This Century-Old Mural Was Rescued From a Whitney’s Stairwell

Posted February 6, 2018 5:19 p.m. EST

Sculptor and philanthropist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney occasionally posed for portraits in unconventional clothing. Around 1911, her artist friend Howard Gardiner Cushing painted her wearing an androgynous ballet costume, with pink pants and a sharply flared jacket. He hung the canvas at her studio in Old Westbury, New York, as part of a stairwell mural that measures 125 feet long and also depicts hallucinogenic plants, Persian harems and Mughal palace rooms.

In the last year, Cushing’s descendants have spent a few million dollars acquiring the flamboyant artwork and having it removed and restored for public display. Scholars had known little about the mural, which includes images of Whitney, the founder of the museum that bears her name; Cushing’s wife, Ethel; and assorted courtesans, musicians and slaves. Cushing based the clothing and scenery on Ballets Russes costumes, Japanese prints and Whistler’s paintings, among other sources, and the background vegetation includes poppies, oleander and nightshade.

Alexandra Cushing Howard, an architectural historian who is a granddaughter of Cushing, spearheaded the mural removal project and is now contacting museums about possible exhibitions. The canvas series, which is currently in storage, has been turned into 18 framed panels. The imagery, she said, “is so sophisticated and subversive but it’s so joyful as well.”

The studio in Old Westbury was left empty and neglected for decades after Whitney’s death in 1942. A year ago, staff members from the Julius Lowy Frame and Restoring Co. in New York began painstakingly lifting the Cushing paintings off the walls and rolling them for transport. Lauren Rich, Lowy’s senior paintings conservator, said that given the flaking paint in some areas, “what we were dealing with was hanging by a thread.”

John LeBoutillier, a Whitney descendant who lives in the Old Westbury building, said that family medical expenses made the sale necessary. In 1999, also to raise money for a relative’s health care, the family sold the studio’s mural set by Maxfield Parrish that depicted Renaissance troubadours and young revelers along a Tuscan loggia. In 2002, two of that mural’s six sections were stolen, and they remain missing. The studio still contains murals by Whitney’s friend Robert Winthrop Chanler, representing sea creatures and medieval knights.

LeBoutillier said he was pleased that the Cushing artwork had gone into the safe hands of the artist’s descendants. Howard and her family have paid for a photographic replica to line the stairwell.

Lauren Drapala, a design historian in Providence, Rhode Island, who has studied the Whitney mural collection, said she was somewhat wistful that the canvases had left their original setting. But the removal, she added, has brought about “a fascinating new opportunity for scholarship.”

Also of note, through April 29, the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, is showing Whitney’s sculptures alongside a 1916 portrait of her by Robert Henri, for which she posed wearing a hip-length tunic and green baggy pants.