Monday, October 28, 2013

Newport Stories: On the Vanderbilt Heiress Whose Seemingly Stereotypical Life Belies a Far More Individual Identity

[Here is the third installment of a series of posts by Benjamin Railton that originally appeared on his blog AmericanStudies.]

Like so many evocative American places, the Newport, Rhode Island mansion The Breakers contains and connects to numerous histories, stories, and themes worth sharing. So in this series, I’ll highlight and analyze five such topics. As always, your thoughts will be very welcome too!

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1916, by Robert Henri. 
Just in case Gertrude Vanderbilt (1875-1942), eldest surviving daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt, didn’t seem to have enough of an elite American legacy on which to live, she went ahead and married Harry Payne Whitney (1872-1930), son of a famous attorney, grandson of a Standard Oil executive, and heir to a sizeable fortune in his own right. Together the two expanded upon those impressive starting points, inhabiting a New York mansion of their own, becoming prominent racehorse breeders, world travelers, and art patrons, and, in a Gospel of Wealth moment for Depression-era America, endowing the New York Whitney Museum of American Art just before Harry’s death in 1930.

If we see that latter act as simply the kind of thing super-rich people do with their money toward the ends of their lives, however, we miss a far more intimate and lifelong factor. Gertrude apparently had a strong affinity and passion for the arts from a young age, but the Vanderbilts’ society in New York and Newport did not seem to present her with opportunities to act upon those perspectives. After her 1901 marriage, both because of the greater degree of independence it afforded her and because (it seems) Harry supported her efforts, she finally found such opportunities: organizing and promoting women artists, individually and in exhibitions; and studying art and sculpture in her own right. She went on to achieve a career as a public sculptor, creating for example a fountain in the famous patio of the Pan American building in Washington, DC. One of her works is even housed in the Whitney Museum—not because of her last name, but because it merits inclusion in such a space.

Rebecca Harding Davis’s novella Life in the Iron-Mills (1861) focuses on the tragic life and death of Hugh Wolfe, a factory worker whose talent for sculpture goes unappreciated and unrewarded in his grimly realistic environment. While Hugh is a fictional character, the point is real and important: that whatever limitations Gertrude Vanderbilt faced on her way to a successful artistic career, her family and status also certainly provided possibilities that the Hugh Wolfes of the world are far less likely to find. But on the other hand, Gertrude also represented a new, modern American woman—one who not only pursued and achieved her own artistic career, but who at the same time supported the careers and art of her peers and her nation. That her money helped her to do so is an unquestionable truth for which all who visit the Whitney should give thanks.

Next Breakers story tomorrow,

P.S. What do you think?

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