The Force Behind The Whitney

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By October of 1929 Gertrude Whitney owned more than six hundred works of American art, most of which were in dead storage, and she came to feel that the collection and the activities surrounding it had grown too cumbersome to manage. She wanted her collection to go to the Metropolitan, an institution to which Whitneys and Vanderbilts had contributed for years. She asked Juliana to represent her at a meeting with Dr. Edward Robinson, the Metropolitan’s director, and to offer him the collection, plus five million dollars for a wing to house it. On the morning of the meeting Forbes Watson joined Gertrude in her studio to await the outcome.

Robinson was a classical archeologist educated in the German university system, and he saw nothing of value in American art. Upon learning that Gertrude’s objective was to add her collection to the Metropolitan’s, he stopped Juliana before she got around to mentioning the endowment. Mrs. Whitney was a charming woman and a great philanthropist, but her request was impossible. Of the proposed gift of paintings, he said, “What will we do with them, my dear lady? We have a cellar of those things already.”

Juliana heard no more. She hurried out of the Met, barely containing her rage. When she got back to the Village, still sputtering with fury, she told her story to Gertrude and Watson. The three of them went out for a long lunch that stretched into the afternoon, and in those hours they hatched the plan for their own museum—a permanent institution that would give American art new stature. Juliana was named director. “When she protested,” Watson wrote, “Mrs. Whitney said to her: ‘Either you’ll be the director or we won’t do it.’” Watson also expected to have a formal role in the new museum, but he was a victim of his own skirt chasing. He began an affair with another woman, he and Juliana quarreled, and Watson was no longer associated with the Whitney.

 
 
“She rose from her death bed and stormed into the meeting,” a Met curator recalled. “Her ghost could not have startled us more.”

Even though the country was now in the grip of the Depression, Gertrude went ahead with the museum. Nos. 8, 10,12, and 14 West Eighth Street were consolidated into one building, their old brick facades covered with a tawny pink stucco. Inside were thickly carpeted galleries, painted white, yellow, dusty-rose pink, or gray. In some rooms Juliana installed tubular steel furniture; in others she preferred curvaceous rococo-revival chairs and settees similar to those in her own parlor.

She also was busy rounding out the Whitney collection. Before the museum opened, she bought a number of paintings that are now touchstones of American art: My Egypt by Demuth, Why Not Use the “L ”? by Reginald Marsh, Early Sunday Morning by Hopper, watercolors of Central Park by Prendergast, Chinese Restaurant by Max Weber, Coryell’s Ferry by Joseph Pickett, and the budget-wrecking Dempsey and Firpo by George Bellows, for which his widow asked $25,000 (later reduced to $18,750), to be paid quickly. It seems likely that it was Emma Bellows who drove Juliana to make her often-quoted remark “Artists’ widows should commit suttee.” On November 18, 1931, when the museum opened to the public, it was without apology. Juliana declared to her critics, “There may be pictures here that you do not like, but they are here to stay, so you may as well get used to them.”

Juliana weathered her share of art-world spats and controversies and gained a reputation as a fierce fighter. To Peggy Bacon, who caricatured her lethally in 1931 and subtitled the portrait “The Ugly Duchess,” Juliana was “packed with audacity and challenge. As full of fire, intrigue, poison and largesse as the Italian Renaissance.” But in the mid-1930s nemesis entered her life in the person of one Frank L. Crocker, a Whitney family lawyer who saw his duty as preserving Whitney capital against outsiders. In his eyes Juliana was an interloper who had influenced Gertrude to squander too much money on a foolish idea. He gradually brought Gertrude’s children around to this view, but there was little he could do about it until April 18, 1942, when Gertrude Whitney died of a heart ailment.

Coached by Crocker, the Whitney children took the position that the museum was an unrewarding drain on the estate. Their first reaction was to close it. Then, without consulting Juliana, the Whitneys offered the entire collection, plus a two-million-dollar endowment Gertrude had left the museum in her will, to the Metropolitan., This time the Met accepted, and in January 1943 an agreement to merge was publicly announced. Juliana, who had no reason to believe that the Met’s attitude had greatly changed since 1929, was horrified. She referred to the Whitney’s eventual absorption—after the war, when the new wing for it was supposed to be built—as “moving up to Alcatraz.” In the meantime, the museum reopened and went on with its work.