ADAMWEINBERG: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was a rebel who broke the rules that governed women of her class, and this portrait by artist Robert Henri captures that spirit. She grew up in a mansion that occupied the entire block of Fifth Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets. The mansion was filled with European paintings and antiques. Her clothes were made for her during regular trips to Paris, and she never once set foot in a streetcar. She was raised to be a wife, a mother and a hostess. And yet what drove her was a passion for art—not the tasteful, traditional objects that people of her station usually collected—but the work of a group of Americans who were virtually unknown to the art establishment.
FLORAMILLERBIDDLE: I see my grandmother as a vulnerable woman, very beautiful, who loved sensuous clothes, a sensuous person.
ADAMWEINBERG: Flora Miller Biddle, the granddaughter of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.
FLORAMILLERBIDDLE: She became tougher and more thick-skinned about pushing for her work and for what she wanted for the museum. But here I think she also looks sort of languid, which is deceptive, because she wasn’t at all. She has wonderful feet, with very high arches and long hands. And this beautiful costume. When the portrait was painted, she wasn’t allowed to hang it in their house on Fifth Avenue, because she was wearing pants, so it was hung in the studio downtown in Greenwich Village in her living room there. She would be very surprised, probably, to find it hanging in the museum itself.