When a woman born into the privileged class bucks the system and comes into her own as an artist and philanthropist, a great story is born. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was decidedly born into the privileged class, on January 9, 1875. But the life she chose for herself was nothing short of revolutionary, having a huge impact upon the art world, and the Village.
Married in 1896 at the age of 21 to Harry Payne Whitney, who hailed from a family of similar wealth and status, Mrs. Whitney seemed destined to settle into the life of the Fifth Avenue socialite that befitted her name and her heritage. Instead, she took a very different path and broke with major unspoken rules of her elite caste, seeking a life of self-assertion and independence. And that has made all the difference.
While perhaps her single most important contribution to the world of art and culture is her lasting legacy in founding the Whitney Museum of American Art, her work as a sculptor is arguably equally as important and often mentioned only as a side note. Recovering from the singularly unhappy marriage to Whitney, who was a world-class polo player, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney pursued her passion to become a sculptor. A trip to Paris in 1901 inspired her to take her sculpting skills more seriously. Upon arrival back in New York City, she began studying assiduously at the prestigious Art Students League of New York. Her work there grew and matured as she came into her own as an artist. As a result of her time at the Art Students League, she acquired a depth of connection in the contemporary art world which would be her sustaining life source, as well as acquaint her with the emerging American artists whose work would form the basis for her collection.
Her first large piece, “Aspiration,” was completed in time to be selected for the outdoor sculpture plan at the Pan-American Exposition of 1901. It stood before the entrance to the New York State Building. This piece was not seen or heard of again after the Exposition. But Whitney’s career as an artist and patron of the arts was just beginning in 1901. Her talents and skills eventually grew to earn the respect of fellow artists. Among the several studios she built or bought for her use was the one at 19 Macdougal Alley in the heart of the Greenwich Village sculptor’s neighborhood.
In 1907 she opened the studio in Greenwich Village and the following year won her first prize, for a sculpture entitled Pan. Among her later notable creations were the Aztec Fountain (1912) for the Pan American Building and the Titanic Memorial (1914–31), both in Washington, D.C.
Her notable sculptures that can be found in New York City are the Victory Arch (1918–20), the Washington Heights War Memorial (1921), and the Peter Stuyvesant Monument (1936–39)
Her remarkable work can be found as well all over the globe.
She also created many sculptures in reaction to World War I, which deeply affected her. In 1923 she had a major exhibition of works on this subject at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Whitney’s contribution to the art world cannot be overstated. Her eye, her fortitude, and her courageous devotion to art remain a testament to her extraordinary life. The Whitney Museum, which she founded, was the first museum dedicated to contemporary American Art, and elevated such art considerably just as the United States was rapidly beginning to overtake Europe as the center of the western art world. The Whitney Museum was founded in 1931 on West 8th Street, in a trio of rowhouses which had served as Whitney’s studio. After leaving the Village in 1954 for midtown and then the Upper East Side, the Whitney returned to the Village in 2014 in a greatly expanded and dramatic new home on Gansevoort Street at the terminus of the High Line, where the museum does more than ever to celebrate and showcase American art and artists.