Channeling Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

By the Archives

August 17, 2011

Whitney and her sculpture Despair
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and her sculpture Despair, 191-?. Jean de Strelecki, photographer. Whitney Museum of American Art, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney papers. Gift of Flora Miller Irving, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
From left to right: Curatorial Intern Jennifer Strotz, Development Intern Anne Gorman, Captain Michael Strotz, Curatorial Intern Marion Carr, Archives Specialist Mary Savig.
Docked at Georgetown. From left to right: Curatorial Intern Jennifer Strotz, Development Intern Anne Gorman, Captain Michael Strotz, Curatorial Intern Marion Carr, Archives Specialist Mary Savig. Photo: Marv Hoffmeier.

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:

Titanic-memorial-from-water
Cruising Past the Titanic Memorial on the Potomac River. Photo: Marv Hoffmeier.

“TO THE BRAVE MEN
WHO PERISHED
IN THE WRECK
OF THE TITANIC
APRIL 15 1912
THEY GAVE THEIR
LIVES THAT WOMEN
AND CHILDREN
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.

Titanic Memorial
Arms outstretched over the water. Photo: Marv Hoffmeier.
Titanic Memorial
Approaching the Titanic Memorial on foot. Photo: Marv Hoffmeier.

 

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.

Comments

She really would be. Truly eloquent, thank you for letting us know!

great monument of the victims of the titanic

Isn't it ironic when men strive to build majestic things as tribute to their power and might, women labor to build memorials to the tragic memory of his follies?

i wouldn't call dying to save others a folly. i dont think you got the point of the post. it's just cool that women took charge and designed this whole thing before they really had equality.

This is a beautiful memorial that clearly expresses sacrifice of the noblest kind - saving the lives of others by giving up ones own life.

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