Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney World War I bronzes at new home in Rhode Island

Published: 2 April 2024

By Nicole Jeri Williams, Ph.D.
Curator of Collections, The Preservation Society of Newport County
Special to the Doughboy Foundation website

Victory Arch by Flatiron building

Photo shows bird's-eye view of the World War I Victory Arch and Flatiron building in New York City in 1919. The Flatiron Building, also called The Fuller Building, is at 175 Fifth Avenue at E. 22nd & E. 23rd Street at Fifth Avenue, NYC; built in 1902 by D.H. Burnham & Co.) This elevated view looks south down Fifth Avenue with Flatiron Building in left mid-distance. The 1919 Victory Arch is at lower center. At lower right is 1857 the obelisk to General William J. Wort, an American officer during the War of 1812, the Second Seminole War, and the Mexican–American War. The Victory Arch was torn down in 1920, and no permanent memorial ever replaced it.

The Preservation Society of Newport County in Rhode Island recently acquired two Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney World War I bronzes: America at War (a chaotic battle scene) and Blinded (depicting a soldier blinded by poison gas).  Whitney, who summered at The Breakers in her youth and later founded the Whitney Museum of American Art, created the bronzes as a study for a long-gone World War I monument.

As Curator of Collections, I led the effort to obtain these pieces at auction from the Vanderbilt estate. They were formerly in the gardens of GV Whitney’s studio in Old Westbury, NY. We also purchased a full size framed pencil study by Whitney for America at War.

Two World War I bronzes by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (l: America at War; r: Blinded) hanging in the gardens of G.V. Whitney’s studio in Old Westbury. NY prior to their acquisition by The Preservation Society of Newport County in Rhode Island.

The bronzes are casts that were produced by the Roman Bronze Works from two studies for Whitney’s panels on the Madison Square Victory Arch. Whitney meant for her studies/sketches to be temporary, but her friend Robert Winthrop Chanler encouraged her to cast them in bronze.

The actual Victory arch was built quickly of wood and plaster in 1919 to welcome returning soldiers home from World War I. Whitney’s panels on the arch itself were plaster and fiber as well. The hastily-constructed arch loomed over several parades, then was torn down a year later, as the notional plan to replace it with a more permanent version at some undetermined point in the future never came to fruition.

One thing we found so fascinating about America at War in particular was the soldier at the far left of the panel, who appears to be the same figure Whitney sculpted earlier under the title Private of the Fifteenth. “The Fifteenth” was the 15th NY National Guard Regiment of African American soldiers.

It was bold for Gertrude to include an African heritage soldier among other white fighters in the relief–but his portrayal still followed racist visual conventions of the day. The soldier is literally and figuratively marginalized at the edge of the panel. He also is shown in a pose (at attention, saluting) that is more passive and subservient than the heroics displayed by the white fighters to his left. The best source on these issues is art historian David Lubin’s fabulous book Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War.

(left) America at War arrives at the The Preservation Society of Newport County to begin conservation; (right) conservationists photograph the rear of the bronze casting; note plant debris accumulated during the sculpture’s long residence on a garden fence; (inset at bottom) Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s signature inscribed on the left bottom front of the bronze.

Currently in conservation, the bronzes will be installed on the property of The Breakers later this year, most likely in the circular service drive where guests exit the house upon the conclusion of their tour. This circular space has the feeling of a quiet memorial enclosure.

We hope the panels will serve as a memorial there to all who sacrificed and particularly to those associated with The Breakers who followed the call of duty. The Breakers, in fact, played a significant role in the war effort. In 1914, it hosted a massive Red Cross Bazaar that raised over $40,000. Alice and Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s son, Neily, and members of their household staff also fought bravely in the war.

Brigadier General Cornelius “Neily” Vanderbilt III served in World War I. He was decorated with the Distinguished Service Medal by the government of the United States, the New York State Conspicuous Service Medal, made a commander of the Order of the Crown from Belgium and awarded that country’s Croix de Guerre. The government of France invested him as a Commander of the Legion of Honor.

The New York City Victory Arch 1919.




















Blinded being prepped for conservation.

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