Whistler and Vanderbilt: an artist and his patron

Written By Judy Ross

Posted 11/20/14

Updated 03/01/24

Estate History

George Vanderbilt was a knowledgeable art collector, acquiring both the classics—like tapestries from the 1500s—and works from contemporary artists of his time such as Renoir. For portraits of his family, he turned to one of the leading artists of the era: James McNeill Whistler.

Best known today for the iconic portrait of his mother, Whistler (1834–1903) was an American-born artist who worked in Europe most of his life. No stranger to controversy, he was influenced by both the schools of realism and impressionism, later developing a unique symbolism in which the subjects of his paintings became less important than forms, colors, and mood.

While we don’t know exactly when Vanderbilt and Whistler met, we do know they had mutual friends and it’s likely Vanderbilt was familiar the artist’s work in London and Paris. By 1897, the two men were acquainted enough that Vanderbilt requested Whistler paint his portrait. In May 1897, Vanderbilt wrote:

“Yesterday when Sturges told me you were not in London I was greatly disappointed, both because I had looked forward to seeing you, venturing to hope for a Sunday afternoon visit to your studio, to make up for the visit I lost in March, and because I have a favor to ask of you. Is there a chance of your returning to London soon and if you do will you consider me a fit subject for a portrait? . . .

I cannot begin to tell you how much I want an example of your great work. I revel at present in possessing your etchings but want an oil too. Hoping you will consider this favorably believe me with deep esteem your admirer.”*

Whistler promptly agreed, stating:
“I think I may frankly say that I would not ask for a more sympathetic subject than yourself and therefore am greatly pleased at the prospect of painting your portrait.”

By the end of the year, the portrait was completed, with Whistler writing on December 30:
“My dear Vanderbilt, Now that the great work is complete and I fancy you and I who have been so much in it may in our present enthusiasm say ‘great work!’. . .

For my part I look upon this painting with real delight and am well pleased to be hereafter represented by it in my own country. And I am happy in believing that you too have in it complete enjoyment and satisfaction. You have been charming!”

The two men remained friends, with their correspondence showing Vanderbilt admiring Whistler’s art and opinions equally. He also continued collecting Whistler’s works, commissioning a portrait of Edith Vanderbilt in 1898 that was completed in 1902 and purchasing the artist’s self-portrait.

Over the years, Vanderbilt invited Whistler to Biltmore House repeatedly but Whistler never returned to the United States. When the artist died in July 1903, Vanderbilt was a pallbearer at the funeral.

Edith Vanderbilt Gerry gifted two Whistler works in the Biltmore collection to the National Gallery of Art after her death—George Washington Vanderbilt and Gold and Brown: Self-Portrait. Her oval portrait remains on display in the Tapestry Gallery.

*Vanderbilt to Whistler, London, England, May 18, 1897. Excerpted courtesy of Whistler Collection, Glasgow University Library.

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