“Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney” by Robert Henri, 1916

Women’s History Month: The New York Studio School and the Whitney Museum

March 11, 2010
by findingDulcinea Staff
Three New York women profoundly influenced the 20th-century art world. In the 1960s, painter Mercedes Matter helped students start a school with a focus on art, not academics. The New York Studio School eventually moved to the former location of the Whitney Museum, founded in 1931 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Juliana Force.

A School for Serious Students

The New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture was founded when painter Mercedes Matter wrote an article for ARTNews outlining the flaws of degree-granting art institutions. Her article was enthusiastically received, and she agreed to help her students found a school that was as serious about art as other schools were about old-fashioned academies. Many students willingly abandoned the safety of their bachelor’s degree programs and flocked to the new school where women were in charge from the get-go; Mrs. Henry Epstein founded its Board of Trustees and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller offered significant funding. However, when Mrs. Epstein died, the school needed to find a new home. The newly vacated Eighth Street buildings of the Whitney Museum seemed the ideal location and through a generous donation, the move was possible.

The Whitney Museum: Where Women Made History

The school’s new space, the former Whitney Museum, is now a historic landmark, a place where, according to the National Parks Service, “women made history.” The Whitney Museum itself is a true story of women taking charge; in its early years it was run entirely by sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and museum director Juliana Force. Although Whitney’s decision to become a sculptor was spurred by the discovery that her husband was unfaithful, she proved a deft and driven patron of the arts.

A Modern Success

A year after Juliana Force’s death, the Whitney mounted a memorial exhibit to honor her. Time magazine notes that the two founders had no choice but to start their own museum; the Metropolitan Museum of Art had refused to accept Whitney’s donation of the paintings in her studio, dismissing them as being too modern. But by 1949, the Whitney’s collection was fully accepted for its quality and scope: “every excursion and detour of U.S. art was represented.”

The Whitney Women

Force and Whitney gave the museum its momentum and reputation and then ensured that women would continue to be at its helm. Whitney’s daughter, Flora Whitney Miller, took over the museum in 1942. She in turn passed it on her daughter, Flora, who recounts both her childhood and her experiences running the museum in the memoir, “The Whitney Women and the Museum They Made.”

The Ashcan School

As you’ll learn if you purchase the book, or read the first chapter on The New York Times Web site, Flora Miller Biddle was initially disdainful of her grandmother’s flamboyant lifestyle. Gertrude Whitney was constantly on the move and focused more on art and culture than her family. She was particularly associated with the “Ashcan School” of painters. The nickname derived from a critic who disliked the gritty, urban subjects that inspired such artists as George Wesley Bellows, John Sloan, George Luks, Edward Hopper, William Glackens, Alfred Maurer, Everett Shin and Robert Henri, who painted a famous portrait of Whitney.

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