October 8, 2014

Whitney Studio: Haven and Legacy for Early 20th-Century American Art

A female born in the late 19th century with the prestigious name Vanderbilt was expected to take her place at the center of Victorian high society, devoting her life to lavish parties and charitable works. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney instead became the center of a world of her own creation -- as a sculptor, arts patron, and cultivator of audiences for American artists at her New York City studio in Greenwich Village’s MacDougal Alley.

Today the studio is owned by The New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. Recently designated a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, work is underway to restore the studio to its original appearance and to share the many stories held within the walls of this National Historic Landmark.

Whitney’s story is all the more compelling because she succeeded at a time when her actions were shocking to an early 20th century world that had firm ideas about a woman’s place.

She summed up this expectation: “Let a woman who does not have to work for her livelihood take a studio to do the work in which she is most intensely interested and she is greeted by a chorus of horror-stricken voices, a knowing lifting of the eyebrows or a twist of the mouth that is equally expressive.”

Facade, New York Studio School, 8 West 8th Street, New York City

Interior of Whitney Studio with "War Monument" model, 1928, by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Robert Chanler fireplace and screen in background.

Born in 1875 to the exceedingly wealthy Cornelius Vanderbilt and his wife Alice, Whitney married the equally wealthy Harry Payne Whitney when she was 21. Even as she fulfilled her societal role, she could not ignore her need to be a sculptor. Within a few years Whitney had a studio in her home, but the visits of friends she described as “half amused, half interested” were slowing her work.

In 1907, Whitney purchased a stable at 19 MacDougal Alley, finding a haven in this enclave of townhouses and stables converted to artists’ studios -- a place where she was surrounded by other artists.

Newspapers announced: “Daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt Will Live in Dingy New York Alley” read the headline in the Topeka Daily Capital. “Mrs. H.P. Whitney Joins Alley Art Colony” noted the El Paso Herald. The New York Times reported that Whitney “is having a stable transformed into a commodious studio. In its fittings the new studio will be elaborate but simple. Studios on MacDougal Alley are meant for work.”

Detail (sun), Whitney Studio, magnificent bas-relief plaster ceiling created by Robert Winthrop Chanler, c. 1918-1923.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney with her assistant, Salvatore F. Bilotti, at work in her sculpture studio on MacDougal Alley, c. 1939, on the maquette for her sculpture "Spirit of Flight" exhibited in the 1939 World's Fair in New York.

Whitney’s efforts were not limited to making a name for herself as a sculptor. She also used her wealth to purchase, commission, and exhibit the work of other artists. Noticing there were few exhibition spaces for artists, in 1908 she opened two galleries next to her studio for exhibitions by fellow artists. By 1910, Whitney was encouraging artists with art competitions, a practice she continued for many years.

Her purchase of a townhouse led to the opening of The Whitney Studio in 1914 with exhibits “to benefit sufferers of the European war” reported the Newport (Rhode Island) Daily News. Works which were auctioned from the exhibit were contributed by Gertrude, James Earl Fraser, Daniel Chester French, and other artists.

Whitney was also intent on making art instruction accessible to American artists and formed the Friends of Young Artists to provide stipends, classes, and exhibitions. In 1914, after identifying what she called “the terrible lack in our city’s capacities” to nurture struggling artists, she formed The Whitney Studio Club which featured a minimum of 10 exhibitions each season of unknown artists and students.

By 1931, Whitney had consolidated four town houses and carriage houses into a single structure for The Whitney Museum of American Art -- the first museum exclusively devoted to American art of the 20th century and the country’s greatest single sponsor of non-academic artists.

Despite her success, she faced disapproval throughout her career. In 1919, Whitney told the New York Times: “The public at large refused to believe that I was doing anything serious. The people I met were all very nice about it. Very. In the manner that a fond parent pats a wayward child on the head. In a manner that implied that everything was lovely and sweet, but that I should get over it in time.”

She did not “get over it.” Instead, she started getting commissions. Works included a fountain sculpture for the Pan-American Building in Washington, D.C.; “Spanish Peasant” purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a design for a memorial to the victims of the Titanic; the monumental sculpture Buffalo Bill -- The Scout and Spirit of Flight; and a statue created for the 1939-1940 World’s Fair.

Her awards included the Paris Salon Honorable Mention, National Arts Club Prize, Medal of the New York Society of Architects, Medaille de la reconnaissance from the Government of France, Grand Cross Order of King Alfonso of Spain, and medals from American Art Dealers Association and the National Sculpture Society.

After Whitney’s death in 1942, the art museum continued to operate, but moved in 1952, leaving the site to be occupied by tenants. In 1967, the property became The New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, continuing the tradition of instruction and encouragement of up-and-coming artists, painters, and sculptors.

In a 1919 New York Times interview, Whitney’s comment foreshadowed her legacy: “Doing the unexpected always has its power of charm.”

Now with the work of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and The New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s “unexpected” achievements will once again have the “power to charm” a new generation.

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