Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney: The founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was born in the wealthy Vanderbilt family, as a great-granddaughter of “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, and married into the wealthy Whitney family.

She was an art patron, notable American sculptor, and collector. Today she is remembered for her unique style and as the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City in 1931.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in her studio, ca. 1920

Gertrude was born in 1875, and during her childhood, she enjoyed rigorous sporting activities with the boys in her family. She was home educated by private tutors and later at the exclusive Brearley School for women students. Since those days, Gertrude had a hobby of collecting small watercolor paintings and drawings which she kept in her personal journals.

Gertrude, 13 years old by John Everett Millais, 1888

In the early 1900s, while the young Vanderbilttravelinglling through Europe and discovering the art world of Montparnasse and Montmartre in Paris, she sparked her interest in sculpture, and decided to become a sculptor. When she returned to the States, Gertrude enrolled at the Art Students League of New York where she studied together with James Earle Fraser and Hendrik Christian Andersen.

There were only two other women that visited the classes besides Vanderbilt – Malvina Hoffman and Anna Vaughn Hyatt.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

Gertrude traveled to Paris again, to improve her sculpture skills. While in France, she studied with Andrew O’Connor and received criticism from Auguste Rodin. She mostly created small sculptures but remains best known for her monumental works Women’s Titanic Memorial in Washington, D.C. and Victory Arch in New York City.


The young sculptor wasn’t quite supported by her close family. When she had started working, Gertrude used a fake name, because she feared that as a Vanderbilt she wouldn’t be taken seriously but rather as a socialite. In 1901, her life-size male nude in plaster named Aspiration was exhibited at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Even though she belonged to the elite and was privileged in comparison to most of the artists, this fact only caused her struggles in her career.

First of all, Gertrude was a rare woman in the art world, and second, she was criticized if she took commissions because as a Vanderbilt, she was more privileged than the other artists. However, simultaneously, she was blamed for undercutting the art market if she wasn’t paid.

Founders of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Washington, D.C. Photo credit

When Gertrude was 21, she married the extremely wealthy sportsman, Harry Payne Whitney and lived in town houses in New York that originally belonged to William Whitney. Even though her husband never understood her passion for art and her potential for creating, it seems that she continued actively with her work.

In 1907, Gertrude Whitney opened her apartment and studio in Greenwich Village. She also opened a studio in Passy, a fashionable neighborhood in Paris, and by 1910, she was presenting her original work.

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