September/October 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 6
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.
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.
Julia never forgave her husband for their fall, and she vented her anger and frustration on her family. She kept the children in line with a rattan switch and terrified them with chilling anecdotes of babies choking to death. Max buried himself in books and newspapers, declining to overrule his wife or defend his offspring. Julia’s neuroses, hard as they were on her children, may have worked to Juliana’s good. Whereas the average girl learned indirection at her mother’s knee, Juliana had the example of a female parent who got what she wanted by assertiveness rather than submission.
In Hoboken Julia divested herself of her household duties by conscripting Juliana’s older sisters, Mary and Clara. After they reached the age of eleven or twelve, their mother removed them from school and put them to work. When Juliana reached adolescence, her mother planned the same course for her, but a teacher interceded, persuading Julia that this child was too gifted to throw away.
In 1896 Juliana was given her first chance at a richer life. She had been an excellent student, but when she was sixteen her eyesight started deteriorating; she had to leave school and stop reading for six months. This was a terrible blow. Juliana wanted to be a poet and go to Wellesley, nearly unthinkable ambitions for a young woman of her means. Providentially, a wealthy member of the Riesers’ church offered to send Juliana to the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies in East Northfield, Massachusetts.
Today the Northfield Mount Hermon School is a nonsectarian coeducational preparatory school that caters to the children of the affluent. But it was founded in 1879 by the evangelist Dwight L. Moody as a boarding school for the daughters of the poor. The education was “earnestly Christian,” which must have seemed a drawback to Juliana. She was an avid reader of Emerson, Thoreau, and George Eliot, and her own faith was in individualism. But Northfield was considered a steppingstone to Wellesley, so in the fall of 1896 Juliana enrolled. Seminary life was sober and strait-laced, and it was evidently not to her liking. After only three semesters she left, forfeiting her dream of college. Like her childhood in Hoboken, her attendance at Northfield would become an inconvenient fact, better hidden and forgotten.
Northfield did equip Juliana to become a teacher, one of the few careers then open to middleclass women. She got a job at a business school in Hoboken, teaching English and secretarial courses. In her spare time she wrote poems and stories, which she sent off to Scribner’s, The Atlantic Monthly, and other popular magazines. The submissions went out under a male pen name, but they were rejected nonetheless.
In 1904 Juliana met Willard Burdette Force, a local dentist five years older than she and unhappily married. Juliana’s appearance on the scene seems to have tipped the balance, and two years later Force left his wife and moved to New York City. To deflect some of the gossip in Hoboken, Juliana began commuting across the Hudson to work in New York. She married Willard Force in 1912, a few months after his divorce became final. As far as Juliana was concerned, her link with Hoboken was now sundered. She was Mrs. W. B. Force of Manhattan, and the world was not to know she had ever been anyone else.
Juliana Force could not have metamorphosed into the astonishing creature she became without the persistence and daring of Gertrude Whitney, the sculptor and socialite, who was striving for self-definition in her own sphere. The daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, one of the richest men in America, and the great-granddaughter of “Commodore” Vanderbilt, she was a great heiress whose destiny, it would seem, was to dress expensively, entertain splendidly, and do very little else. She fulfilled the conventional expectations perfectly in 1896 when she married Harry Payne Whitney, scion of an eminent American family and rich enough not to be branded a fortune hunter. Gertrude, happy and settled, shouldered her social duties with pleasure. As the seasons demanded, she shuttled to and from their palace on Fifth Avenue, their retreat on Long Island, their cottage at Newport, their camp in the Adirondacks, and their farm in South Carolina. She produced three children.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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….”
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.
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.
In 1947 Juliana learned she had abdominal cancer; she underwent the first of three operations in November. Hiding her illness as long as she could, she summoned up an almost superhuman determination to stay alive. Whenever she was well enough, she made it a special point to attend meetings at the Metropolitan to defend the Whitney against administrative depredations. A. Hyatt Mayor, a curator at the Met, described her arrival at one such meeting: “She rose from her death bed, put her war paint over the hideous yellow of her illness, armed herself in electric blue silk, with a plumed hat to match, and stormed into the meeting under the brutalizing glare of a ceiling spotlight. None of us expected ever to see her again when she burst into the room, gathering the last of her life to fling at our remembrance. Her ghost could not have startled us more.”
In the fall of 1948 officials on both sides decided to call off the union, and the Whitney children, having come to realize that the museum was their mother’s greatest memorial, committed themselves to keeping it going. This was to remain a secret for several months, but not long before her death on August 28, Juliana confided the news to a friend. He said: “She looked dreadful and felt very ill, but she said, This is the happiest day of my life. The Met is not getting the Whitney. I’ve done my work.’”