New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture
The New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture is located in New York’s Greenwich Village, in a complex of structures assembled over an extended period of time by the American sculptor and art collector Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875–1942). The building is notable for housing Whitney’s sculpture studio and for serving as the first site of the Whitney Museum of American Art, established by the artist to showcase her art collection. The Whitney Studio was remodeled between 1918 and 1923 by the decorative artist Robert Winthrop Chanler (1872–1930), who used molded plaster to transform the fireplace and ceiling into an exuberant composition of sculpted flames and low relief figures of mythical and real creatures. The figures range from seahorses and snakes to mermaids and fire-breathing dragons, set against a background of celestial imagery. This important space has been preserved, and today is under the care of the New York Studio School. The school, a unique educational institution with a long-standing emphasis on studio work, has occupied the building since 1968.
How We Helped
In 2008, a portion of the decorative plaster cornice of the Whitney Studio collapsed, prompting the closure of the space to visitors and drawing renewed attention to its condition. After helping set up emergency stabilization measures around the area of collapse, WMF sponsored an in-depth study of the studio and its conservation needs by the Architectural Conservation Laboratory of the University of Pennsylvania. A first phase of study took place from 2009 to 2010, during which field and laboratory testing revealed important information about the condition of the plaster decoration. At the same time, extensive research on the history of the Whitney Studio and its decorative program was conducted. A second phase of study undertaken in 2011 examined in detail the available options for restoring the studio ceiling. The next phase of work began in January 2013. During this phase, four students from the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University, and one student from the Historic Preservation program at Columbia University analyzed paint samples from the fireplace to determine the original color scheme and prepared a treatment plan for its conservation. A doctoral student undertook an in-depth study to understand this commission in the context of Chanler’s other significant works. The project was overseen by academic and professional conservation experts and was completed in September 2013. The most recent analyses have raised additional questions about how the colors of the fireplace – an intense palette of bronzes and reds – transitioned into the lighter pastel colors of the studio ceiling.
Why It Matters
WMF’s partnership with the New York Studio School is helping the institution manage the responsibilities of caring for an important historic resource while also meeting the demands of modern education in the visual arts. Technical expertise is crucial for the successful treatment of the Whitney Studio, since much remains unknown about the history and conservation of 20th century plasterwork, as with much of the modern decorative arts.