The Breakers

Newport, Rhode Island | C.1893

Photo Credit: Kasey Prusaczyk

Growing up in America’s wealthiest family during the Gilded Age guaranteed a lifestyle without material craving. But Gertrude Vanderbilt (who slept in this floral explosion of a bedroom at their Rhode Island mansion, The Breakers), wished to be loved for more than her family’s wealth.

Born in 1875 in New York City, Gertrude was the fourth child of industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt II. She grew up in the family’s opulent mansion on Fifth Avenue, and spent her summers at The Breakers, cavorting with her siblings, playing sports, and roaming the ample grounds. She began to show interest in the arts from a young age, and often retreated to the company of her journals, in which she created delicate drawings and watercolors.

At 19, Gertrude moved to The Breakers full time, and later relocated to Paris to immerse herself in the art scenes of Montmartre and Montparnasse. She fell in love with the art world and resolved to become a sculptor. Upon returning to the U.S., she studied at the Arts Student League of New York.

By then, Gertrude had been married to Harry Whitney for nearly a decade. A successful businessman and horse breeder, Whitney had little time for his wife’s craft. Gertrude once told a colleague, “Never expect Harry to take your work seriously…It never has made any difference to him that I feel as I do about art, and it never will.”

Though denied her family’s support for her passion, Gertrude forged on as an artist, exhibiting first and later becoming a patron. In 1929, she offered the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art nearly 700 works of American modern art. They declined, so Gertrude—no stranger to finding her own means of satisfying her great love—boldly opened her own museum, which remains her greatest enduring legacy: The Whitney Museum of American Art.

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