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.


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

Gertrude Vanderbilt was born in New York City January 9, 1875, the second daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II (1843–1899) and Alice Claypoole Gwynne (1852–1934) and a great-granddaughter of "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt. Her older sister died before Gertrude was born, but she grew up with several brothers and a younger sister.[1] The family's New York city home was an opulent mansion at 742-748 Fifth Avenue.[2] As a young girl, Gertrude spent her summers in Newport, Rhode Island, at the family's summer home, The Breakers, where she kept up with the boys in all their rigorous sporting activities. She was educated by private tutors and at the exclusive Brearley School for women students in New York City.[1]

At age 21, on August 25, 1896, Gertrude married the extremely wealthy sportsman Harry Payne Whitney (1872–1930).[1][3] 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.[4] In New York, the couple lived in town houses originally belonging to William Whitney, first at 2 East 57th St., across the street from Gertrude's parents, and after William Whitney's death, at 871 Fifth Avenue.[5] They also had a country estate in Westbury, Long Island.[3] Gertrude and Harry Whitney had three children: Flora (1897-1986), Cornelius (1899-1992), and Barbara (1903-1983, m 1960 George W. Headley). [4]

Education and training[edit]

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in her studio, ca. 1920

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.

She studied at the Art Students League of New York with Hendrik Christian Andersen and James Earle Fraser.[6] Other women students in her classes included Anna Vaughn Hyatt and Malvina Hoffman.[7] In Paris she studied with Andrew O'Connor[8] and also received criticism from Auguste Rodin in Paris.[9][10] Her training with sculptors of public monuments influenced her later direction.[3] Although her catalogs include numerous smaller sculptures,[6][11][12] she is best known today for her monumental works.[13]

Initially she worked under an assumed name, fearing that she would be portrayed as a socialite and her work not taken seriously.[14]

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.

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 kilometres (22 mi) northwest of Paris in France. During World War I, her brother Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt perished in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.

Following the end of the War, she was involved in the creation of a number of commemorative sculptures.

Public sculpture[edit]

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's numerous works in the United States include:

Whitney also created works which are now in other countries, including the A.E.F. Memorial in St. Nazaire Harbor in Saint-Nazaire, France, 1924.[22] The Government of France purchased a marble replica of the head of the Titanic memorial which is now housed in the Musée du Luxembourg.

Whitney sculpted the Christopher Columbus memorial, called "Monumento a la Fe Descubridora" (Monument to the Discovery Faith), in Huelva, Spain, 1928–33. With a cubist style, it is one of her biggest works.

In 1931 Whitney presented the Caryatid Fountain to McGill University in Montreal, Canada,. The fountain is also referred to as The Good Will Fountain, The Friendship Fountain, The Whitney Fountain, The Three Graces and because it consists of three nude males, The Three Bares..[23]

Influence in art[edit]

Robert Henri, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1916
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, in Vogue magazine, by Adolf de Meyer, 15 January 1917

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.

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."[24]

Awards and honors[edit]

  • Medal of Award at Panama-Pacific Exhibition for Fountain of El Dorado, 1915[25]
  • Associate member of National Sculpture Society, 1916[25]
  • Medal from the New York Society of Architects for the Mitchel Square World War I memorial, 1923
  • Honorary degree, New York University, 1922[26]
  • Honorary degree, Tufts University, 1924[26]
  • Bronze medallion at Paris Salon for Buffalo Bill - The Scout, 1924[25]
  • French Legion of Honor medal, 1926[25]
  • Honorary degree, Rutgers University, 1934[26]
  • Honorary degree, Russell Sage College, 1940[26]
  • Associate of National Academy of Design, 1940[26]
  • Medal of Honor of the National Sculpture Society, 1940[25]

Later life[edit]

Harry Whitney died of pneumonia in 1930, at age 58, leaving his widow an estate valued at $72 million.[27]

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, at age 67, and was interred next to her husband in Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York.[28] Her daughter Flora Whitney Miller assumed her mother's duties as head of the Whitney Museum, and was succeeded by her daughter, Flora Miller Biddle.[29]

In 1999, Gertrude Whitney's granddaughter, Flora Miller Biddle, published a family memoir entitled The Whitney Women and the Museum They Made. She was also the subject of B. H. Friedman's 1978 Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney: A Biography.[30]

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.


Titles from birth to death[edit]

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


  1. ^ a b c Vanderbilt, Arthur T., II (August 1989). Fortune's Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt. New York: Morrow. ISBN 0-688-07279-8. Retrieved 17 December 2014. 
  2. ^ Waldman, Benjamin. "Then and Now: Remnants of the Vanderbilt Mansion in New York City". Untapped Cities. Retrieved 27 December 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c d Magill, Frank N., ed. (1999). "Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney". Dictionary of world biography. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn. pp. 3969–3971. ISBN 1579580483. Retrieved 27 December 2014. 
  4. ^ a b "Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney [1875-1942]". New Netherland Institute. Retrieved 17 December 2014. 
  5. ^ Adams, Michael Henry. "The Most Palatial House in New York: Stanford White's William Collins Whitney Residence!". Michael Henry Adams, Style and Taste!. Retrieved 27 December 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c Memorial exhibition; Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. New York: Whitney museum of American art. 1943. Retrieved 27 December 2014. 
  7. ^ McCarthy, Kathleen D. (1991). Women's culture : American philanthropy and art, 1830-1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 221. ISBN 9780226555843. Retrieved 28 December 2014. 
  8. ^ Opitz, Glenn B, Editor, Mantle Fielding's Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors & Engravers, Apollo Book, Poughkeepsie NY, 1986
  9. ^ Friedman, B.H., Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Doubleday and Company New York, 1978
  10. ^ "The Whitney Museum of American Art". The Art Retrieved 27 December 2014. 
  11. ^ Exhibition of sculpture by Gertrude V. Whitney of New York : March 1 to April 15, 1923. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago. 1923. 
  12. ^ Sculpture by Gertrude V. Whitney : [exhibition], March 17 through 28, 1936. M. Knoedler and Co. 1936. Retrieved 28 December 2014. 
  13. ^ Marter, Joan (2000). "Whitney, Gertrude Vanderbilt". American National Biography Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 28 December 2014. 
  14. ^ Staples, Shelley. ""The Part Played By Women:" The Gender of Modernism at the Armory Show". American Studies Program. University of Virginia. Retrieved 2001. 
  15. ^ Marter, Joan (2011). The Grove encyclopedia of American art. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 212–214. ISBN 9780195335798. Retrieved 27 December 2014. 
  16. ^ Capraro, Douglas. "Daily What?! The Flatiron’s Mysterious “Victory Arch” at Madison Square Park". Untapped Cities. Retrieved 27 December 2014. 
  17. ^ "Mitchel Square Washington Heights-Inwood War Memorial". NYC Parks. New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Retrieved 27 December 2014. 
  18. ^ Meier, Allison. "From Da Bronx to Eternity". Hypoallergenic (Blog). Retrieved July 3, 2012. 
  19. ^ "Founders Memorial". Daughters of the American Revolution. Retrieved 31 October 2014. 
  20. ^ "Daughters of the American Revolution, Founders statue at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.". DC Memorials. 20 April 2013. Retrieved 17 December 2014. 
  21. ^ "Art - Sculpture - To the Morrow (Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney)". NYPL Digital Gallery. Retrieved 27 December 2014. 
  22. ^ McAuliffe, John. "St. Nazaire, France Memorial". 87th Infantry Division Photo Galleries. Retrieved 27 December 2014. 
  23. ^ The Good Will Fountain, The Friendship Fountain, The Whitney Fountain, as well as The Three Graces.
  24. ^ Myers, Jerome (1940). Artist In Manhattan. New York: American Artist Group, Inc. p. 61. 
  25. ^ a b c d e Commire, Anne; Klezmer, Deborah, eds. (1999). "Whitney, Gertrude Vanderbilt (1875–1942)". Women in world history : a biographical encyclopedia. Waterford, Conn.: Yorkin Publishers. ISBN 0787640808. Retrieved 27 December 2014. 
  26. ^ a b c d e James, Edward T.; James, Janet Wilson; Boyer, Paul S., eds. (1974). Notable American women, 1607-1950 : a biographical dictionary (3. print. ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. pp. 601–603. ISBN 0674627342. Retrieved 27 December 2014. 
  27. ^ Vanderbilt, 354.
  28. ^ "Mrs. H.P. Whitney, Sculptor, Is Dead". The New York Times. 18 April 1942. Retrieved 2014-12-17. 
  29. ^ Howe, Marvine (19 July 1986). "Flora Whitney Miller Is Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-12-17. 
  30. ^ Weber, Bruce (January 10, 2011). "B. H. Friedman, a Novelist, Art Critic and Pollock Biographer, Is Dead at 84". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-01-11. 

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