Washington Heights War Memorial

Inwood War Memorial

January 9, 1875: Birth of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

Whitney (1875-1942) trained in the classical sculpture tradition, although she was also strongly influenced by Auguste Rodin. During World War I she established a hospital for war victims in Juilly, France, and her months there inspired many sculptures of soldiers with war injuries, executed (like this one) in a loose, impressionistic style, with minimal attention to surface texture and detail.

These Whitney sculptures are part of a trend in early 20th-century New York sculpture. Portraits of outstanding military leaders such as Sherman and Farragut cease to be produced, replaced by anonymous, often wounded figures. Compare Karl Ilava’s 107th Infantry Memorial, Fifth Ave. at 67th St. For more on this change of subject, see Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan.

Whitney’s other sculptures include the Titanic Memorial of 1914 in Washington, D.C., whose pose inspired a moment in the movie TitanicBuffalo Bill, 1924, at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Cody, Wyoming; and Manhattan’s own Peter Stuyvesant, 1936.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, great-granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, used some of her inherited wealth to support young artists. She also contributed funds for the 1913 Armory Show, which introduced modernism to America. (One of the most notorious exhibits was Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase.) When the Metropolitan Museum refused Whitney's gift of 500-odd modernist pieces she used them as the core of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which opened its doors in 1931.

Further Reading