Whitney Museum of American Art Opens in New York Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Whitney Museum helped to give American artists public importance and gained international recognition for American art as a distinct and viable movement.

Summary of Event

In a short statement at the ceremony inaugurating the museum named in her honor, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney noted that she had been collecting American art for twenty-five years not only because she thought it worthwhile but also because she believed in American creative talent. The struggle to achieve recognition for American art, and for modernism in general, had been difficult and was far from over. [kw]Whitney Museum of American Art Opens in New York (Nov. 17, 1931) [kw]Museum of American Art Opens in New York, Whitney (Nov. 17, 1931) [kw]American Art Opens in New York, Whitney Museum of (Nov. 17, 1931) [kw]Art Opens in New York, Whitney Museum of American (Nov. 17, 1931) [kw]New York, Whitney Museum of American Art Opens in (Nov. 17, 1931) Whitney Museum of American Art Art;museums [g]United States;Nov. 17, 1931: Whitney Museum of American Art Opens in New York[07890] [c]Arts;Nov. 17, 1931: Whitney Museum of American Art Opens in New York[07890] [c]Organizations and institutions;Nov. 17, 1931: Whitney Museum of American Art Opens in New York[07890] Whitney, Gertrude Vanderbilt Force, Juliana Rieser Henri, Robert Sloan, John French Watson, Forbes Stieglitz, Alfred

When Whitney, at the beginning of the twentieth century, had sought to escape the stifling social atmosphere into which she was born and to seek an identity for herself, she had no thought of establishing a museum. Turning to sculpture, for which she had some talent, she hired instructors and took classes. For the first time, she became aware of the struggles and often bleak world of the average American artist. American art, particularly modern American art, had no official recognition. The artistic establishment was firmly under the control of conservatives who saw merit in contemporary art only to the extent that it imitated the past.

In 1906, Whitney by chance met Robert Henri, a member of a group of avant-garde artists seeking to escape the regimentation of existing artistic standards, especially as to subject matter. Henri believed firmly that American art should be indigenous and free of foreign influence. Even though the United States was undergoing tremendous social change in the face of increasing industrialization and urbanization, Americans did not generally tolerate “social realism” in art. Henri was so persuasive that when Whitney organized a 1907 art exhibition in honor of the opening of the Colony Club, a fashionable social club for women, she included works from his group. Seeking to identify herself further with the avant-garde, Whitney at the time of the exhibit also acquired a studio in New York’s Greenwich Village. During the same period, she hired Juliana Rieser—an action that would change the lives of both. Exuberant, gregarious, efficient, and dedicated, Rieser gave focus and direction to her employer’s artistic development and objectives.

The Colony Club exhibit set the stage for the mounting of an exhibit the following year that many consider to be the real beginning of the Whitney Museum of American Art. As one of the judges for the annual spring exhibit of the National Academy of Design, Henri wanted to enter works by six of his colleagues. To his chagrin, all but one were refused by the academy’s jury because of the “inappropriateness” of the works’ subject matter. The fallout resulted in the controversial Exhibit of Eight Exhibit of Eight (art exhibit) mounted in the Macbeth Gallery in 1908. The artists involved were Henri, George Luks, William Glackens, John French Sloan, Everett Shinn, Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, and Arthur B. Davies. Davies, Arthur B. Because of the novelty of the new work, viewers flocked to the exhibit largely to express their disapproval. The artists were dubbed the “Apostles of Ugliness” and the “Black Gang.” The name that stuck was the “Ashcan School.” Ashcan School

Another, more comprehensive exhibit was immediately planned. Under the guidance of the cosmopolitan Davies, it was decided that the exhibit would be dedicated to modernism in general and would include the works of leading European artists. The result was the Armory Show Armory Show (1913) of 1913, which included more than a thousand works by nearly four hundred artists. Americans were exposed to movements such as Fauvism, Fauvism with its emphasis on pure color, and cubism. For the first time, the American public saw works by Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh. What was also painfully obvious to many American artists was how immature their work seemed in comparison to that of their European counterparts.

Gertrude Whitney was the largest purchaser of works from the Exhibit of Eight, and she subsidized the group organizing the Armory Show. With her capable new assistant (who had in the meantime married and changed her name to Juliana Force), Whitney was determined to play a more direct role in American art largely through her sizable financial resources. In 1913, she acquired a town house that abutted her studio and established the Whitney Studio to show the works of artists who could not exhibit elsewhere. Seeking to assist artists further, Whitney acquired another property and established the Whitney Studio Club, Whitney Studio Club which enabled artists not only to display but also to work on the premises.

With no formal entrance requirements, the club grew to an unmanageable size, and both the studio and the club faced the possibility of becoming little more than forms of artistic charity. Under the direction of Juliana Force and with the advice and guidance of John Sloan and Forbes Watson, both began to give greater focus and selectivity to exhibitions and to purchases. Watson, as editor of an art magazine and with newspaper connections, not only was a capable adviser and discerning critic but also was able to manage the increasingly necessary publicity. A model for the Whitney group’s objectives was the famous 291 New York gallery of the pioneer photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Limiting himself to a relatively small number of artists of promise, Stieglitz had promoted both American art and his artists, resulting in increasing sales and commissions.

During the 1920’s, the Whitney group staged a number of exhibitions of works by artists who later became famous, including George Bellows, Jo Davidson, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, Charles Demuth, Gaston Lachaise, and Elie Nadelman. To accommodate the increased activity, Whitney acquired two buildings adjoining the studio building. The financial drain, however, began to be a burden even for Whitney, who was beginning to think about the eventual disposition of her by then considerable collection of American art. A solution seemed to be to place the collection in an endowed separate wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art The museum, however, summarily rejected Whitney’s offer, so strong still was the prejudice against modern or experimental American art.

Whitney was more disturbed by the rejection than was Force, who had been charged with making the offer. Force had always hoped that the Whitney collection would keep its separate identity; she believed that even if the Metropolitan were to accept the offer, the museum would not give modern American art the respect and attention it deserved. The decision was made to create a separate museum. A building on West Eighth Street in New York City was acquired for the project; the new building’s facade was decorated with a picture of an American eagle with outspread wings. This, the first of three homes to the Whitney Museum of American Art, opened its doors on November 17, 1931. Subsequent moves were necessitated by the growth and importance of the museum’s collection.


The primary impact of the establishment of the Whitney Museum of American Art was the legitimation of American art. The museum’s existence encouraged the recognition of American art as one of the world’s great art movements, on par with and soon to surpass that of Europe. This outcome had been a planned objective. In her speech at the opening, Juliana Force, in her role as the museum’s first director, noted that the Whitney would be devoted to the difficult but important task of gaining for modern American art the prestige that previously had been reserved for the art of foreign countries and the art of the past.

An important step in validating the kind of art the Whitney promoted was the recognition of the free creative spirit of the nonacademic artist. Much of the battle waged by the founders of the Whitney had been against the narrow restrictions imposed by academic institutions such as the National Academy of Design. One of the consequences of increasing artistic freedom was the evolution of abstraction, which was central to the development of perhaps the first important American school of art, the New York school that developed in the decades after 1945. Central to the movement were abstract expressionists such as Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. Abstract art Abstract expressionism Force was attracted to abstraction, and the Whitney purchased a Gorky work in 1937. The museum would later become a major repository for American abstract art.

The opening of the Whitney Museum also gave a major impetus to twentieth century art and to modern art in general. In the 1910’s and 1920’s, the Whitney Studio and the Whitney Studio Club were among the few places where so-called modern art could be seen in the United States. In the years 1929 to 1931, an artistic explosion of a sort took place with the openings of the Museum of Modern Art and the Albert E. Gallatin Gallery of Living Art as well as the beginnings of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Non-Objective Painting and the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery.

The opening of the Whitney also did much to raise the prestige of American artists. Gone were the days when the artist John Sloan could pessimistically observe that the pioneering American artist was like a roach—not wanted, not encouraged, yet present. One of Gertrude Whitney’s major objectives, from which she never deviated, was to assist artists. Therefore, her emphasis was on encouraging living artists, and the exhibits at both the Whitney Studio and the Whitney Studio Club were primarily staged to enable artists to promote and sell their works.

An adjunct to the prestige gained by the artist and the growing value of artworks was the growth of the art industry, which became a vital part of the economies of such American cities as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. When the Whitney Studio first opened, only a handful of American galleries existed, and almost none was willing to exhibit nonacademic works. By the time the Whitney Museum opened, dozens of galleries were operating, and the number kept growing. Art indeed had become big business.

Perhaps the most pervasive impact of the opening of the Whitney Museum was its influence on the American public’s awareness and appreciation of art. Appropriate publicity was part of the museum’s operation from the beginning, and the Whitney was among the first art museums to arrange traveling exhibits both in the United States and abroad. Just as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney predicted in her address at the museum’s opening, the Whitney Museum of American Art grew and increased in importance as its public also grew. In the twenty-first century, it is considered one of the world’s great museums. Whitney Museum of American Art Art;museums

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ashton, Dore. The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning. 1972. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. Stresses the beginnings of the modern American art movement, discussing its maturation in the form of the New York school associated with Surrealism and abstract expressionism. Includes little mention of the Whitney Museum, however, even in relation to the artistic life of Greenwich Village.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berman, Avis. Rebels on Eighth Street: Juliana Force and the Whitney Museum of American Art. New York: Atheneum, 1990. One of the best works available on the founding of the Whitney Museum. Stresses the role of Force, possibly because the author is persuaded that Force has not been given the credit she deserves. Includes excellent bibliography and index. Illustrations, all in black and white, are meager for a work on an art museum.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Biddle, Flora Miller. The Whitney Women and the Museum They Made: A Family Memoir. New York: Arcade, 1999. Chronicle of the founding and nurturing of the Whitney Museum, written by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s granddaughter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doss, Erika. Twentieth-Century American Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Examines art movements in the United States in the twentieth century, with emphasis on the relations among artists, museums, and art audiences. Includes illustrations, time line, list of museums, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedman, B. H. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978. May be viewed as the history of the museum from the standpoint of Whitney. Most valuable is part 3, “Alone Again,” which focuses on the death of Whitney’s husband in 1930 as a motivating factor in her work to establish the museum.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodrich, Lloyd. Pioneers in Modern Art in America: The Decade of the Armory Show, 1910-1920. New York: Praeger, 1963. The “Exhibit of Eight” in 1908 and the Armory Show of 1913 were instrumental in establishing the environment for the founding of the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. Goodrich, the third director of the Whitney, shows how an indigenous American art movement began to coalesce after the cultural vacuum of the early part of the century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sims, Patterson. Whitney Museum of American Art. 1985. Reprint. New York: Whitney Museum of Art, 1992. Contains reproductions of many of the Whitney’s outstanding works, all in color. Two of the more interesting paintings are a portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney by Robert Henri and George Bellow’s Dempsy and Firpo, which greeted visitors when the Whitney opened its doors in 1931. Includes an excellent overview of the history of the museum and short biographies of its major artists.

Stieglitz Organizes the Photo-Secession

Armory Show

Man Ray Creates the Rayograph

Exhibition of American Abstract Painting Opens in New York

Categories: History