The Force Behind The Whitney

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But within a few short years, Harry could no longer conceal his chronic promiscuity. For Gertrude the crisis of his rejection unleashed new energy. About 1900 she had had a dream in which she was working in a cellar and modeling the figure of a man. From then on she fastened on to the idea of becoming a sculptor. Her transformation was astonishing. In the absence of any manifest talent, Gertrude simply reinvented herself as an artist. At that time sculpture was a gregarious discipline; artists competed for public commissions that would offer them the chance to ennoble a town square or national exposition with a statue signifying War, Peace, Commerce, Beauty, or Justice. Making monumental sculpture was a collective enterprise, and it introduced Gertrude to a lively community of teachers, pupils, artists, artisans, and models.

 
 
 
 
Gertrude was an heiress whose destiny, it would seem, was to dress expensively, entertain splendidly, and do very little else.

One of those artists was Robert Henri, the painter and teacher, whom Gertrude met in 1906. Guy Pène du Bois likened the dark and dashing Henri to “a rock dashed, ripping and tearing, through bolts of patiently prepared lace.” With his friends John Sloan, George Luks, William Glackens, and Arthur B. Davies, Henri was fighting for artistic independence from the National Academy of Design, a citadel of conservatism whose acceptance could make the difference between survival and failure to a young painter. The Henri group stood for a forthright art that recorded the life around them, and this struck a responsive chord in Gertrude. In 1908 she would buy pictures by Henri, Luks, Ernest Lawson, and Everett Shinn from the historic show of The Eight—an act, said Sloan, “almost as revolutionary as painting them.”

By 1907 Gertrude had taken over the lease of a vacated stable at 19 MacDougal Alley that she planned to turn into a studio. This charming cul-de-sac in Greenwich Village was already filled with artists, among them Daniel Chester French, Charles Hawthorne, and Lawson. She also agreed to organize an art exhibition to celebrate the opening of the Colony Club, one of the first private clubs for women in America, on April 9, 1907. There were too many details for Gertrude to handle by herself, but she knew just the person to assist her—her sister-in-law’s secretary, Juliana Rieser.

After leaving her job in Hoboken, Juliana had set herself up as a free-lance stenographer and secretary in Manhattan. She occasionally worked for an agency that served society women, and she filled in for their secretaries when they were sick or on vacation. Presumably this is how she came to be hired as a social secretary by Helen Hay Whitney, the wife of Harry Whitney’s brother, Payne. Helen was an officer of the Colony Club, and helping Gertrude on a club-sponsored project would have been a natural transition for Juliana. And although she knew next to nothing about art and artists, she was eager to learn.

Juliana worked for Gertrude on and off after that, and by 1911 she was acting as her literary agent. Gertrude had written a novella under the pseudonym of Phyllis Lane, and Juliana made the rounds of the publishers for her. The manuscript never sold, but the attempt to place it united them as a permanent team. In spite of their differences in wealth and social position, they shared important qualities: taste, nonconformity, and an appetite for experience. At first Juliana’s role was that of a secretary, studio manager, and gatekeeper who shielded Gertrude from the constant demands made on her, but before long the two had become confederates in bohemia, learning as they went.

In 1912 Gertrude leased 8 West Eighth Street, the town house on which 19 MacDougal Alley backed, hoping to turn it into office and exhibition space. Nothing was done with the two tiny galleries until the advent of World War I prompted Gertrude to act. In December 1914 the Whitney Studio—or Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney’s Studio, as it was first called—opened with two art shows for the benefit of French artists and their families. Gertrude herself was in France, equipping a field hospital she was subsidizing, so Juliana made her debut as an art impresario. Among those who participated in these inaugural exhibitions were Daniel Chester French, Gutzon Borglum, James Earle Fraser, Cecilia Beaux, Arthur B. Davies, Robert Henri, William Glackens, Paul Manship, George Bellows, Guy Pène du Bois, Walt Kuhn, and William Zorach. Juliana not only raised several thousand dollars but began forming lasting friendships with these artists. On Sundays the Forces were at home, and at their parties Juliana drank in studio talk, gossip, philosophy, and argument.