NYC Explorer: Whitney Museum of American Art

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney by Robert Henri

On today’s edition of American Nomad we’re taking a tour of The Whitney Gallery of American Art.

Founded by heiress and sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1930, the museum is the premier institution for modern and contemporary American art, from early twentieth century masters like Edward Hopper and George Welsey Bellows to emerging artists. This is tuly a living museum of American art and learning.

Brief history of The Whitney:

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney grew up with wealth, as the great-granddaughter of ‘Commodore’ Cornelius Vanderbilt, she spent time in NYC and Rhode Island at the family’s Breakers estate. In 1896 she married, American businessman Harry Payne Whitney.

Gertrude fell in love with art and sculpture while visiting and studying in Paris. She opened her first studio gallery in Greenwich Village in 1907, and later in Paris and became renowned for her talent as a sculptor. I was first introduced to her art when i visited the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, where her Buffalo Bill statue welcomes guests with an endearment of the western spirit.

I admire Whitney, because she did not let her wealth and family name pigeonhole her, she was worked hard to learn her craft and had a natural talent. From the start she worked to promote working American artists, who struggled to be appreciated in the cliquish art scene. Her passion for other working artists led to the development of The Whitney.

You can learn more about her life here.

  • Fun fact, the art museum at The Buffalo Bill Historical Center is named after Whitney. It is one of my favorite western galleries, with the finest American western painters like Bierstadt, Moran and more.

Getting the museum started:

  • Through her work as an sculptor and art patron, Whitney had amassed a collection of roughly 700 pieces of American art. In 1929, Whitney offered the Metropolitan Museum of Art the entire collection at no cost! Whitney even offered a full payment to fund building a wing to house the artwork.
  • The Met declined the offer – they did not care for American art at the time. Ironically, The Met also found works by modern artists inappropriate for the collection in the same era (that helped propel the need for The MOMA as well). Alas the wonderful MET has amended their ways and now has one of the best American art collections in the US…and…
  • Rebuffed by The Met, Whitney was undeterred…she knew that American art was essential and deserved recognition and room to grow as the Unitied States continued his cultural evolution…
    • In 1931 she created her own museum by renovating and expanding one of her own studios.
    • She appointed her former assistant, Juliana Force to be the museum’s first director
    • The museum made a pledge to ONLY showcase American art (from the diverse fabric of American culture). Whitney understand that American art was a fabric of unique cultures and artistic styles that all were part of the American experience. She was forward thinking.
    • A large focus of the museum was on MODERN American Art.
      • In my post about The MOMA we discussed the breadth of ‘Modern Art’ and various interpretations and meanings of what modern art is.
      • The Whitney from the start has worked to showcase ‘modern’ art in the sense that it is contemporary – giving a voice to current working artists as well as the more traditional modern approach of something new, different and diverse.
  • Whitney died in 1942 at age 67…her daughter and grand-daughter continued the legacy of overseeing The Whitney mission for many years…

Making a Museum….

  • The Whitney moved to The Breuer Building in 1966… We explored The Breuer during our tour of The Frick Madison.
    • This innovative architectural design was made to showcase the art in a warm, but industrialized setting
    • The opening gala for The Whitney at The Breuer included the likes of Jackie Kennedy and others
  • The Whitney remained at The Breuer until 2014…In need of additional space for galleries, exhibitions, educational opportunities and performances, The Whitney moved across town from the Upper East Side to the Lower West Side in the Meatpacking district
  • Famed architect, Renzo Piano designed the striking new building. You can learn more about the architecture here.
  • The Whitney’s collection now has over 25,000 pieces of art across different mediums.
  • The Whitney is known for its Biennal Art Exhibits that feature emerging and unknown American artists every other year. This continues Gertrude’s vision of patronizing and giving a voice to contemporary artists.
Whitney = 2014 Museum Building by Piano

The collection:

My favorite pieces at The Whitney include the Edward Hopper collection. I love Hopper’s use of color and emotion to create a real life and yet mythical American scene. Hopper lived in New York not far from Vanderbilt’s studio and showcased his work at the precursor to The Whitney.

I love George Bellows sense of color, although to be frank his boxing paintings are not my favorite subject. Then again, art is not just meant to be pleasing to the eyes – it also is a conversation starter and reflection on life in a certain time.

Georgia O’Keefe and Andy Warhol are my other favorite artists featured in the museum.

The state of the art 2014 building offers much more than just art galleries – it is an immersion into American art. The Whitney hosts classes, concerts and events on site (and virtually)

Plan your visit on their official website

#travelblog #artblog #museumexplorer #newyork #whitneyartmuseum

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Purpose of American Nomad: To share my love of travel, history and museums with others. Follow American Nomad on facebook here.

About: American Nomad is written by Adele Lassiter, a travel enthusiast with a background in history, art and technology sales. In addition to running American Nomad, Adele is an artist and published author of cozy romances. Check out her cozy romance novel, Solitude Lake on Amazon (Adele Darcy)

I’ll be launching my travel podcast (and art podcast) soon!

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