Human Interest

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This audio guide highlights selected works in Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection, with commentary by students from PS 33 Chelsea Prep and Whitney Museum educator Melanie Adsit.

Robert Henri, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1916. Oil on canvas, 49 15/16 × 72in. (126.8 × 182.9 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Flora Whitney Miller 86.70.3

Melanie Adsit: Let's take a look at this portrait. What can you tell me about this person from looking at her portrait?

Student: She looks regal and powerful.

Student: She was lounging on a couch. You can see that she has a lot of jewelry on like rings, bracelets, and necklaces.

Melanie Adsit:
I love these observations. This is actually a portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney who was the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art. She was, like you said, a wealthy woman. Something interesting about this is this was painted in 1916. Is this what you would expect a woman who was this wealthy or fancy to be wearing in 1916?

Definitely not.

Melanie Adsit: What might we expect a woman of her social status to be wearing in 1916 instead of this?
Student: Definitely a dress or gala wear, something fancy and extravagant.

Melanie Adsit: Mrs. Whitney was also an artist, and in 1916, it was not traditional for women to wear pants but it was also not traditional for women to be artists. Just like you said, she is not only wealthy and powerful, she's also showing herself as someone who's kind of an independent thinker and maybe a little bit ahead of her time.
Student: She’s really rebelling against what she's supposed to be doing.

Student: I also think maybe she made this portrait because around that same time, there was the women were fighting for equal rights. So maybe she was trying to show that women can be whatever they want, they can do whatever they want.

Melanie Adsit:
One of the reasons I loved this portrait is because it's showing not just what Mrs. Whitney looked like, but really what she represented. That's kind of the spirit of the Whitney Museum as well, that we show art that's maybe a little bit ahead of its time just like she was ahead of her time for wearing pants.