Heavens to Gertrude!

by Gregory Speck Photographed by Joshua Nefsky and Jacek Gancarz
Saturday, February 3, 2018

Today, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875–1942) is primarily remembered for founding the Whitney Museum of American Art and for her distinguished family. The granddaughter of railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, Whitney grew up in a castle on the present site of Bergdorf Goodman and summered at the Breakers, her family’s palatial Newport Estate. Whitney was further thrust into the public eye thanks to her bitter battle to win custody of her ten-year-old niece, Gloria—later, of course, a celebrated fashion designer.

But Whitney was more than a mother and a philanthropist—she was a gifted sculptress, too. Although her husband Harry Payne Whitney had no interest at all in her creative energies, she doggedly pursued her passion throughout her life. And now, the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach has opened a truly dazzling survey of some 50 statues by this largely forgotten artist.

Although Whitney was dismissed in her time as nothing more than a wealthy dilettante, the works in this captivating exhibition tell a different story. They highlight her unceasing stylistic exploration, from ancient Egyptian through Italian Renaissance to Art Deco, and the range of subjects captured in her sculptures, among them the tender sweetness of young love, the innate nobility of faithful servants and the selfless sacrifices by American soldiers in World War I—the most impressive of which are her imposing, monumental tributes to US doughboys landing at St. Nazaire to liberate France.

This emotionality appears throughout Whitney’s sculptures, whether in her tribute to Christopher Columbus in Huelva; or her evocation of the tragic victims of the torpedoed Lusitania (one of whom was her own brother, Alfred Gwynn Vanderbilt).

From moving pieces like these, one can grasp the extraordinary character of this great woman. This is an event worth any effort to see.


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