Robert Henri

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney
1916

Not on view

Date
1916

Classification
Paintings

Medium
Oil on canvas

Dimensions
Overall: 49 15/16 × 72in. (126.8 × 182.9 cm)

Accession number
86.70.3

Credit line
Gift of Flora Whitney Miller

Rights and reproductions
© artist or artist’s estate

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum, commissioned this portrait in 1916 from Robert Henri, leader of the urban realist painters who had shocked the New York art world barely a decade earlier with their images of ordinary people and commonplace city life. By 1916, Mrs. Whitney, a professional sculptor, had founded the Whitney Studio in Greenwich Village, a lively center for the support and exhibition of new American art. When Henri’s portrait was finished, Mrs. Whitney’s husband, Harry Payne Whitney, refused to allow her to hang it in their opulent Fifth Avenue town house. He didn’t want his friends to see a picture of his wife, as he put it, "in pants." Mrs. Whitney’s attire and self-possessed demeanor were highly unusual for a well-bred woman of her day. In this painting, Henri transformed the traditional genre of a recumbent female—usually a nude courtesan or the goddess Venus—into a portrait of the quintessential "modern" woman. The portrait hung in Whitney’s West 8th Street studio, which in 1931 became the first home of the Whitney Museum. 


Audio

  • Human Interest, Kids

    Robert Henri, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1916

    Robert Henri, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1916

    0:00

    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?

    Student: 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.

  • America Is Hard to See

    Robert Henri, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1916

    Robert Henri, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1916

    0:00

    Adam Weinberg: I’m Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

    This is a painting by Robert Henri of the Whitney’s founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, which was painted in 1916. We use it in such a way as to welcome you to this first gallery of the exhibition, which is devoted to the artists that Mrs. Whitney collected and championed in the years just before and just at the opening of the Whitney Museum. 

    Narrator: You’ll see more images of Mrs. Whitney and the Studio Club—the precursor to the Whitney Museum—on the wall behind you to the right. 

    Adam Weinberg: Mrs. Whitney was an accomplished sculptor who had her studio, actually just blocks from the current Whitney Museum, in MacDougal Alley, in Greenwich Village. And she never actually intended to create a museum for American art. Her great interest was in supporting and encouraging artists, American artists, who didn’t have opportunities to show their work in the United States, and to encourage a market for their works so that they could be self-sufficient. 

    Narrator: As you explore this gallery, you’ll see the work of many of these artists—including a more typical painting by Mrs. Whitney’s portraitist, Robert Henri. It’s a beautiful painting of a small boy, called Laughing Child.  



Robert Henri
8 works

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