Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and the Great War

Society Matron

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875–1942) was a sculptor, art patron, philanthropist, and founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art. During and after the Great War she made memorable contributions to the war effort and its remembrance.

Whitney was born in 1875 to Cornelius Vanderbilt, II. In 1896 she married Harry Payne Whitney, son of William C. Whitney, secretary of the navy, 1885–1889. She studied sculpture under Henry Anderson, James Fraser, and Andrew O'Connor. In 1907 she opened a studio in Greenwich Village's MacDougal Alley. 

The Juilly Hospital

During the First World War, Whitney was involved with numerous war relief activities, most notably establishing and supporting a second American Ambulance Hospital (the first was just outside Paris) in Juilly, France, 30 miles east of Paris in 1916.  She personally financed the conversion of a wing of the Jesuit College of Juilly to a 200-bed hospital in time to care for French soldiers wounded at Verdun and the Somme. The hospital was staffed by American volunteers and eventually was absorbed into the Red Cross system as Hospital 6.

Typical Ward at Juilly

Gertrude made several trips to France during the war, keeping a journal and eventually publishing a piece on the hospital in several newspapers. Her sculpture during this period was largely focused on war themes. In 1919 she exhibited some of these works at the Whitney Studio in a show called "Impressions of War."

The Artist Working on a War Piece
(Quite a Change from the Society Lady, No?)

In the years after the war, she was also commissioned to do several war memorials, including the Washington Heights War Memorial (1922) and the St. Nazaire Memorial (1926) commemorating the landing of the American Expeditionary Force in France in 1917.

St. Nazaire Monument Remembering the First Doughboys to Arrive in France

A Soldier Struggles to Aid His Comrades: Washington Heights, NYC

While continuing her work as a sculptor in New York and France, she also supported young artists and formed the group Friends of the Young Artists, and in 1930 organized the Whitney Museum of American Art, which officially opened in November1931 in New York City.

Sources: American Field Service, New York City Archives, St. Nazaire, France website


  1. Thanks for sharing - her war contributions have largely been forgotten. She even provided sheepskin coats for the ambulance drivers. :)

  2. Thank you for this. I've always been aware of the Whitney, but never knew about her. This Washington Heights memorial is exceedingly impressive for the complexity of the forms and very skillful handling. Three figures entwined with different positions, weights, "attitudes", but all in an integrated whole. She's clearly to be taken seriously as an artist.

  3. Worth noting that her daughter was Flora Payne Whitney, fiancé of Quentin Roosevelt.