The Chanler Fireplace Project: Historic Assessment

In a short article published in The Christian Science Monitor in 1923 surveying current exhibitions, the author exclaims, “Chanler flames forth in his Flaming Screen” when describing the exhibition of Robert Chanler’s work at the Wanamaker Department Store.1 Chanler, a descendant of the well-known Astor, Stuyvesant and Winthrop families among others, had by that time become a fixture of New York high society who had also garnered acclaim as an artist after participating in the Amory Show in 1913. When the Luxembourg Museum in Paris bought one of his screens in 1922, it was heralded as a “valuable tribute not only to Mr. Chanler’s artistic ability but to American art as well” and when he died in 1930, his obituary headline read “R. W. Chanler, Famous Mural Painter, is Dead.”2 As a distinctly American artist with an array of famous patrons, Chanler was iconic within the burgeoning New York City art scene bolstered by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in the 1920s and 1930s.

Yet the artist remains largely absent from the history of American art and the existing scholarship overemphasizes the decorative or ornate function of his work. When Whitney commissioned Chanler to design the interior of her private studio between 1918 and 1923, however, he created a monumental, three-dimensional fireplace that displays his evolution as a technical and stylistic innovator. Climbing a twenty-foot wall with expressive force, the Whitney fireplace is an extraordinary counterpoint to his more prevalent work in murals, stained glass and painted screens.

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