August 14: Gertrude the Great

2016/08/14 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1895 a party was held in honor of Gertrude Vanderbilt’s coming out.

No, not that kind of coming out; this was one of those extravagant events hosted by ridiculously wealthy people to put their marriageable daughters on display for the consideration of suitable suitors. (And, as we all know, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.)  The party for Gertrude (1875-1942) was a great extravagance staged at the family’s new 65,000 SF summer home in Newport, the Breakers, finished just in time for the big day.  Tradition has it that architect Richard Morris Hunt selected the particular shade of scarlet for the elegant flight of stairs in the Great Hall to best compliment Gertrude’s complexion as she made her grand entrance.  (See this picture for the Hall and the stairs on which Gertrude made her great entry, and decide for yourself if you’ve done enough to launch your children into the world properly).

It would have been enough for Gertrude to have just anecdotally given Hunt reason for that staircase and then fallen into the shadow of the Breakers’ sumptuous furnishings and deep arcades, all of it stretching to grasp an image of old-world respectability for the Vanderbilts’ shiny, crunchy, new money.  But this was just the starting point for Gertrude’s excellent adult life which, for the next half-century, chronicles a changing appreciation for, and understanding of, American art.

Of course the eldest daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II married well, getting hitched in 1896 to sportsman Harry Payne Whitney, who had the good sense not only to marry a Vanderbilt girl but also to be the progeny of senators, bankers and Standard Oil money.  It’s not likely that he was as smart, well-educated or culturally aware as Gertrude, who discovered she had more than a passing appreciation for art when she toured Europe in 1901.  She followed her inspiration to the studio, training at the Art Students League of New York and with Auguste Rodin in Paris.  She enjoyed making art, and was really quite good; most of her representational sculpture (like the Women’s Titanic Memorial) bears a certain moderne/stylized quality.  Starting in the 1910s, she became more active collecting and supporting contemporary artists, especially Americans; she befriended new artists like Robert Henri, who painted her portrait in 1916.  She dressed up in avant-garde costumes and bought a ton of paintings, many of which hung in the little gallery space she founded in 1914 and that eventually grew into the great museum that bears her married name.  She saw it as a necessity after the Met refused her proposed gift of modern paintings and MOMA expressed its interest primarily in European artists.  The Whitney is the repository for Gertrude’s taste in art, and thus serves as a kind of memorial for her, too.  Even though the museum, built a quarter-century after her death, is just 175 miles away from Newport, its Marcel Breuer-designed building is about as far away from the grandiose Classicism of the Breakers as is possible.  Even if its Brutalism might not have been her cup of tea, it certainly represents the independent maturation of this great sculptor and patron of the arts.

Image: Gertrude the Great, in her studio (from this source)

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