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The Force Behind The Whitney
American art was hardly more than a cultural curiosity in the early years of this century. Now it is among the world’s most influential, and much of the credit belongs to a self-made woman named Juliana Force.
September/October 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 6
Juliana was an unflagging hostess, and she became famous for her entertaining, both in town and in the country. In 1914 the Forces bought a sixty-acre farm in Holicong, Pennsylvania, not far from Doylestown, and turned it into a showplace. The old farmhouse became a sprawling manor, as Juliana ripped out walls, added rooms, and developed what would prove to be an enduring love for the decorative and fine arts. Juliana was one of the first collectors of American folk art, and a number of her former possessions are now in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg, Virginia. Portraits by selftaught limners, theorem paintings on velvet, fanciful etchings of historical incidents, vernacular furniture fashioned by local artisans, quilts, whirligigs, cigar-store Indians, the odd article of homely whimsy—such things were all around her in the antiques shops and secondhand stores of rural Pennsylvania, and because no one else prized such castoffs, they were cheap and plentiful. She interspersed these articles of Americana with squat, self-important Victorian settees, formal Brussels carpets, and English china animals. The effect was so startling that guests wondered if the whole assemblage was a stunt. But there was no condescension toward the folk idiom in her decor. Whatever most people overlooked, she went out of her way to appreciate.
At the Whitney Studio Club, artists could use the library or billiard room or attend sketch classes with live models.
Just as Juliana had reshaped her surroundings, so she now began revising her own life. The farm, symbolizing the rightful restoration of Rieser status, became the ancestral seat, the recovery of the world she and her siblings had been born into. With the farm, what Juliana had invented had come true.
Most of the shows presented by the Whitney Studio were heterogeneous gatherings with a philanthropic or didactic intent. Kindliness tended to take precedence over connoisseurship, with one memorable exception. In January 1916 John Sloan was given his first one-man show. Although American Art News warned its readers that they would see “rather brutal expressions, which will not appeal to those who like subtle charm, poetic color and sensitive painting,” the exhibition was a critical success.
The Whitney Studio was still keeping to its generous, aimless way in January 1917, when Juliana noticed a short, dark-haired man hovering around the table of photographs reserved for critics, attempting to stuff some reproductions into an envelope. She approached him and asked him his name. Reluctantly he gave it—Forbes Watson, the art critic of the New York Post. For years Watson had been lambasting the studio as well-meaning but inept, and he purposely had not made himself known to Juliana. Now he prepared himself for the inevitable. When she asked him how he liked the current exhibition—a group show called “Where Should I Go for My Portrait?—Watson did not flinch. Not only was the show terrible, but the Whitney Studio itself had taken no defining stand. The good work displayed was diluted by the presence of society hacks who counted for nothing in the serious art world. Furthermore, the same names were appearing again and again, in well-worn anthologies of the predictable. Surely this was not what Mrs. Whitney had intended!
Juliana was stunned by Watson’s words, but she saw their justness. She asked him to become her adviser, but he had volunteered for ambulance service overseas, and shortly after their conversation he left for France. Juliana turned to Sloan, Henri, Pène du Bois, and a few other artists, and by the end of 1917 the changes were plain to see. Drawing-room portraitists were out, and artists like Stuart Davis, Maurice Prendergast, Glenn Coleman, and Charles Demuth were in. In addition, Juliana began to buy work out of nearly every show for Gertrude’s collection.
Although younger artists would receive the most publicity in the coming years, Juliana encouraged a spectrum of contemporary artists, known and unknown. She thought it foolish to bar good artists from her galleries just because, after much labor, they had earned a mark or two of recognition. Most important, she backed her judgment by buying the work of artists she believed in. Her credo was best expressed in a speech she gave called “Think for Yourself: “Do not read too much criticism on art. At the beginning it is apt to paralyze thought…. Go directly to the work of art and face it alone. Do not remember anything anybody has said about it….
“And when you look at a picture be sure you do not search too hard for that little name, or that big name, in the corner of the canvas. Some collections are made in this very dull, joyless way. It may be good on the day of the auction, but to me it is like looking at happiness through another man’s eyes….
“Buy pictures, not names. The last thing to interest you in a work of art is the name of the artist. Pictures should be seen, not heard!”