As you can imagine, there are many perks that go along with working as an intern at the Archives of American Art: ice cream socials, free IMAX viewings, behind-the-scenes tours of the top museums in the country. But the best part about the job isn’t the fringe benefits. It’s the people you get to meet. Our office is home to the most influential, confident, and driven women I have ever met. True role models. And still, the woman who inspires me the most isn’t on staff, but is rather tucked away in the collections. Looking through her papers, I decided that when I grow up, I want to be just like American Grande Dame Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.
A true glamazon, Gertrude was the epitome of grace and altruism, and a sculptor to boot. She was a woman who wore many hats: supporter of the arts, sponsor of hospitals, and a free-spirited artist in her own right. Lucky for us, her legacy and contributions to American art still stand—literally—in the form of her public art. One such sculpture, the Titanic Memorial, appropriately calls the Potomac River’s Waterfront Park home.
So in the name of research, our team set out to see the creation for ourselves. We had to roll Gertrude-style, of course, which meant visiting by boat. I’m not sure she would have set foot on the pontoon with us, but she certainly would have approved of our nautical striped shirts and chic shades.
Arriving at the Titanic Memorial, it was immediately apparent that the sculptor’s renowned poise and humility also translated into her design.
With arms outstretched and head held high, the modest thirteen-foot granite statue reverently honors those who sacrificed their lives to save their fellow passengers aboard the sinking RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912. With his draped robe billowing in the wind, the figure stands guard over the inscription:
“TO THE BRAVE MEN
IN THE WRECK
OF THE TITANIC
APRIL 15 1912
THEY GAVE THEIR
LIVES THAT WOMEN
MIGHT BE SAVED
ERECTED BY THE
WOMEN OF AMERICA”
In reading the dedication, I realized that Gertrude’s poignant memorial doesn’t just pay tribute to the courageous men who gave up their lives to save strangers. In giving the women of America credit for the assembly of the statue, Gertrude also acknowledged and celebrated the influence possessed by our countrywomen.
Conceived by women, designed by a woman, and revealed in 1931 by President Taft’s widow, Helen Herron Taft, the monument is the product of the collaborative ability, gratitude, and creativity possessed by American women. And even though the Titanic Memorial was established decades ago, the strong can-do attitude of the women behind its making is still held by today’s American woman. I like to think we’d make Gertrude proud.
Jennifer Strotz is a student of Art History at James Madison University and a 2011 summer intern with the curatorial department at the Archives of American Art.