Quick: Close your eyes and picture a sculptor. Not a sculpture, mind you, but its creator, the person with the chisel and the wax and the plaster. Chances are you’re picturing a man. From Michelangelo to Gaugin to Rodin to Brancusi to George Segal to Nick Cave, the overwhelming majority of world-class sculptors have been dudes.
There have been majestic exceptions—Ann Norton, whose house and gardens is a West Palm Beach landmark, was one—and as with all the other arts, more and more women have inched a little bit closer to leveling out the playing field every year. But it’s safe to say that when Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney began her sculpture career in the early 20th century, she had few female peers. Her husband didn’t take her passion seriously at first, and she voiced her frustration over “the battles I had to fight to show that I was not merely amusing myself.” Today, she’s more widely known as a collector and benefactor of the Whitney Museum, not as an accomplished sculptor of the human condition, in and out of wartime.
In the decades since she completed her final sculpture, in 1939, she’s had but one retrospective exhibition, on the heels of 1942 death. There are reasons for this. If her inconvenient gender prefigured her decades of art-world neglect, so did her preference for representational art, which brushed against the grain of abstract expressionism (another boys’ club). As the Norton Museum’s blockbuster new show, “Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney: Sculpture” reminds us, she’s long overdue for a reappraisal. Her bronze totems to soldiers, servants, family members and mythological creatures deserve all the credit bestowed on her male contemporaries, if not more: Because unlike the men whose sculptures romanticized military might and valor, Whitney’s bronze tributes depicted the horror and sacrifice of the battlefield experience with a documentarian’s unflinching eye. Whitney’s soldiers weren’t planting American flags; they were collapsing to their deaths, stumbling blind from toxic gas and hobbling home on crutches.
That such tattered realism would come from the artistic soul of a cosseted aristocrat—a woman of money who married into even more money—is one of the remarkable surprises of her artistic evolution. A painting of Whitney included in this exhibition depicts her luxuriant and lounging on an ornate sofa, staring rosy-cheeked at the spectator in what must be the equivalent of today’s Neiman togs. In a black-and-white photograph of Whitney, she’s striking a dramatic pose while exhibiting a couture wardrobe and exorbitant pearl necklace. She wouldn’t be out of place stunt-doubling for Clara Bow.
It would take a few years for this curious dilettante to develop into a sculptor of national esteem, but even her more derivative early work reveals deft craftsmanship, as on the Rodin-style “Wherefore” and “Athlete,” her nude bronze of 1904, with its Greco-Roman physique and open-ended gesture suggesting either agony or ecstasy. Her totem to the Titanic, completed in 1916, features a Christlike figure with arms outstretched, a flowing garment billowing behind and astride him in a marvelous exercise in primitive motion capture.
But it wasn’t until the U.S. entered World War I, and the country began to experience its impact at home, that Whitney developed a distinctive vision. As the wall text at the Norton puts it, her soldier sketches were “the first works in which she had successfully expressed herself.”
A dozen miniature models of Whitney’s WWI bronzes stand on a single platform at the center of the Norton gallery like toy soldiers in a giant’s war game—a regiment of infantrymen injured but unyielding. You can feel the heaviness of “Chateau Thierry,” which depicts a troop trudging forward, his upper body weighed down by a backpack of provisions. “Honorably Discharged” honors a soldier walking on crutches; in “Home Again,” another wounded warrior embraces his wife in a transcendently moving gesture.
Not everyone was so lucky. “His Last Charge” offers a fighter with his body contorted and arm over head, having likely absorbed an enemy’s bullet. “Flora” depicts Whitney’s daughter, looking awfully like her mom at a young age, mourning the news that her husband, Quentin Roosevelt—son of President Theodore—would not be coming home from battle.
Far from being Pollyannic propaganda, the only optimism in Whitney’s sculptures was of a metaphysical nature: The angelic nurse in windswept uniform shepherding a pair of soldiers in “Spirit of the Red Cross,” and lifting a wounded soldier to the heavens in “Found.” But it’s cold comfort for those of us tethered to a corporeal life.
The verisimilitude of her wartime sculptures extended to the relief panels commissioned for Madison Square in New York and to the public memorials such as her famous Washington Heights and Inwood Memorial, also in New York. Like her best work, it captures both the deadly costs and touching communion of war, where bunkmates remain dedicated to each other all the way to their final breaths.
The urgency of these mid-career masterpieces slips away, just a little, in Whitney’s later sculptures, but their formal acumen does not. She completed arguably her most eclectic work after the war, working with new mediums and styles. “The Kiss,” cast in stone, is so sensual as to be almost voyeuristically personal. “Gwendolyn,” which pays rare tribute to an African-American house servant, positively shines in streamlined marble. She would even deploy neon-coated platinum in 1939’s “Spirit of Flight,” commissioned by the New York World’s Fair.
Despite her formidable art-world patronage, when Whitney died, the New York Times obituary identified her for her creative work: “Mrs. H.P. Whitney, Sculptor, is Dead.” The Norton’s exhibition reminds us that she belongs in the canon of great sculptors—perhaps your next mental image of one.
“Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney: Sculpture” runs through April 29 at Norton Museum, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Admission is free. Call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.