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Village People: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

The original Whitney on 8th Street.  Image via Life Magazine.
The original Whitney on 8th Street. Image via Life Magazine.

(This post is part of a series called Village People: A Who’s Who of Greenwich Village, which will explore some of this intern’s favorite Village people and stories.)

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was a prominent art collector, born into the Vanderbilt family, and married into the Whitney family, whose fortune had been amassed beginning with Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin. She had both the resources and the passion to become a highly influential patron and collector.

After visiting Europe in the early 1900s, she became fascinated with the ‘bohemian’ art world of Paris, and was encouraged to pursue her own creativity. When she returned to New York, she studied sculpture at the Art Students League. Inspired to support young emerging artists, she focused her efforts here, in the Village, just as its own ‘bohemian’ culture was forming in the 1900s.


She purchased a small studio space at 19 MacDougal Alley in 1907, which hosted a series of exhibitions for five years. Eventually, a wall was knocked down, and an adjacent space at 8 West 8th Street was purchased. (This space would become the Whitney Studio.) In 1914, she opened the Whitney Studio Club at 147 West 4th Street, intended as a venue where local artists could socialize, study, and do business.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, as painted by Robert Henri.
Whitney as painted by Robert Henri.

In 1931, Whitney offered to contribute her collection of modern art, which had been growing for twenty-five years, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They turned her down. In response, Whitney annexed two more buildings on West 8th Street, and renamed the combined space the Whitney Museum of Art. The Museum would remain here until 1954. Together, she and Juliana Force (her former Studio Club assistant, now founding director of the museum) ensured that only living American artists were collected, and held Annual and Biennial exhibitions as a way to continue acquiring works by emerging artists. When the two women died, Flora Payne Whitney (Gertrude’s daughter) assumed the position of museum president and chairman. She, in turn, passed the position on to her daughter, Flora Miller Biddle.

The museum relocated twice between 1954 and 1966, both times within Greenwich Village. In 1966, however, it finally moved uptown.

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