Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney


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(b New York, 9 Jan. 1875; d New York, 18 Apr. 1942).

American sculptor, patron, and collector, the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. She was the daughter of Cornelius II Vanderbilt, an immensely wealthy railroad magnate, and turned seriously to art after her marriage in 1896 to Harry Payne Whitney, a financier and world-class polo player. Her training as a sculptor included periods at the Art Students League and in Paris, where she knew Rodin. She won several major commissions, notably for monuments commemorating the First World War, including the Washington Heights War Memorial, New York (1921). Her style was traditional, but she was sympathetic towards progressive art and is much more important as a patron than as an artist. In 1907 she opened her New York studio as an exhibition space for young artists, and in 1914 she put her patronage on a more formal basis when she bought the house adjoining her studio, converted it into galleries, and opened it as the Whitney Studio; later she founded a series of organizations in New York with the same aim of helping young artists—the Friends of Young Artists (1915), the Whitney Studio Club (1918), and the Whitney Studio Galleries (1928). In 1929 she offered to donate her own collection of about 500 American paintings, sculptures, and drawings to the Metropolitan Museum, New York, but the gift was turned down. Consequently in 1930 she announced the founding of the Whitney Museum of American Art and it opened the following year at 10 West 8th Street in a group of converted brownstone buildings. In 1954 the museum moved to a new building at 22 West 54th Street on land provided by the Museum of Modern Art, and in 1966 to its present home—a spectacular building designed for it by Marcel Breuer at 945 Madison Avenue. The museum now has the largest and finest collection of 20th-century American art in the world, as well as a good representation from earlier periods. Every other year it holds the Whitney Biennial, a major showcase for work by living artists (the exhibition was first held in 1932 but has not always been regular in frequency). Mrs Whitney donated funds to many other good causes, artistic and otherwise, but she was ‘a woman of modest disposition who carried out her public activities quietly’ (Dictionary of American Biography).

Subjects: Art.

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