New York art patron and sculptor, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942), was the eldest daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt, and founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Whitney was born January 9, 1875 in New York City, the. She was educated by private tutors and attended Brearley School in New York. From the time she was a young girl, she kept journals of her travels and impressions of the people she met, and engaged in creative pursuits such as sketching and writing stories. In 1896, she was married to Harry Payne Whitney. They had three children, Flora, Cornelius, and Barbara.
In 1900, Whitney began to study sculpture under Hendrik Christian Anderson, and then under James Fraser. Later, she studied with Andrew O'Connor in Paris. From the time she started studying sculpture, her interest in art grew, as did her particular concern for American art and artists. In 1907, she organized an art exhibition at the Colony Club, which included several contemporary American paintings. She also opened a studio on MacDougal Alley, which became known as the Whitney Studio and was a place where shows and prize competitions were held. (She also had other studios in Westbury, Long Island and Paris, France.) Over the years, her patronage of art included buying work, commissioning it, sponsoring it, exhibiting it, and financially supporting artists in America and abroad. From 1911 on, she was aided in her work by Juliana Force, who started out as Whitney's secretary, was responsible for art exhibitions at the Whitney Studio, and became the first director of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The first recognition Whitney received for her sculpture came in 1908 when a project on which she had collaborated (with Grosvenor Atterbury and Hugo Ballin) won a prize for best design from the Architectural League of New York. The following year she received a commission to do a fountain sculpture for the Pan-American Building in Washington, D. C. She went on to do numerous other commissioned works over the next several decades, including: a fountain for the New Arlington Hotel in Washington D.C. (the design of which was reproduced in various sizes and materials, one cast being submitted to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition where it won a bronze medal and a later cast being installed on the campus of McGill University, Montreal, Canada in 1930); the Titanic Memorial (designed in 1913 and erected in 1930); the Buffalo Bill Memorial (1924) in Cody, Wyoming; the Columbus Memorial (1929) in Port of Palos, Spain; the Peter Stuyvesant statue in Stuyvesant Square (1939); and The Spirit of Flight (1939) for the New York World's Fair. In 1916, she had her first one-man show at the Whitney Studio, another at the Newport Art Association, and a retrospective at the San Francisco Art Association Palace of Fine Arts. A traveling exhibition in the Midwest followed in 1918.
During the First World War, Whitney was involved with numerous war relief activities, most notably establishing and supporting a hospital in Juilly, France. She made several trips to France during the war, keeping a journal and eventually publishing a piece on the hospital in several newspapers. Her sculpture during this period was largely focused on war themes. In 1919, she exhibited some of these works at the Whitney Studio in a show called "Impressions of War." In the years after the war, she was also commissioned to do several war memorials, including the Washington Heights War Memorial (1922) and the St. Nazaire Memorial (1926) commemmorating the landing of the American Expeditionary Force in France in 1917.
In 1918, Whitney opened the Whitney Studio Club, which served as pioneering organization for American art, putting on exhibition programs and offering social space and recreational amenities to its members (one point numbering over four hundred artists living in New York). She planned an "Overseas Exhibition" of American art, which traveled to Paris and other European cities in 1920-1921, and had her own shows in Paris and London in 1921. In 1928, the Whitney Studio Club was transformed into an art gallery, known as the Whitney Studio Galleries and directed by Juliana Force, which eventually became the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931.
Whitney pursued creative writing throughout her life, but beginning in the 1930s writing became her principle means of creative expression. Over the years, she produced numerous manuscripts for stories, novels, and play. One novel, Walking the Dusk, was published in 1932 under the pseudonym L. J. Webb. Beginning in 1940, Whitney took a "Professional Writing" course at Columbia University with Helen Hull, which resulted in the production of numerous short stories. In 1941, she collaborated with Ronald Bodley to adapt one of her stories as a play and attempted to get it produced, although unsuccessfully.
In 1934, Whitney was involved in a custody battle for her niece, Gloria Vanderbilt (daughter of her late brother, Reginald Vanderbilt and his wife, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt). In an agreement reached by the court, custody was awarded to Whitney and visitation rights to Gloria's mother. Litigation continued in the ensuing years.
In 1935, Whitney established the World's Fair Five Organization, with Juliana Force and four architects, to work on preparing a plan for the site of the 1939 New York World's Fair at Flushing Meadow, although the fair's own Board of Design ended up coming up with its own plan.
Whitney continued her work in sculpture, writing, art patronage, and philanthropy throughout the remaining years of her life. She died on April 18, 1942.