Research Question: The Whitney Studio Club and the Rise of American Modernism

By Caitlin Biggers

New York City’s Greenwich Village has long been associated with art and artists, but, visitors to the site may not be aware that the Village supported the rise of one of the most prolific art movements of the 20th century: American Modernism. While American Modern Art was in existence across the nation as early as the 1870s, I argue that it found its footing and rose to prominence in early 20th century Greenwich Village with the help of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and her Studio Club.

In examining the history of Modern Art, It is important to note the difference in status between European Modernism, featuring the likes of Edouard Manet, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and its local cousin: American Modernism. At the turn of the 20th century, European Modernism, also known as the Avant Garde, was rising in credibility, especially among American collecting museums. American Modern Art on the other hand, was battling an established academic canon favoring traditional tropes and methods. Early American modernists found it near impossible to exhibit their work in American galleries, until Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an heiress and sculptor trained under Auguste Rodin, began exhibiting her growing collection of contemporary American art at her personal west village studio.

Herein lies the core of my research. I intend to examine the uses of the Whitney Studio club as an exhibition and critique space, track its evolution into the Whitney Museum of American Art and evaluate the role of these incarnations in the changing status of art by living American artists. In following the development of the Whitney Studio spaces, I hope to highlight Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s role in bringing American Modernism to prominence.

Upon initial research I intended to argue that Mrs. Whitney, be it consciously or subconsciously, adapted her training in European salon methods to elevate the status American Modern Art. While Mrs. Whitney did indeed use her training in European studios to inform her practice as an artist, it’s become clear that Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s role as a patron and administrator draws more from her conservative upbringing as a socialite, than her european art training. In collecting artwork, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney engaged in a long tradition of the aristocracy supporting the arts. However, she differed from her wealthy counterparts in that she collected work by unknown artists working in an unpopular style. Further, in establishing the Whitney Studio Club, she offered artists developmental support in addition to simply purchasing artworks. In light of this realization, I now intend to argue that Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney engaged with an old tradition in a new way, in efforts to distance herself from the restrictive social norms of the American upper class.

Mrs. Whitney’s journal has been invaluable in illuminating the patron’s attitudes toward her family, upbringing and place in American high society. Moreover, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s edited volume “Frames of Reference: Looking at American Art, 1900-1950: Works from the Whitney Museum of American Art” has proved vital in placing Mrs. Whitney’s recollections in the context of emerging modern art and the Whitney Studio Club. Moreover, primary documents chronicling the development of the club and secondary works following modern art more broadly allow me to understand Mrs. Whitney’s decision making process and further, how her choices impacted American Modern art.

In terms of exhibit structure I intend to briefly outline the status of American Modern Art at the turn of the 20th century after introducing Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and the Whitney Studio Club. I will then turn my attention to key administrators of the Whitney Studio Club, including a reasonably comprehensive biography of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Next, I’ll discuss the events that led to the Whitney Studio Club’s foundation, its major goals, early activities and membership. I’ll then explore its expansion into 8 West 8th street and expanded exhibit program by highlighting two prominent exhibits. In the following section I’ll discuss its ever expanding membership and growing wait list in efforts to illuminate the success of the club in bringing modern art to prominence. Finally, I’ll outline the studio club’s legacy including founding of the Whitney Museum of American Art and its position as a lasting reminder of Mrs. Whitney’s break with upper class social norms.

My primary research centers on two valuable repositories: The Whitney Museum of American Art Library and the Smithsonian Archives of American Art’s Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Papers.

Selected Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Cotter, Holland. “Mrs. Whitney’s All-American Salon,” The New York Times, April 28,
2011.

Fraser, Kennedy. “Love and Struggle:Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney,” in Frames of Reference:
Looking at American Art 1900-1950: Works from the Whitney Museum of American
Art, ed. Beth Venn and Adam D. Weinberg, (California: University of California Press, 1999)19-57.

Gardner, James. “ The Raw, The Untried, The Unready,” Magazine Antiques, Vol. 178
Issue 4 (July 2011).

Goodrich, Lloyd. “The Whitney Studio Club and American Art 1900-1932” Whitney
Museum of American Art, New York, 1975.

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