she kept up with the boys in all their rigorous sporting activities. Educated by private tutors and at the exclusive Brearley School in New York City, at age 21 she married the extremely wealthy sportsman Harry Payne Whitney (1872–1930).[1]

A banker and investor, Whitney was the son of William Collins Whitney, and his mother, the former Flora Payne, was the daughter of a U.S. Senator and sister of a Standard Oil Company magnate. Harry Whitney inherited a fortune in oil and tobacco as well as interests in banking. Gertrude and Harry Whitney had three children: Flora (1897-1986), Cornelius (1899-1992), and Barbara (1903-1983, m 1960 George W. Headley). [2]

Influence in art[edit]

Robert Henri, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1916

While visiting Europe in the early 1900s, Gertrude Whitney discovered the burgeoning art world of Montmartre and Montparnasse in France. What she saw encouraged her to pursue her creativity and become a sculptor.

As such, she studied her craft at the Art Students League of New York and then with Auguste Rodin in Paris. Eventually, she maintained art studios in Greenwich Village and in Passy, a fashionable Parisian neighborhood in the XVI arrondissement. Her works received critical acclaim both in Europe and the United States.

Her great wealth afforded her the opportunity to become a patron of the arts, but she also devoted herself to the advancement of women in art. She was the primary financial backer for the "International Composer's Guild," an organization created to promote the performance of modern music.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, in Vogue magazine, by Adolf de Meyer, 15 January 1917

In 1914, in one of the many Manhattan properties she and her husband owned, Gertrude Whitney established the Whitney Studio Club at 8 West 8th Street in Greenwich Village as a facility where young artists could exhibit their works. The place would evolve to become her greatest legacy, the Whitney Museum of American Art, on the site of today's New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. Founded in 1931, she decided to put the time and money into the museum after the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art turned down her offer to contribute her twenty-five-year collection of modern art works.

A colorful recollection of one of her parties celebrating her artist friends was recounted by the artist Jerome Myers:

"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 line 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."[3]

Public sculpture by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney[edit]

"The Scout" commemorating Buffalo Bill in Cody, Wyoming
With a cubist-like style, the "Monument to the Discovery Faith" is one of her biggest works

Gertrude Whitney sculpted the Christopher Columbus memorial, called "Monumento a la Fe Descubridora" (Monument to the Discovery Faith), located in Huelva, Spain.

Her numerous United States works include:

A marble replica of the head of the Titanic memorial was purchased by the Government of France for the Musée du Luxembourg.

Life during World War I[edit]

During World War I, Gertrude Whitney dedicated a great deal of her time and money to various relief efforts, establishing and maintaining a hospital for wounded soldiers in Juilly, about 35 km northwest of Paris in France. Following the end of the War, she was involved in the creation of a number of commemorative sculptures.

It was also during World War I that her brother Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt perished in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.

Later life[edit]

Her husband Harry died of pneumonia in 1930, at the age of 58, leaving his widow an estate valued at $72 million.[4] In 1934, she was at the center of a highly publicized court battle with her sister-in-law, Gloria Morgan-Vanderbilt, for custody of her ten-year-old niece, Gloria Vanderbilt.

Gertrude Whitney died in 1942, aged 67, and was interred next to her husband in Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York. Her daughter Flora Whitney-Miller assumed her mother's duties as head of the Whitney Museum.

In 1999, Gertrude Whitney's granddaughter, Flora Miller Biddle, published a family memoir titled The Whitney Women and the Museum They Made. She was also the subject of B. H. Friedman's 1978 Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney: A Biography.[5]

In the 1982 tele-film, Little Gloria...Happy At Last, Whitney was portrayed by actress Angela Lansbury, who earned an Emmy nomination for her performance.

Ancestry[edit]

Titles from birth to death[edit]

  • 1875-1896: Miss Gertrude Vanderbilt
  • 1896-1930: Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney
  • 1930-1942: Mrs. Gertrude Whitney

References[edit]

  1. ^ Vanderbilt, Arthur T., II (1989). Fortune's Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt. New York: Morrow. ISBN 0-688-07279-8. 
  2. ^ Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney at www.nnp.org
  3. ^ Jerome Myers autobiography "Artist In Manhattan" p.61 (American Artist Group, Inc.)
  4. ^ Vanderbilt, 354.
  5. ^ Weber, Bruce. "B. H. Friedman, a Novelist, Art Critic and Pollock Biographer, Is Dead at 84", The New York Times, January 10, 2011. Accessed January 11, 2011.

External links[edit]