Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942)
A prominent social figure and a member of the fabulously wealthy Vanderbilt family, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney is best known as the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Herself one of the better American sculptors of the day, she began her career as an artist and collector in the late 1890s, and went on to win a number of important commissions, including the Washington Heights War Memorial, New York (1921), and the sublime Women's Titanic Memorial (1931) at Fort McNair, Washington DC., a marble replica of which was purchased by the French Government for the Musee du Luxembourg. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney remained a modest woman, active in a variety of philanthropic activities such as her important financial sponsorship of the International Composer's Guild. Her principal legacy however, is the Whitney Museum, which now has the finest collection of 20th century American art in the world, and is one of the best art museums in the United States.
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Born Gertrude Vanderbilt in New York City, she was the daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II (18431899) and Alice Claypoole Gwynne (18521934) and the great-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt. In keeping with her social status, she was educated by private tutors and also at the exclusive Brearley School, New York City. In 1896, at the age of 21, she married the banker and world-class polo player Harry Payne Whitney (18721930), who went on to inherit a fortune in oil as well as interests in banking. She had three children, Flora (1897), Cornelius (1899), and Barbara (1903).
After her third child, Gertrude Whitney took a trip to Europe. While she was in Paris she experienced at first hand the creative whirl of Montmartre and Montparnasse, and was inspired to take her art more seriously. Accordingly, she studied sculpture at the Art Students League of New York, and also under the great Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) in Paris, and went on to open studios in both New York (Greenwich Village) and Paris (Passy).
While not quite attaining the status of American sculptors like Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Louise Nevelson (Louise Berliawsky) (1899-1988), David Smith (1906-1965), Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), or Donald Judd (1928-94), her works attracted critical acclaim both in Europe and the United States. The most famous sculptures by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney include: the Washington Heights War Memorial (1921), and the Women's Titanic Memorial (1931), as well as the monument to Buffalo Bill (William F. Cody Memorial) (Cody, Wyoming), and the Monument to the Discovery Faith (Huelva, Spain).
Collector and Patron of the Arts
Whitney's patronage began in 1907 when she converted her New York studio in Greenwich Village into an exhibition space and gallery for young painters and sculptors. In 1914, she purchased the adjoining property, at 8 West 8th Street, turned it into galleries for young artists to display their works, and opened it to the public as the Whitney Studio. She followed this up by founding a number of other charitable organizations, including the Friends of Young Artists (1915), the Whitney Studio Club (1918), and the Whitney Studio Galleries (1928).
Founder of the Whitney Museum
Meanwhile, ever since the early 1900s, Whitney had been collecting a range of American painting and sculpture, and by the late 1920s was regarded as a serious collector. Indeed, guided by her advisor Juliana Force, she had accumulated almost 700 works of American art, which in 1929 she offered to donate to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, as the city's newly opened Museum of Modern Art, maintained a preference for European modern art. Amazingly, her generous offer was declined by the Met, whereupon she determined to open her own museum, exclusively for American Art. This she did, and in 1931 The Whitney Museum of American Art opened under the direction of Juliana Force in a group of brownstone buildings at 10 West 8th Street. Its remit was avant-garde art by contemporary American artists. The Museum is now housed in a purpose-built townhouse, designed by Marcel Breuer and Hamilton P. Smith, at 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street in Manhattan's Upper East Side.
Whitney's Art Collection
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's personal collection of about 600 works formed the museum's initial core collection. It included paintings by Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924), John Sloan (1871-1951), George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1875), Stuart Davis (1894-1964), and many others.
Today, the permanent collection of The Whitney Museum of American Art reads like an A-Z of American 20th Century Artists. It showcases all the important movements of modern art in America, including: Hudson River School (c.1825-65), Luminism (c.1850-75), Realism (19th century), American Impressionism (19th/20th century) Ashcan School (New York c.1892-1919), Precisionism (aka, Cubist Realism, 1920s), Regionalism (1930s), American Scene Painting (c.1925-45), Abstract Expressionism (late 1940s/early 60s), Pop Art (late 50s on), Minimalism (60s/70s), and Photorealism (60s on).
Highlights of the Whitney Museum Collection
- Painting, Number 5 (1914) by Marsden
Other 20th century painters represented include: Josef Albers, George Caleb Bingham, Charles Burchfield, Dan Christensen, Ronald Davis, Richard Diebenkorn, Arthur Dove, William Eggleston, Richard Estes, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, Arshile Gorky, Keith Haring, Grace Hartigan, Eva Hesse, Hans Hofmann, Ellsworth Kelly, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, Ronnie Landfield, Roy Lichtenstein, John Marin, Knox Martin, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, Maurice Prendergast, Man Ray, Albert Pinkham Ryder, John Sloan, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol, and many others.
The Whitney Biennial
In 1932, Whitney instituted The Whitney Biennial, an invitational event devoted to artworks created in the preceding two years by emerging American painters, sculptors and contemporary artists. The event has become a showcase for contemporary art by less well-known artists from across the United States.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney served as President and Chairman of the museum until her death in 1942. She was succeeded by her daughter Flora Whitney-Miller, and thereafter by her granddaughter Flora Miller Biddle.