The Whitney Studio at the New York Studio School

While studying art in Paris in 1906, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney met an expatriate artist very much like herself—Robert Winthrop Chanler. They were both aristocrats, born and bred into New York high society at a time when their every movement, social interaction, and correspondence was carefully scrutinized in magazines and newspapers. Both were fleeing that life, finding solace in the Paris art scene and the bohemians who orbited it. Gertrude and Bob didn’t fit comfortably into either world, and their meeting sparked a lifelong kinship based on their similar upbringings, deep passion for art, and need to carve out their places within early-twentieth-century art and politics.

Following their introduction in 1906, Gertrude wrote of her fascination with Chanler in her diary:

…how fine he is in his way. Put aside the fact of his being a fraud and a flirt, and he is inspiring. To hear him talk about art, to hear his ideas, to see the great truths coming from him is worthwhile…I could talk to him with my soul laid bare, because being a natural person, he brings out the natural in others.

This description of Chanler as a “natural person” illustrates the deep connection these two people shared. During Chanler’s lifetime, many saw him primarily as a tabloid figure—an outrageous, scandalous scoundrel whose pursuits in art paled in comparison to his flamboyant parties, outfits, and relationships. Descended from the Astor fortune and orphaned at a young age along with his seven siblings, Chanler grew up as the oddball of the family. While his older brothers attended Harvard and dined with social figures like Theodore Roosevelt and Stanford White, Bob sought out the avant-garde. He surrounded himself with other artists, dancers, and musicians—along with an impressive menagerie of exotic birds, monkeys, reptiles, and fish.

Gertrude and Bob’s friendship deepened when they returned to their established lives in New York, and the Whitney Studio on Eighth Street—completed between 1918 and 1923—was a testament to that bond. The interior is composed of drastic dichotomies; the fantastic pitted against reality; water against fire; the limitless heavens versus the pits of hell. In many ways these contrasts represent the central struggle in Gertrude’s own life: fighting to be taken seriously as a sculptor while trying to escape the emphasis placed on her wealth and aristocracy. The room has two major foci—the sun figure in the center of the ceiling, and the flames stretching down to the floor level. They are two contrasting centers of energy: the sun, out of reach, enables life to exist around it, while the fire is all-consuming, both creator and destroyer. Each element in the room is purposeful, placed with specific intent and reference. This was a private space that very few people were allowed to enter, and one that would have held an incredible amount of meaning for Gertrude herself.