- Historic Sites
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
In early 1918 Juliana and Gertrude decided that artists needed a place to relax and started, as an adjunct to the Whitney Studio, the Whitney Studio Club. In addition to established artists, those just starting out and even pupils at the Art Students League were asked to join. Club members were represented in exhibitions and invited to Juliana’s many teas and buffet suppers. She served thick sandwiches, cakes, and other fortifying foods, and the guests were expected to stuff themselves. (Edward Hopper and his wife, Jo, notoriously frugal, were famous for staying until the end of a party so they could take home the leftovers.) Artists could use the library or the billiard room or attend sketch classes that were held with live models. Admission to class was only twenty cents—a real boon for those who could not afford the hourly rates of professional models. Club dues were five dollars a year, but the rule was not rigorously enforced. Indeed, when the sculptor John Flannagan handed in his resignation because he was too broke to pay five dollars, he was told to forget about what he owed. Juliana, who thought Flannagan had a great talent, told her assistant, “He can’t resign for the reason he gives. Go and tell him we’ll give him an exhibition, if he wants one, whenever he’s ready.” Thanks to her impulse, Flannagan’s sculptures were shown as a group for the first time anywhere.
“There may be pictures here you do not like,” Juliana said when the museum opened, “but they are here to stay. …”
After World War I ended, the new demand for war memorials helped boost Gertrude’s career as a sculptor. She began spending five or six months of the year in Paris, and Juliana, who negotiated her sculpture commissions, was also given a freer hand in all Whitney art enterprises. With her new responsibilities she began to outpace her husband. The Forces arrived at a friendly arrangement in which they remained together but politely ignored each other’s comings and goings. This understanding lasted until Willard Force’s death in 1928.
By 1919 Forbes Watson was back in Manhattan, and soon he was cutting an impressive figure as a critic for the New York World. Within months of his return, he and Juliana had become lovers, fully involved in each other’s lives and careers. Watson was married to Agnes (“Nan”) Watson, a painter of portraits and still lifes, and this was not the first or the last of his infidelities. Nan Watson was aware of his philandering, but she was resigned to it. As it happened, she benefited professionally from her position as tolerant spouse. Juliana gave her several shows and bought her work, both for herself and for the growing Whitney collection. As for Watson, Juliana helped him become editor of The Arts, a magazine he made into one of the best periodicals of the twenties.
Juliana’s power was captured in a portrait of her painted by Guy Pène du Bois in 1921. Everyone who knew her said that he caught her to the life. This assertion is particularly telling because Pène du Bois elected to paint her from the back. He appraises her as she appraises a picture, and there is a strong element of sexual electricity and confidence in the characterization.
In Pène du Bois’s likeness, Juliana does not merely inhabit the pictorial space but imprints herself upon it: she was someone who would explode if criticized or crossed. A rich woman trying to put her artist husband on the map once suggested to Juliana, whose couture was exquisite, that she would be much improved if she visited the woman’s seamstress. As an incentive, the woman sent her a bolt of yellow chiffon. Telling the tale with ringing flourishes to some artists invited for cocktails, Juliana finished her story by flinging the entire length of cloth into the fire.
But such imperiousness coexisted with boundless sympathy for artists. Studio rents and hospital bills were paid, pictures bought, and trips to Paris subsidized. Juliana’s influence on American art in the 1920s cannot be overestimated. The Museum of Modern Art had not been born, the Metropolitan and the Academy were in the hands of stuffy autocrats, and the government and corporations were not involved with art patronage. For the young and uncredentialed, the Whitney was their only hope. The artist Lucile Blanch, who was sent to Europe by Juliana, said of her: “She was interested in our opinions and differences of opinion, and you could never get away with hedging with her. She would say, ‘Come on, tell me what you think,’ and she would quicken bodily when the discussion heated up. She allied herself with our generation, and we bloomed….”