5 Things You Didn't Know About the Original Whitney Studio

06/01/2015 12:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

By Whitney Studio National Treasure Team


The Titanic Memorial in Washington, D.C. was designed by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and carved by artist John Horrigan.

On May 1, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened the doors of its new building which sits alongside the Hudson River in New York's Meatpacking District. The building itself is a masterpiece by architect Renzo Pianos, who openly acknowledges the building's unique design as having several aeronautical aspects.

We know from our National Treasures work with the original Whitney Studio in Greenwich Village (now part of the New York School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture) that this unique history is one that is continually taking shape. And because of that, we offer five lesser known facts about Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and the original Whitney Museum of American Art.


Chesterwood is the estate of Daniel Chester French, a contemporary of Whitney's in MacDougal Alley who is best known for creating the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial.

1. The Whitney Museum of American Art started in the complex of buildings owned by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in the artists' enclave known as MacDougal Alley.

It exists because in 1928 the Metropolitan Museum of Art declined Whitney's offer to donate her collection of more than 600 works by American artists, prompting her to start her own museum.

2. Daniel Chester French was a contemporary of Whitney's in MacDougal Alley.
He is best known for creating the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. (The National Trust also owns his home, Chesterwood, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.)

3. In 1914, Whitney's design for a memorial to commemorate victims of the sinking of the Titanic was selected by the Women's Titanic Association.

The resulting statue (carved by artist John Horrigan) may have been the inspiration -- or an amazing coincidence -- for the famous scene in the movie Titanic when Kate Winslet stands with outstretched arms on the ship.

4. For a woman in the early 20th century to embark on a career -- especially one at the top of society as Whitney was -- was nothing less than a scandal.

Newspapers across the country carried headlines such as:

  • "Daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt will live in dungy New York alley" (Note: she did not actually live there -- only worked there);
  • "Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney's Struggles to be Taken Seriously as a Sculptor without Having Starved in a Garrett";
  • and this endless wonder: "Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney's Very Romantic Espousal of Bohemia! How New York's Most Beautiful Society Matron Forsook Her Newport and Fifth Avenue Palaces for a Coal Shed and How She Has Become a Golden Princess to the Struggling Artists of the Unconventional Greenwich Village."
5. MacDougal Alley was already a thriving artists' colony when Whitney arrived.

Her addition to the mix brought more recognition and more artists to this place. Some of the artists in the alley included:

  • James Earle Fraser is famous for his "End of the Trail" sculpture depicting an exhausted American Indian on a pony. In 1913, he designed the buffalo and Indian head nickel. He also created the statue of Theodore Roosevelt which is located at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
  • Philip Martiny created sculptures for the 1893 World's Columbia Exposition, Pan American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901, and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904.
  • Edwin Deming specialized in bronze sculptures of American Indians. He painted a series of murals showing a romanticized version of Indian life which were installed at the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the American Indian in New York.
  • Charles Webster Hawthorne founded the Cape Cod School of Art in 1899, which became one of the nation's foremost outdoor painting schools. Hawthorne's paintings are in MOMA in New York and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.