The Force Behind The Whitney

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Today, when a painting by a living American artist fetches seventeen million dollars at auction, as a picture by Jasper Johns did last year, or when hundreds of people stand in line to get into a museum, as they did for the retrospectives of Edward Hopper, Willem de Kooning, and Georgia O’Keeffe, it is almost impossible to imagine the hostility and suspicion long encountered by American artists. In the early years of this century, a painter of independent or nonconformist leanings was a pariah. Thomas Eakins once replied to a biographical query, “My honors are misunderstanding, persecution, and neglect. …” New York was more tolerant than Eakins’s Philadelphia, but even there the art world was controlled by conservatives who wrote off the homegrown talent as insignificant. Fewer than six commercial galleries sold or showed the work of living Americans, and only two were willing to gamble on anything out of the ordinary. John Sloan was not wrong when he concluded, “Artists, in a frontier society like ours, are like cockroaches in kitchens—not wanted, not encouraged but nevertheless they remain.”

Sloan’s remarks were not directed at the ignorant or unlettered. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the preeminent art institution in America, was stubbornly expatriate in outlook. In 1909 John Cadwalader, a Met trustee, asked the museum’s president: “What do you mean by American art? Do you mean English or French or what? There is nothing American worth notice.”

Much of the credit for the transformation of taste that has occurred since Mr. Cadwalader spoke his mind should go to the Whitney Museum of American Art, which will celebrate its sixtieth anniversary in January. Cantilevered over Madison Avenue in its gray granite fortress designed by Marcel Breuer, defining what’s au courant in painting, sculpture, film, video, photography, and performance, sprouting satellite branches in Manhattan and Connecticut, the Whitney is a busy, well-established institution.

As the world’s greatest museum of American art, the Whitney is a must-see stop in New York’s cultural Baedeker. In some respects, however, the East Side address and imposing aura are misleading, for they belie the Whitney’s bohemian and modest beginnings. The museum did not move uptown until 1966, and it possesses the oddest, most unmuseumlike history of any major public collection in the country. Its formative years were spent in several salmon pink town houses in Greenwich Village, and its mission evolved slowly.

To be the advocate of the new and the champion of the unknown was not a job for the fainthearted, and neither of the museum’s guiding spirits—a pair of extraordinary women—was that. The founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942), supplied the money and the original impetus. The first director, Juliana Force, was the dynamo that powered the museum from day to day. To describe her, one need look no further than her name. It rang out like a royal command and fitted her so perfectly that it is difficult to write about her without punning on it. Force, tempered by an almost lunatic generosity, was her outstanding trait. As Gutzon Borglum, the carver of Mount Rushmore, told her, “With my guts and your force we could conquer the world.”

Trim, auburn-haired, green-eyed, and vividly theatrical, Juliana Force had, said the art historian Lloyd Goodrich, “a personal magnetism that struck one instantly on meeting her, like a physical sensation. The social temperature would go up ten degrees when she entered a room.” Juliana was a chic, urbane woman who mixed easily with Whitneys, Harrimans, and Rockefellers. She was dressed by Mainbocher and photographed by Cecil Beaton. Her apartment in Manhattan was filled with paintings, and she owned elegantly furnished houses in New York State, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and England.

Armed with a near-British accent, dramatic gestures, a temper to match her red hair, a wit that devastated the unwary, and a vaguely insinuated pedigree, Juliana intimidated bores, snobs, and Philistines and entertained everyone else. She assumed the stance and manners of a patrician and got away with it. Her deception went beyond fibs about her birthdate, although she habitually gouged five to twenty years off her age. In interviews she implied that she had been born into a genteel, comfortably fixed family in 1888 and had spent her girlhood on a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, before being educated in private schools at home and abroad.

The truth was vastly different. Juliana Rieser was born on December 23, 1876, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, a Bucks County village twenty-five miles north of Philadelphia. She was one of three daughters and eight sons of Julia and Maximilian Rieser, both of whom had emigrated to the United States from Germany as children. Julia, a widow who had inherited some money from her first husband, had hopes of prosperity when she met Max. He was a hatter by trade, and Julia set him up in business. But industrialization made his craft obsolete, and what money he made did not stretch far enough to support his rapidly growing family. When imminent financial ruin drove the family from Doylestown to Hoboken, New Jersey, Julia felt humiliated, and she passed her sense of social and economic disinheritance on to her children. Thereafter both Julia and the younger Riesers considered Bucks County their true and rightful home, a garden from which they had been unfairly exiled.