West Palm Beach, Fla.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942) is known as the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art. But she was also a sculptor, and a very good one. Her memorial to the victims of the Titanic, in Washington, is one of the greatest works of commemorative art produced in this country. So why has it taken 75 years for there to be a major survey of her work, which the Norton Museum of Art has now organized?
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney: Sculpture
Norton Museum of Art
Through April 29
Whitney worked in a realist style that was innovative for its time—the sculpural equivalent of works by her friends the Ashcan School of painters. That might have been enough to secure posthumous renown had it not been for the 1913 Armory Show and its impact. Artists, like Whitney, who remained unmoved by the language of abstract and semi-abstract forms on view there ultimately fell into obscurity. So while this show will travel, her eponymous museum in New York will not be a venue, a situation that can be most charitably described as odd.
More than an exhibition, then, “Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney: Sculpture” is an act of cultural reclamation. Organized by the Norton’s
Ellen E. Roberts
and featuring some 45 sculptures and drawings, it restores to view the work of an artist who, while she didn’t invent new forms or styles, nonetheless brought something completely individual to American sculpture.
Gertrude Vanderbilt was born into the uppermost reaches of American wealth and society. In 1896 she married
Harry Payne Whitney,
who, as Ms. Roberts notes in the exhibition catalog, “was heir to only slightly less money than she was.” Yet from the beginning she chafed under her emotionally repressed family environment and the limitations imposed by her gender and social class. Women of her day were supposed to stay at home and raise children. Heiresses occupying themselves with anything more serious than teas and charity balls were dismissed as dilettantes. As the label accompanying her 1906 portrait bust of Harry wryly notes, he “considered her interest in art making to be the equivalent of his own interest in polo and horseracing.”
Anyone doubting Whitney’s talent or seriousness need only look at “Spanish Peasant” (1911) here. A plaster portrait bust of one of her studio assistants, it is bracing in its stripped-down realism, with nothing detracting from the sensitive limning of character and mood of introspection.
In 1914 Whitney was awarded the commission for the Titanic memorial, producing an over-life-size, loosely draped male figure standing with arms outstretched and face tilted slightly upward. In its combination of formal simplicity, rhetorical restraint and subtle symbolism it has few equals in American public sculpture.
But there’s a subtle difference in the nearly 3-foot-tall model, included in the show, that has a transformative effect on the statue’s meaning. In the finished monument both palms face down. Here the right one faces up, the left down, a position signifying harmony and balance in Chinese cosmology. Thus the overall pose fuses Christian and Buddhist symbolism. Whitney had traveled to Asia on her honeymoon in 1896, and 17 years later sculpted a self-portrait, “Chinoise,” also in the show, depicting herself in the pose of a bodhisattva. So Asian iconography was part of her visual lexicon.
Like many American sculptors of her generation, Whitney came under the influence of
For Whitney, the Frenchman’s free handling of material and frank—sometimes scandalously so—emotionalism represented both a new approach to sculpture and a way of uncorking long bottled-up emotions. This influence is most pronounced in a series of war sculptures.
Whitney had volunteered in a hospital outside Paris and had seen firsthand the effects of the carnage. So in contrast to the heroic voice of most other American representations of World War I subjects, Whitney’s sculptures articulate a tragic vision. Poignant but unsentimental works, their subjects are the looming shadow of mortality—such as the show’s “Orders,” of a soldier learning his destination, and “Home Again,” where a crutch-toting serviceman is embraced by his wife or girlfriend—or death itself, as in the Washington Heights and Inwood Memorial in upper Manhattan. Here two soldiers support the collapsing figure of a comrade about to expire.
While Whitney remained faithful to her realist vision throughout her career, here and there a modernist impulse makes itself felt. It appears in the subordination of descriptive detail to the play of material in the smaller war sculptures, and in “Daphne” (1933), which we read both as the representation of a mythological subject and pure form in space.
You can be an ardent modernist and still regret the exile of so many talented sculptors from the story of American art on grounds of ideological impurity. Some, like
(1840-1907), have been rehabilitated. But many others, like the brilliant animalier
(1877-1962), continue to languish in museum storerooms. It would be nice to think that, rather than an isolated event, “Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney: Sculpture” is the beginning of a broad reconsideration of these figures.
—Mr. Gibson is the Journal’s Arts in Review editor.