Robert W. Chanler (1873-1930)

Born to a distinguished family descended from Astors, Delanos, Stuyvesants, and Livingstons, Robert W. Chanler and his eight siblings were orphaned as children and spent their youths in the care of trustees, guardians, and cousins at Rokeby, the family’s estate on the Hudson River in Barrytown, Dutchess County, New York. Beginning in 1889, he spent some thirteen years in Europe “loafing, studying, and painting.” [1] He lived with an older brother in London before moving in 1891 to Rome, where he took a studio on the Piazza d’Espagna and studied with the English artist John “Jack” Elliott and two Spaniards, the painter Jose Villegas and the sculptor Mariano Benlliure y Gil. In 1893 Chanler moved to Paris, where he continued to study sculpture with Alexandre Falguière before turning his attention in earnest to painting, enrolling at the Académies Julian and Carlorossi and also working in the ateliers of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Benjamin Constant, and Jules-Joseph Léfebvre. [2]

Following Chanler’s return to New York in 1902, he purchased a townhouse on East Nineteenth Street that became a social center for New York’s art community. Stimulated by his so-called House of Fantasy, which was decorated with his own work, his wealthy friends began to commission elaborate murals and painted screens for their own residences and for the exclusive Colony Club in New York.

Chanler worked with a limited range of subject matter—mostly animals—to create allegorical fantasies in a naïve, spontaneous style. While he pulled his imagery from nature, his concern was not faithful representation but capturing the spirit of nature and of life in an emotional way. Drawing inspiration from ancient Egypt, the Far East, and the Italian Renaissance, he used rich pigments, metallic overlays, and glazes to enhance the symbolic potential of his subjects. [3] The screens were not radical in terms of either subject or style, but they were considered modern because of their esoteric quality and their fusion of Eastern and Western traditions.

During the Armory Show Chanler was one of the artists who famously guided former president Theodore Roosevelt through the exhibition in New York. He also traveled to Chicago for the show’s opening there, acting as a guide and explaining modern art to curious visitors. [4] Chanler was an exhibitor as well as a buyer—he purchased two paintings by the Portuguese artist Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, two lithographs by Odilon Redon, and a bronze cast of Constantin Brancusi’s Mlle. Pogany. [5]

[1] Christian Brinton, The Robert Winthrop Chanler Exhibition, exh. cat. (New York: Chanler Studios, 1922), n.p.

[2] Ibid.; “R. W. Chanler Dead; Eminent as an Artist,” New York Times, October 25, 1930, 12; and Betsy Fahlman, “Robert Winthrop Chanler: Flamboyant American Modernist,” Southeastern College Art Conference Review 16, no. 3 (2013).

[3] See Brinton. See also Ivan Narodny, The Art of Robert Winthrop Chanler (New York: William Helburn, 1922).

[4] Milton Brown, The Story of the Armory Show, rev. ed. (New York: Abbeville Press, 1988), 145, 203.

[5] Ibid., 241-327.

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