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Robert Winthrop Chanler: flamboyant American modernist.


The lively chronicle of American modernism is populated with a cast of fascinating characters, but few were as flamboyant as Robert Winthrop Chanler (1872-1930). He made his artistic reputation with exotic and brilliantly colored lacquered screens whose compositions feature fantastical avian, jungle, and aquatic creatures, many overlaid with iridescent metallic finishes. (1) Chanler's Astrological Screen of 1917, once owned by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, spectacularly reveals the artist's vivid imagination in a mystical astronomical display. (Fig. 1) His exceptional aesthetic sensibilities and decorative verve are fully evident in this work (which was also decorated with deep sea elements on the reverse). Striking in black and gold, its spangled rays were mixed with zodiacal motifs.

If Chanler remains little known today, it is partly because few of his works are in museum collections and perhaps also because the lurid details of his personal life received as much attention during his lifetime as his artistic career. Indeed, at his death in 1930, potential biographers knew that there would be "no dearth of material from which to build their legend." (2) However they recognized that there was much that could never be told: "to bring the authentic life of Robert Chanler and his extraordinary fellows to the printed page will quite possibly prove a task of nervous elimination, rather than expansion." (3)

His friends described his tempestuous personality in vigorous terms. Painter Guy Pene du Bois regarded him as a "furious bull" in a china closet, an individual of colossal energy and commanding physical presence:

   The man is over six feet tall and, as we can seldom
   say of six-footers, built in proportion. By this it is
   not meant that he is built merely structurally in proportion.
   He has proportionate voice and gesture and
   appetite. More than any other New Yorker, perhaps,
   he lives in a world peopled by pygmies. (4)

This "huge bear of a man" (5) communicated "in an almost unintelligible growl." (6) Mercedes de Acosta recalled of him: "Bob was gargantuan. Everything about him--hands, feet, shoulders, head--were all enormous. And his hair, thick and tightly curled, stood out about five inches from his head, making him seem that much taller and his head that much bigger. His voice bellowed out like the roaring of ten bulls and it could be heard a block away." (7) Chanler was larger than life: "His appetites were enormous. His energy--fabulous. No adjective used in the description of him could accurately be called superlative." (8)


Robert Winthrop Chanler was a scion of the Hudson River aristocracy and his family tree was clustered with patrician names. Notable forbears included John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; Peter Stuyvesant, New York's last Dutch governor; and Robert Livingston, one of the drafters of the Declaration of Independence. He also counted the names of Beekman, Schuyler, and Delano amongst his near relations. Robert's own generation was also distinguished in public service. One brother, Lewis Stuyvesant Chanler (1869-1942), served as Lieutenant Governor of New York; and another, William Astor Chanler (1867-1934), was a state senator. His parents were John Winthrop Chanler (1826-1877) and Margaret Astor Ward Chanler (1838-1875). The granddaughter of William Backhouse Astor, her aunt was Julia Ward Howe.

Tragically, his parents, who married in 1856 and who had ten children, died two years apart of pneumonia in 1875 and 1877 at the ages of thirty-seven and fifty-one, leaving nine children ranging in age from four to fifteen who were collectively known as the "Astor Orphans." (9) A group of trustees and guardians was appointed to oversee their upbringing, education, and financial affairs.

Robert Chanler and his siblings were brought up at Rokeby, the family's Hudson River estate in Barrytown in Dutchess County that had been originally built in 1811-15 by John Armstrong and his wife Alida Livingston. John had a distinguished military, diplomatic, and governmental career, serving both in the Revolution and in the War of 1812. He was also a United States Senator and a minister to Napoleon's court. Margaret, their only daughter, married William Backhouse Astor (the son of John Jacob Astor), and Rokeby became theirs in 1836. Their daughter Emily married Samuel Ward, and it was their daughter, Margaret Astor Ward, who was the artist's mother.

Most of those who had charge of the Chanlers were older and childless, and because they "had not a clue as to how to raise children," the result was mayhem. (10) "Ill-mannered and rude," they were given to "screeching and fighting," quarrelling "like angry dogs." (11) This must have been trying for Mary Marshall, the southern cousin who had volunteered to come north to run the household and to instill in them "high moral principles." (12) Among her unusual acts was to have a phrenologist to read each youthful head in order to forecast their future; art was not among the predictions for Robert. Sundays "were dedicated to religion in some of its most oppressive forms." (13) It was an emotionally frugal childhood: "The isolation of Rokeby was moral as well as geographical. Old ideas, remnants of a previous century, permeated the house." (14) Robert Winthrop Chanler, who was just five when his father died, grew up in this atmosphere of "almost feudal seclusion." (15)

A "puzzling child" who was "difficult to control" and "absolutely averse to learning," Robert's distinctive personality traits soon emerged, making him stand out even amongst the famously unruly Chanler family. "Impulsive and undisciplined" and "rough in manner," his life-long "obliviousness of rules" was already well-established in his youth. (16) Moody in temperament, he was about six feet four inches tall and weighed 225 pounds. With a "clear and penetrating voice," it was hard not to notice him. (17) By the time he was seventeen, he was described as "big and virile" and alarmingly popular with the village girls. (18) His behavior was cause for concern on the part of his guardians, who concluded: "It was time to take Bob Chanler away." (19)

In February 1889, Robert was sent to Europe to stay with his brother John Armstrong Chanler ("Archie") and his new wife, Amelie Rives, a Virginian whom he had married the year before. Robert, "impressionable and unstable," became smitten with his unconventional sister-in-law. (20) By the summer of 1891, in the attempt to avert yet another potential scandal, he was packed off to a French family in the countryside, ostensibly to improve his language skills. Still emotionally disturbed as a result of his inappropriate attachment to Amelie, he suffered a breakdown and spent the rest of the summer recovering in Wales.

His psyche steadier by fall, Robert left for Rome, taking a studio on the Piazza d'Espagna to study art. He began private lessons with John ("Jack") Elliott (1858-1925), an English artist who was the husband of Maud Howe, Julia Ward Howe's daughter. Elliott was somewhat uneasy regarding his pupil, feeling that he was too "influenced by the last person who has made some plausible remark to him. He is like a compass and people act on him like magnets, but when he is left alone he points in the right direction." (21) But Elliott expressed cautious optimism: "He is more susceptible to good impressions than to bad ones as far as I can see." (22) Still, he was not sure what to do with his charge:

   Of course he is very anxious to know if I think he
   has talent, which is a difficult thing for me to answer
   as I don't want to mislead him. I think he certainly
   has a great deal of facility which may mean something
   and may not. As a rule it is rather against a
   man than otherwise, but his ideas are so good that
   if he can only be made to study seriously, I think he
   will amount to something. (23)

Robert also studied with two Spanish artists, painter Jose Villegas (1844-1921) and sculptor Mariano Benlliure y Gil (1862-1947).

His visual education was decidedly eclectic. Immersing himself in Italian Renaissance art, he was fascinated by the work of Pinturicchio in the Borgia apartments at the Vatican and by Benozzo Gozzoli's frescoes in the Palazzo Medici Ricardi in Florence. In Paris, he was impressed by the early Gothic tapestries at the Musee Cluny, and in London, the extensive decorative arts collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum absorbed his attention. A trip to Germany exposed him to the Bavarian rococo. At some point he traveled to Africa and to the southwestern United States.

At the urging of architect Stanford White, a family friend, Chanler moved to Paris in 1893. At first he continued in sculpture with Alexandre Falguiere, but his interests soon shifted to painting. Some accounts indicate that he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but it is hard to imagine him having the self-discipline to pass the rigorous entrance examinations. However, Ecole teachers with whom he took classes--Benjamin Constant, Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, and Jean-Leon Gerome--also taught privately. Chanler enrolled at Julian and Colarossi academies and made his Salon debut in 1896 with a study of a head. Already he gravitated to intriguing individuals, and his growing circle of friends included pianist Arthur Rubinstein, with whom he played riotous games of poker.

Five weeks after he turned twenty-one, Robert Winthrop Chanler became engaged. His family, which had known nothing about his courtship, was naturally concerned, but most of his relations took the position that "in view of the previous alarms over Bob, the preponderance of opinion was that the more speedily he was married, the better." (24) In April 1893, he wed Julia Remington Chamberlain (1872-1936) in London. She was the younger sister of Alice Chanler, the wife of his brother Lewis Stuyvesant Chanler. A relative described the couple as "frantically, seethingly in love with each other." (25) But John Elliott's response was more measured in tone: "I hope it won't be a case of marrying in haste and repenting at leisure." (26)

The couple proved temperamentally incompatible. Conventional and timid, she craved decorum, shrinking "from whatever was rowdy, bold, dogmatic, irresponsible, impulsive, rash, and above all loud." (27) Yet these were Robert Winthrop Chanler's most salient characteristics. They had two children, Dorothy (c. 1898-1948) and Julia (1905-1977) before divorcing in 1907. That year he made a rare foray into public service when he was elected Sherriff of Dutchess County (he reportedly spent $20,000 on his campaign). Appointing writer Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) as his "chief deputy," together they spent their nights riding madly around the county "equipped with chaps and ten-gallon hats, in search of bad men." (28) He held the post until 1910, and for the rest of his life was known as "Sheriff Bob."


In June 1910, after a whirlwind courtship, Chanler married a second time to opera singer Lina Cavalieri (1874-1944) in Paris (this was the second of her four marriages). The soprano had made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1906 with Enrico Caruso. The New York Times reported that "the bride wore a slightly decollete gray satin dress with a very short skirt, which hung closely to her figure. On her head was a little black capote with lace adornment, and around her neck was her celebrated rope of royal pearls." (29) Amongst those celebrating their nuptials was Arturo Toscanini.

Chanler had signed an extraordinary pre-nuptial agreement with Cavalieri in which he agreed to give her much of his fortune and property. When the details became public, his mentally unstable brother, John, whom the family had forcibly committed to the Bloomingdale Hospital in White Plains in 1897 (he later escaped), cabled him three words that quickly became famous: "Who's loony now?" (30)

By September, the Chanler's tenuous union had irrevocably unraveled, and the details were thoroughly reported in the press. Their arguments degenerated into food fights, and it was revealed that not only had she paid for the wedding, but that she had supported him in Paris. Cavalieri had been scheduled to perform in New York, and members of Chanler's family reportedly offered her $25,000 to break her American engagements for the 1910-1911 season.

Lawyers for his ex-wife Julia challenged the pre-nuptial agreement in court, claiming that his actions violated her divorce settlement, and suggested that Cavalieri had taken advantage of her former husband's "suggestible mental state." (31) As it turned out, the complexity of the Astor trusts actually meant he had few personal assets to give away outright. Further, Chanler had accumulated substantial debts, and there were many creditors "preparing to attach his already much-entangled property," that included unpaid bills for his wedding clothes. (32)

Temporarily short of ready funds, he left Paris for New York in September, ostensibly to devote himself to his art. Cavalieri soon resumed her relationship with her former lover, Russian Prince Dolgorouki. Working with her lawyer to "find a way out of the peculiar situation of being married without being married," Cavalieri finally renounced her pre-wedding contract in 1911, agreeing to settle for an undisclosed sum of money. (33) Their divorce was granted in early January 1912. Chanler, who characterized their union as "one week of joy and terror," (34) declared "that he had built a new existence for himself," resolving that should his wife show up at his house that "he would jump out of the window." (35) For her part, Cavalieri asserted that "marriage and art are like oil and water--they won't mix," (36) stating firmly: "My short experience of married life has thoroughly disillusioned me, and if I ever regain my liberty I mean to remain single." (37) She became engaged to tenor Lucien Muratore a year later in January 1913. Chanler would not marry again. (38)


In April 1906, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942) met Chanler in Paris, recording in her diary:

   How fine he is in his way. Put aside the fact of his
   being a fraud and a flirt, and he is inspiring. To
   hear him talk about art, to hear his ideas, to see
   the great truths coming from him is worthwhile ...
   he says live-live-get all you can out of life and he
   wishes the best of all things ... I am sure that he is
   a genius and to know such a man and to hear him
   talk freely and truly about himself that is an experience,
   and one worth having ... Words and personality
   drop from him simply as so much dust or air,
   he does not miss it. (39)

As artist members of notable wealthy families, they became friends, both having surmounted "the inherited handicaps of family tradition and material affluence." (40) Each had transgressed convention, and Whitney noted in her diary: "I suppose my puritan ancestors would turn in their graves were they to hear our conversations." (41) She founded the Whitney Studio Club in 1918, and Chanler was a regular participant.

About 1913, Whitney commissioned Chanler to design interiors for her Old Westbury mansion and studio on Long Island. These included panels for her bedroom that were elaborate scenes of medieval and early Italian Renaissance battle and court life set in deep perspective and painted in black, Chinese white, and silver. Whitney's bathroom featured an undersea theme, and for her sunken marble tub, he created a "'Jules Verne' nacreous grotto full of fish and marine life." (42)

In 1918, Chanler began a series of projects for Whitney's Greenwich Village studio, which she had owned since 1907. She had already raised the ceiling, put in a skylight, and installed a large fireplace but now embarked on more extensive renovations of the space. The two screens he installed--Astrological and Deep Sea Fantasy--the latter was described as: "submarine flora and fauna amidst various octopi and iridescent reds, yellows and greens." (43) He also designed a series of seven stained glass windows with fantastical scenes of plants and animals. Visually lush and full of complex symbolism and vibrant color, it was Whitney's personal retreat from her many public commitments in several worlds.

The centerpiece of the studio was a monumental sculpted fireplace and chimney: "A huge fire, in molded plaster, painted mostly bright red and gold, blazes from the floor, twenty feet up the chimney, and across the ceiling where the sculptural forms flatten into low relief." (44) Chanler's elaborate designs were in populated with a staggering array of astrological symbols and creatures from the land, sea, and sky against swirl of planets and stars. He continued to be involved in various projects for Whitney until 1923. (45)


The famous Armory Show, America's first large-scale introduction to European modernism, opened in New York in February 1913 with more than a thousand works on display. Chanler sent nine screens to the exhibition. Two featured Southwestern themes, including Hopi Snake Dance and The Buffalo Hunt (titled Indian in the catalogue), both inspired by his earlier trip to the Southwest. The Snake Dance was the most popular of the Hopi seasonal performances and attracted crowds of summer tourists. (Fig. 2) While exotic to easterners, it was a common theme among photographers and painters who had been to the region. More in line with Chanler's exoticism was The Buffalo Hunt, an active composition of improbably bright red Indians with green foliage headdresses riding energetically through a herd of buffalo. (Figure 3)

Expatriate sculptor Henry Clews, Jr. (1876-1937), like Chanler a wealthy artist favoring eccentric imagery, and with whom Chanler once carried on a discussion for forty-eight consecutive hours at the Cafe des Deux Magots in Paris, lent Fantasy Bamboo and Birds from his personal collection. It remains unlocated but shares with Autobiography (1912), another screen that Clews owned, a lush tropical environment with flamingos and other long-legged shore birds. (Fig. 4) The artist described the piece: "It is a sort of allegorical conception of my friend Clews, don't you see not in portrait form, but in a psychological representation of his mental and artistic environment. Those cranes and pelicans are the bourgeoisie, staring stolidly in the presence of the artist's spirit, which they [can] neither see nor understand." (46)

While the show was drawing crowds in New York, Chanler painted Parody of Fauve Painters in the Armory Show, in which he ridiculed the enthusiasm of his contemporaries for European modernism. (Fig. 5) Set in a forest at the rocky mouth of a cave, a chimpanzee satirizing painter Henri Matisse sits surrounded by a group of five lanky aesthetes with slender fingers and long noses who listen raptly to what the monkey has to say. Several are bearded, rather like the ape that they seek to emulate. Holding palettes and wearing brightly colored feminine smocks, they are caricatures of contemporary stereotypes of effete artists. In front of the ape is a jar of brushes, and on a tree limb above, a second monkey clutches a handful of brushes. Matisse paintings exhibited in the Armory Show are scattered on the ground, including Le Luxe II (1907-08, the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen) and Blue Nude (1907, Baltimore Museum of Art), as is a detail of Gauguin's Faa Ibeibe (1898, National Gallery, London).

After its Manhattan showing, the smaller version that traveled to Chicago included eight of Chanler's screens that were installed at the entrance to the exhibition, interspersed with sculpture by Henri Matisse, Aristide Maillol, and Joseph Bernard. Five of the works shown in New York were not displayed in Chicago (Hopi Snake Dance, The Buffalo Hunt, Deer, Porcupines, and Fish) and at least three of the works shown in Chicago were different from New York (Fight Under the Sea, The Jungle, Porcupines, and Birds of Paradise). The artist did two versions of Porcupines. The one owned by his sister Elizabeth, married to John Jay Chapman, was shown in New York (it is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), but in Chicago it was the screen belonging to Lady Emerald Cunard that was displayed. (47) (Fig. 6)

Although he made fun of the exhibition, Chanler's work and independent spirit owes much to the avant-garde. He even purchased several works from the Armory Show, including two paintings by Portuguese artist Amadeo de Souza-Cardozo, two prints by Odilon Redon, and a version of Brancusi's Mile. Pogany. Some of his own work sold, making Chanler the second most popular American artist based on sales ($1500). (48)


In New York, Chanler lived at 147 East 19th Street near Gramercy Park. He named his residence the "House of Fantasy" and remodeled the top floor into a huge studio; the rooms below were used for entertaining. Most extraordinary was his bedroom whose walls and ceiling featured a colorful jungle theme. The centerpiece of the room was a huge oaken bed--twelve feet by fourteen feet. Topped by a mirrored canopy, it was built at knee height so that anyone tumbling out did not have far to fall.

In the basement, he maintained a menagerie and an aquarium where he could sketch the exotic creatures that populated his screens:

   The monkey cage has a group of simians, including
   some of the rarest species in captivity--mangabees,
   ridge-tails, sloths and the like--all alive and active
   and wildly decorative. Adjoining this is the aviary,
   where talkative English ravens as large as buzzards
   live unhappily with toucans--medium-sized tropical
   birds with enormous crimson beaks like giant
   lobster claws. The un-arbitrated disputes of these
   strangely assorted birds have left the toucans champions,
   while the ravens more silent and crestfallen.
   The aquatic models are gold fish, angel fish, devil
   fish, seahorses, eels, frogs, turtles and horseshoe
   crabs, swimming about in a good-sized pool that is
   convenient for herons and flamingoes to pose along
   its margin and for the unwary visitor to fall into. (49)

An elaborate electrical lighting system simulated the environments in which his creatures lived in the wild and could mimic silvery moonlight and rosy sunrises.

Famed for his prodigious consumption of alcohol, Chanler hosted drunken parties nearly every night, epitomizing what Carl Van Vechten vividly characterized as the "Splendid Drunken Twenties." (50) Van Vechten lived next door, and was often present at Chanler's gatherings: "I got into the habit of accepting his invitations, for his unrestrained guests kept me awake if I didn't." (51) One entry in his daybook describes a typical evening experience at Chanler's: "I get very drunk & misbehave frightfully & forget everything I've done the next day." (52) His riotous festivities were legendary, and his Parisian reputation followed him across the Atlantic: "Bob's parties were not only expensive, but very noisy, partly because of his peculiar, high liquid scream something like a police siren. Often a crowd would gather in the street, staring at the window from which issued such diabolical noises." (53)

At Chanler's, "There was good talk, plenty of hooch," and painter George Biddle noted the attractions of his host's debauches: "One met much of the youthful eagerness, the post-bellum intellectual sexual emancipation, the esthetic curiosity, the Bohemianism and the promiscuity of the period." (54) Ethel Barrymore wryly noted the effect one of these gatherings had on her: "I went there in the evening a young girl and came away in the early morning an old woman." (55) Bruce Kellner, Carl Van Vechten's biographer, vividly recreated a typical scene:

   White-haired, white-smocked Bob Chanler was in
   the habit of inviting thirty or forty people to drop
   in after the theater for food and drink, served in
   rooms where silver and magenta fish swam on gold
   screens, Yorkshire terriers yapped at all intruders
   and one another, poets wrote verses while perched
   on top of ladders, ice tinkled continuously in
   cocktail shakers, and most of the assembled guests
   joined in violent snake dances that proceeded
   through various chambers, over beds, up and down
   flights of stairs, tripping across an occasional prostrate
   body out cold from Chanter's bootleg liquor. (56)

Painter Joseph Stella was a regular guest: "When two orchestras played, one on the top and the other on the ground floor, while the couples danced all the way from the roof to the sidewalk. Two thousand dollars a month were spent on prohibition booze while his dining room was always crowded at breakfast, lunch, dinner and late supper." (57) One night, when a drunk Paul Draper sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," Chanler reacted by "spinning plates on his head," as he "whistled, belched and whinnied his approval." (58) Biddle recorded a vivid image of his host: "Sweating, boiling, shouting, cursing, gesticulating, raving, he towered above most people in this madhouse." (59) Chanler lived across the street from George Bellows and his family. One night, his wife Emma summoned the police during one raucous party, but the results were not what she had intended: "When a good-natured bluecoat responded, he found himself in no time at all a welcome guest with a bartender's apron around his waist and his cap on Bob Chanler's head." (60)


Chanler's exhausting social life matched an "astounding capacity for decorative expression." (61) His screens were recognized as being "in a class by themselves," (62) and one critic characterized him as "our most extravagant eclectic and our most individual decorator." (63) His initial inspiration came from a Chinese lacquer screen he had seen in Paris, and in 1900 he executed his first decorative panel, a red and gold peacock composition. Chanler's subsequent compositions extended this idea into considerably more exotic realms of fancy and imagination:

   Not satisfied with what ordinarily meets the eye,
   he reaches toward the far magic of the sky, or dives
   into the shining depths of the sea, bringing forth
   fresh treasure troves of form and color. Strange
   beasts and fabulous birds appear at his beck and
   call. And one after another, these gleaming aquatic
   monsters and gorgeous avian marvels float or fly to
   the surface of his creative consciousness and assume
   their appointed places in a given composition or a
   colorful portrait series. (64)

After his return from Europe in the fall of 1902, one of his early patrons included Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt. He received public validation in 1905 when he was awarded an honorable mention at the Salon d'Automne for his huge decorative panel (it was sixteen feet square), The Giraffes. It was later purchased by the Luxembourg Museum in 1922.

For nearly two decades Chanler steadily produced a series of elaborate screens for elite patrons. The artist was productive by any standard, surprisingly so given the hectic quality of his social life, both of which received extensive press coverage. The chaos of his life suited him: "Often when his parties were at the noisiest height he would go off upstairs alone and paint like mad. He didn't care anything about the noisemakers but he wanted the noise going on." (65)

His work was expensive (Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney paid $10,000 for one piece): "Most of his screens and murals are in private homes. Only admirers with full purses can afford him. Months, sometimes years, of artistic thought and mechanical labor are spent on whatever comes from his studio." (66) Chanler's screens were the result of a lengthy and arduous process:

   The screens are first made of white satinwood,
   exquisitely fine, to which is applied a certain kind of
   fine muslin. Then the process of painting the wood
   over the muslin for a background upon which to
   paint is begun. The foundation paint is carefully
   put on and then rubbed in with skill. Many coats of
   paint must be used to obtain the proper finish, which
   looks like enamel, before the real work of applying
   the design is begun. Two months are necessary for
   the first preparation to be made complete, for
   several coats of paint repeated at intervals must
   needs take long in drying. Then, when the artist
   begins his designs the time speeds on into months,
   even two years or more in some cases, before the
   eagerly sought for quality is obtained. Beginning
   with one color, the end is often quite a different
   tone. Even starting with one design, another of
   quite different form will be the complete work. (67)

The artist's craftsmanship was meticulous:

   The wood for his screens is prepared in a shop
   adjoining his studio. After a preliminary flat coat,
   paint is laid on with a full brush and allowed
   to dry, then rubbed down. One layer of color is
   applied over another, scraped, glazed and, after
   repeated painstaking operations, varnished. Gold,
   silver and aluminum "risings" are frequently employed.
   The luminous result resembles a combination
   of lacquer and enamel. Several screens, some
   of them of great size, are under way at once, the
   artist and his assistants going from one to the other,
   adding new strata of color, modeling the metallic
   overlays, polishing, perfecting the design with
   inordinate toil and patience and unflagging enthusiasm. (68)

Some of his surfaces were flat, while others were modeled in low relief, often with metallic overlays. Chanler regarded his striking creations as the equivalent of "visualized music," (69) and one critic declared that "to see all these things together was a tour de force that completely swept one off one's feet." (70)

Many of his patrons resided in the New York area. In 1919, Mary Harriman Rumsey (1881-1934) asked Chanler to do a folding screen for her Long Island estate at Sands Point. The daughter of railroad industrialist E.H. Harriman and his wife Mary Averell Harriman, in 1910 she married sculptor Charles Cary Rumsey, whom she had met when he was working on a commission at her parent's estate, Arden. Framed in wrought and cast iron, and cut aluminum, the elegant running dogs and figures by Hunt Diederich (1884-1953) provide a perfect foil for Chanler's exotic creatures and flowers (Fig. 7).

In 1920, he executed decorations for two rooms at Coe Hall, a 65-room mansion at Planting Fields, a 400-acre estate in Oyster Bay on Long Island's Gold Coast. In 1900, William Robertson Coe (1869-1955), whose fortune derived from insurance and railroads, married Mai (Mary) Rogers (1875-1924), a Standard Oil heiress who was the daughter of Henry Huttleston Rogers. Like many wealthy easterners, they enjoyed travels to the American West, and in 1910 the couple purchased one of Colonel William "Buffalo Bill" Cody's Wyoming properties as a summer ranch. Eventually they owned more than 200,000 acres.

When their first mansion burned down in 1918, they replaced it with another that was completed in 1921. Chanler decorated two major spaces in the Coe house. The Buffalo Room was where the couple had breakfast, and Chanler's walls featured Indians, elk, and buffalo, masculine scenes of hunting and the hunted. For Mai Coe's bedroom the artist emphasized the feminine, creating an elaborate floral extravaganza of romantic gardens, with fantastical rococo flowers and birds overlaid by a shimmering silver lace (Fig. 8).

Florida offered Chanler genuine tropical foliage and birds, and for the Miami mansion of industrialist James Deering (1859-1925), Vizcaya, he executed Vizcayan Bay (1922). (Fig. 9) The estate overlooked Biscayne Bay, and Deering, whose fortune came from International Harvester, spent winters there until his death in 1925. His panel is an extravaganza of Floridian foliage--bananas, palms, and cacti. A flock of pink flamingos at the right stand elegantly near several alligators. In the water, Spanish galleons, evoking early explorers of the state, are being welcomed by a flotilla of indigenous people in slender canoes. Other figures dance on the shore, apparently celebrating the arrival of European visitors. Chanler also decorated the ceiling of the mansion's swimming pool, for which he created a marine grotto.

Only one of his commissions was semi-public. For the exclusive Colony Club, Chanler created beautiful "floreate murals." (71) Founded in 1903, it was New York's first exclusive social club for women. For their new building, designed by Chester Aldrich between 1914 and 1916, Chanler designed decorations for the dining room, loggia, and swimming pool. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a founding member, designed a fountain.

During the early twenties, Chanler began to spend time in the lively and eclectic artist colony of Woodstock, New York, across the river from where he grew up. From his friend, sculptor Hunt Diederich, he purchased a home, which he "opulently decorated." (72) The pair collaborated, inspiring interest in the decorative arts amongst the younger artists there. George Biddle recollected that Chanler "was generous with young artists. He bought their work and encouraged them." (73) At his Woodstock parties, guests would discover a white-brimmed hat "filled with five dollar bills. With no questions asked and no loans intended, artists having a difficult time were free to reach in and secure needed assistance." (74)


During the early twenties, Chanler began painting portraits, a genre that absorbed him for the rest of his career. Two exhibitions of this work were held in his lifetime, one at the Whitney Studio Club in 1926 and the other at the Valentine Gallery in 1929 (it would be the artist's last), where he presented twenty-two and thirty portraits respectively.

Painter Alexander Brook noted that Chanler's portraits comprised a slide show of the artist's life, as he had surrounded himself with "people of every kind and description." (75) The best are works of startling vitality: "The subway during the rush hour is a haven of quiet and seclusion compared to this roomful of insistent portraits of people, in many cases more alive than the living, more articulate than the original subject." (76) Impressionistic and sketchy, their deliberate crudeness contrasts with the meticulous craftsmanship of his screens and panels. Those who expected a typical society portrait from a member of the Astor family would be shockingly disappointed: "Many appeared on the canvas as wolves ... indignant plutocrats found their bland eyes quite offset by leering, dripping, lupine jaws. Dowagers ran out shrieking, never to return, upon their discovery that they had been depicted treacherously, yet cunningly and plausibly, as pigs, or incredibly bloated serpents. His friends protested, but Chanler shrugged. That was the way they looked to him at the moment." (77)

His subjects were eclectic, and included many cultural luminaries. Avery Hopwood, Leopold Stokowski, Alfred Lunt, Carl Van Doren (Whitney Museum of American Art), Mercedes de Acosta, Jean Cocteau, Iris Tree, Max Ewing, Edgard Varese, Lucile Blanch, Joseph Stella, Jean Heap, Richard Le Gallienne, and French chanteuse Yvonne George were among those who sat for him.

One of Chanler's strongest portraits was of New York Sun critic Henry McBride (1929), a champion of many American moderns. (Fig. 10) The critic stares out of the canvas, and the blue aura around the top of his head is echoed in his eyebrows and mustache. The orange-red background is dominated by the markings of some obscure intellectual equation. A vivid blue slash of paint runs down the left side. The effect of the painting is one of energy and suggests the lively mind of an individual alert to new artists and movements.

Harlem Renaissance singer, Taylor Gordon, whom the artist painted, felt Chanler's portraits captured "the vibration of his subject," conveying succinctly some typical feature of the sitter: "Carl Van Doren's eyes, and Louise Hellstrom's hair, or the neck of Emily Vanderbilt." (78) One critic described them as "weird prisoners of paint, canvas and frame," noting Chanler's "uncanny talent for seizing the salient outward traits of each individual." (79) Guy Pene du Bois regarded them as "fiendish," comprising "a parade of little people, badly composed, sloppily drawn, who somehow managed to contort their features into grimaces which were, though meanly, unmistakably theirs." (80)

Posing for Chanler required "the patience of a saint": "Seated on a stiff chair atop a small model throne, one faced a battery of Klieg lights in a bath of perspiration while a tirade of blasphemy bounced back and forth from the canvas to you. Peace wasn't one of the qualities Chanler sought." (81) Carl Van Vechten, who wore a "red New Mexican cowboy shirt, with an orange and green bandanna handkerchief around his neck," (82) wrote of his sitting in April 1928:

   To be painted by Chanler is a career and a social
   experience, almost an education. Having been
   chosen, you are invited to lunch, a large, expansive,
   conversational lunch in a room amazingly
   decorated with golliwogs and toves in Bob's most
   amusingly fantastic manner, a lunch at which you
   are astonished to meet a great many persons who
   are not having their portraits painted, while Paul,
   the temperamental Philippine butler, produces
   bowls of succulent rice and curry and huge pitchers
   of Bronx cocktails. Eventually Bob announces--frequently
   too late for a decent daylight--that it is
   high time to get to work and you are led upstairs
   to the studio, followed by a train of guests. Then,
   on the model stand, as big as a small stage, where
   from a myriad of hanging stuffs you choose your
   own background, you seat yourself in the glare of
   brilliant artificial lighting. An oval mirror is skillfully
   arranged so that you may watch Bob fill his
   vacant canvas. The ice in the cocktail pitcher continues
   to tinkle. Silver and magenta fish play on the
   gold screen behind Taylor Gordon while he moans
   the St. Louis Blues; Yorkshire terriers fight at one
   corner of the studio; in another, a poet composes
   verses on the top rung of a meaningless ladder; in
   the centre of the floor a flamboyant female is making
   Shanghai gestures. All the time Bob is painting,
   painting like hell!! He slings paint against the canvas,
   hurls it in sadistically until you wonder why it
   doesn't go clean through, while he carries a running
   commentary explanatory of his method: "Work like
   hell. Never know anything. More I learn, more I
   forget. No good painter ever knew anything. Bad
   painters know. Try this blue for shadow on nose:
   may come out right. Can't be sure. Rotten! Try red.
   Try green. Hell!" (83)

Such a chaotic environment served Chanler's aesthetic purposes well: "This exhibition may be said to represent a collection of Bob's friends as he sees them at a party," which would include "the incessant flow of cocktails." (84) Van Vechten noted that, as Chanler "is accustomed to encounter his friends under an artificial light, at night, usually at a party," he "asks his models to pose under conditions nearly identical as it is possible for him to arrange." (85) And as Van Vechten slyly noted: "And it may be truthfully stated that anything at all that could happen at any party might happen on Bob's model stand." (86)


In May 1930, Chanler hosted his last party at his 19th Street house. His intention was to spend the summer in Woodstock, and when he returned to the city in the fall, he planned to move into a penthouse with an elevator as he could no longer easily navigate stairs. His friend Max Ewing described the evening: "In the old days ten years ago legend has it that no party there ever ended without someone being knocked out and being thrown down four flights of stairs. But Bob is older and feebler now and parties at his house have mellowed with his decline. So Friday night nobody was knocked down, though several people were slapped." (87)

In Woodstock, his Rabelaisian indulgences finally caught up with him. Suffering a heart attack in late July 1930, his health continued to decline over the next months until his death on 24 October 1930 in his fifty-eighth year. Max Ewing mourned the loss of one of the city's last "Gargantuans": "He had the capacity to defy--to defy anything and everybody, whether his family or the whole tradition of painting. He lived and did everything on a big careless adventurous scale in a period when most people were and are looking for safe little grooves to settle into and stagnate." (88)


The oeuvre and career of Robert Winthrop Chanler remains unique in the history of American art, and his chronicle vividly conveys as do few others an indelible sense of the flavor of the period during which he worked. He flourished within interconnected bohemian and elite circles, and the independence he claimed to do exactly as he pleased was as modernist a choice for him as were the several artistic styles he pursued. Chanler embraced a fantastical decorative sensibility in the vibrantly avian and jungle imagery of his screens, whose obsessive production was an ideal outlet for his "indomitable, impetuous, intransigent" energies. (89) As his physical strength diminished due to his frenetic alcohol-steeped social life, he turned to portraits of his friends and patrons.

Chanler died near the beginning of the Great Depression, and in the years following his passing, his work fell into obscurity, as did that of many of his contemporaries. Like others of his generation, his accomplishments were gradually eclipsed by Regionalism in the thirties, and the rise of the New York School in the forties. When scholars began to reclaim the first generation of the American modernists, focus tended to be on those with the strongest connections to Europe. But the recognition that many modernisms flourished in this country during the first quarter of the twentieth century has spurred research on a broader range of aesthetic options, permitting Chanler's singular artistic achievements to be fully contextualized within the cultural milieu in which his unusual talents flourished.


I dedicate this to the memory of Pam Simpson. Although we both earned our Ph.D. degrees at the University of Delaware, our time there did not overlap, and ours was a friendship that flourished through SECAC. Like many Delaware students, we specialized in reclaiming artists who, like Chanler, were once lost to the history of American art. This essay honors her interest in material culture, her sense of humor, and the fun she had with her research.

It is always a pleasure to acknowledge those generous scholars who have assisted me in my research on this project. Steven Watson and Bruce Kellner have long been exemplary scholars in the area of American modernism, and I am deeply grateful to what they have shared with me as I have developed this article. Christine Hennessey and Rachel Brooks (Photo Archives, Research and Scholars Center, Smithsonian American Art Museum) have both been exceptionally helpful with the Peter A. Juley & Sons Collection. Lauren Drapala was most generous in sharing research from her excellent historical and technical thesis on Chanler's decorations for the Whitney Studio. I am also grateful to Avis Berman, Anita Duquette (Whitney Museum of American Art), Josephine Bloodgood and Emily Jones (Woodstock Artists Association), Jo-Anne Greene (Lancaster Intelligencer Journal), Kathryn Hodson (University of Iowa Libraries), Joel Rosenkranz and Mark Ostrander (Conner-Rosenkranz, New York), William H. Titus (Hecksher Museum of Art), and Gina Wouters (Vizcaya Museum and Gardens).


(1.) Chanler's art was the subject of two monographs published in his lifetime: Christian Brinton, The Robert Winthrop Chanler Exhibition (New York: Kingore Gallery, 1922) and Ivan Narodny, The Art of Robert Winthrop Chanler (New York: William Helburn, 1922). The most recent study is Lauren Vollono Drapala, "Rediscovering an American Master: An Examination and Analysis of the Decorative Plaster Ceiling of Robert Winthrop Chanler's Whitney Studio, New York" (M.A. thesis, University of Pennsylvania, Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, 2010). See also Eve M. Kahn, "A Painter's Menagerie of Birds and Beasts Comes Back to Life," New York Times, June 9, 2011; and James Kindall, "A Plush Boudoir Welcomes the Curious," New York Times, March 3, 2010.

(2.) Donald Thompson, "A New York Saga," The Saturday World Magazine, December 28, 1930, 2.

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) Guy Pene du Bois (GPDB), "Robert Winthrop Chanler: The Man," Arts and Decoration 14 (January 1921): 192.

(5.) Charles H. Morgan, George Bellows: Painter of America (New York: Reynal & Company, 1965), 146.

(6.) Ibid.

(7.) Mercedes de Acosta, Here Lies the Heart (New York: Arno Press, 1975), 126.

(8.) GPDB, "Robert Winthrop Chanleg" The Arts 17 (January 1931): 232.

(9.) In birth order, the children spanned 1862-1873: John Armstrong Chanler (1862-1935), Winthrop Astor Chanler (1863-1926), Emily Astor Chanler (1864-1872), Elizabeth Astor Winthrop Chanler (1866-1937), William Astor Chanler (1867-1934), Marion Ward Chanler (1868-1883), Lewis Stuyvesant Chanler (1869-1942), Margaret Livingston Chanler (1870-1963), Robert Winthrop Chanler, (1872-1930), and Alida Beekman Chanler (1873-1969). See Lately Thomas, The Astor Orphans: A Pride of Lions, The Chanler Chronicles (New York: William Morrow 8c Co., 1971).

(10.) Donna M. Lucey, Archie and Amelie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age (New York: Harmony Books, 2006), 46.

(11.) Ibid., 58.

(12.) Thomas, Pride of Lions, 34.

(13.) Ibid., 41.

(14.) Ibid., 33.

(15.) Brinton, The Robert Winthrop Chanler Exhibition, n.p.

(16.) Thomas, Pride of Lions, 65.

(17.) Ibid.,130.

(18.) Ibid., 99.

(19.) Ibid., 100.

(20.) Lucey, Archie and Amelie, 147.

(21.) Thomas, Pride of Lions, 138-139.

(22.) Ibid., 138.

(23.) Ibid.

(24.) Ibid., 141.

(25.) Ibid., 145.

(26.) Ibid., 142.

(27.) Ibid., 146.

(28.) Thompson, "A New York Saga," 2.

(29.) "Cavalieri Marries Robert W. Chanler," New York Times, June 19, 1910. For more on their relationship, see Paul Fryer and Olga Usova, Lina Cavalieri: The Life of Opera's Greatest Beauty, 1874-1944 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland 8c Co., 2004).

(30.) Harvey O'Connor, The Astors (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941), 308.

(31.) "First Mrs. Chanler Now Begins Suit," New York Times, September 22, 1910.

(32.) "Chanler is Sued for Bridal Clothes," New York Times, September 15 1910.

(33.) "Cavalieri Ponders Divorcing Chanler," New York Times, April 2, 1911.

(34.) O'Connor, The Astors, 308.

(35.) "Cavalieri Gets Divorce," New York Times, January 4, 1912.

(36.) "Asks Chanler to Meet Cavalieri, Judge Invites Pair to Come Face to Face in the Palace of Justice," New York American, November 19, 1911.

(37.) "Cavalieri Ponders Divorcing Chanler," New York Times, April 2, 1911.

(38.) In 1927, Chanler may have been briefly engaged to Isadora Duncan (1877-1927). See James Charters, Hemingway's Paris: As Told to Morrill Cody (New York: A Tower Book, 1965 [1934]), 94.

(39.) B.H. Friedman, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney: A Biography (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday 8c Company, 1978), 233.

(40.) Brinton, The Robert Winthrop Chanler Exhibition, n.p.

(41.) Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney journal, 2 April 1906, quoted in Avis Berman, Rebels on Eighth Street: Juliana Force and the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York: Atheneum, 1990), 82.

(42.) Friedman, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 307.

(43.) Drapala, "Rediscovering an American Master," 21. Whitney owned several other screens, and Juliana Force, who was closely involved with Whitney's projects and who would become the first director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931, owned Coq d'Or(1919).

(44.) Friedman, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 397.

(45.) Whitney often gave financial assistance to artists, and apparently helped Chanler through some sort of financial crisis (see Friedman, 405). Despite his trusts, and various expected inheritances, he occasionally found himself short of cash. In 1918, he was in a serious automobile accident with artist Adele Herter and was hospitalized for several months. See "Chanler Still in Hospital," New York Times, September 16, 1918.

(46.) Henry Tyrrell, clipping in Robert Winthrop Chanler Scrapbook, Archives of American Art (RWCS/AAA), quoted in Drapala, "Rediscovering an American Master," 74.

(47.) The Peter A. Juley & Son Collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum has nearly two hundred images of the artist's paintings (most of which are neither titled nor dated), including work shown at the Armory Show, and this archive has been critical to documenting his contributions to this landmark exhibition. Juley numbers are indicated where known. Nine Chanlers were shown in New York, eight in Chicago, and none in Boston. The following works were shown in New York (*: shown only in New York): * Hopi Indian Snake Dance (J00050395), Swan (J0050290), * Fisb, Leopard and Deer, * The Buffalo Hunt (J0050415), Deer, * Porcupines (J0050268), Fantasy: Bamboo and Birds, and In Red. In Chicago, the following works were shown (** shown only in Chicago): Swan (J0050290), **Fight Under the Sea, Leopard and Deer, **The Jungle (J0050289), **Birds of Paradise (1913, J0050403), *'iPorcupines (J0050407), Fantasy: Bamboo and Birds, and In Red. Swan, Fantasy: Bamboo and Birds, Porcupines, and Jungle are clearly identifiable in two Chicago installation shots. See Andrew Martinez, "A Mixed Reception for Modernism: The 1913 Armory Show at the Art Institute of Chicago," Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol. 19, no. 1 (1993): 42. In the New York Catalogue of the International Exhibition of Modern Art (15 February-15 March 1913), the owner of Porcupines (1914) is listed as Mrs. John Jay Chapman (Robert's sister Elizabeth). The Chicago catalogue (24 March-16 April) lists another Porcupines (1911), the owner of which is known from other sources to be Lady Cunard (no lenders are listed in the Chicago catalogue). Chapman donated her screen to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1927, and the other was still owned by Lady Cunard in 1922. Chanler may have reworked his sister's screen, for on the back is another work titled Nightmare, and this may account for a date later than the exhibition. Henry Clews, Jr., owned Fantasy: Bamboo and Birds and it is reproduced in Drapala, "Rediscovering an American Master," 74 (A clipping in RWCS/AAA gives its title as Dreamer's Solitude).

(48.) See "Armory Show Scoreboard," in Steven Watson, Strange Bedfellows: The First American Avant-Garde (New York: Abbeville Press, 1991), 168. Edward Kramer was first with $1675 and Chester Beach third at $500.

(49.) Henry Tyrrell, "Bob Chanler's Creepy Art," clipping, RWCS/AAA, quoted in Drapala, "Rediscovering an American Master," 58-59.

(50.) Carl Van Vechten, "How I Remember Joseph Hergesheimer," Yale University Library Gazette 22 (January 1948), 87.

(51.) Ibid.

(52.) Carl Van Vechten, The Splendid Drunken Twenties: Selection from the Daybooks, 1922-1930, Bruce Kellner, ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 193, entry for January 20, 1928.

(53.) Charters, Hemingway's Paris, 94.

(54.) George Biddle, An American Artist's Story (Boston: Little Brown, 1939), 204-05.

(55.) Bruce Kellner, Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968), 161.

(56.) Ibid.

(57.) Quoted in Irma B. Jaffe, Joseph Stella (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), 95-96.

(58.) Biddle, An American Artist's Story, 205.

(59.) Ibid., 205.

(60.) Morgan, George Bellows, 146.

(61.) Brinton, The Robert Winthrop Chanler Exhibition, n.p.

(62.) Arthur Hoeber, "The Art Screens of Robert Chanler," International Studio 53 (July 1914): xi.

(63.) "Americans in Art," Arts and Decoration 13 (June 25, 1920): 98.

(64.) Ivan Narodny, American Artists (New York: Roerich Museum Press, 1929) 1.

(65.) Max Ewing to his parents, 30 October 1930, Beinecke Library, Yale Collection of American Literature (YCAL), transcript courtesy of Steven Watson.

(66.) Ruth Kedizie Wood, "He Mixes Colors with Magic," The Mentor (June 1927): 24.

(67.) Ada Rainey, "The Decorative Screens and Mural Paintings of Robert Winthrop Chanler," House Beautiful (March 1914): 103.

(68.) Wood, "He Mixes his Colors with Magic," 25.

(69.) Narodny, American Artists, 2.

(70.) "The Decorative Art of Robert Winthrop Chanler," American Magazine of Art 13 (December 1922): 532.

(71.) Brinton, The Robert Winthrop Chanler Exhibition, n.p.

(72.) Tom Wolf, Woodstock's Art Heritage: The Permanent Collection of the Woodstock Artists Association (Woodstock: Overlook Press, 1987), 71.

(73.) Biddle, An American Artist's Story, 206.

(74.) Baird "Kiki" Randolph, "The Hat," typescript, Archives of Woodstock Artists Association, quoted in Drapala, "Rediscovering an American Master," 40.

(75.) Alexander Brook, "Robert Chanler," Creative Art 4 (April 1929): xix.

(76.) Ibid.

(77.) Thompson, "A New York Saga," 11.

(78.) Taylor Gordon, Born to Be (New York: Covici-Fried, 1929), 229.

(79.) M.M., "Exhibitions," International Studio 92 (April 1929): 80.

(80.) GPDB, Artists Say the Silliest Things (New York: American Artists Group, 1940), 178.

(81.) Ibid.

(82.) Gordon, Born to Be, 229.

(83.) Carl Van Vechten, Portraits by Robert Chanler (New York: Valentine Gallery, 23 March-25 February 1929), n.p.

(84.) Ibid.

(85.) Ibid.

(86.) Ibid.

(87.) Max Ewing to his parents, 20 May 1930, YCAL, transcript courtesy of Steven Watson.

(88.) Max Ewing to his parents, 30 October 1930, YCAL, transcript courtesy of Steven Watson.

(89.) This was how Esther Murphy characterized him not long after his death. Lisa Cohen, All We Know: Three Lives (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 49.
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