In my research for the upcoming exhibition, one of the greatest surprises was the life and work of Robert Winthrop Chanler. Though he is virtually unknown today, Chanler was probably the most acclaimed American artist in the 1913 Armory Show. The group of ten fantastic, elaborately painted screens he submitted stood near the entrance of the exhibition where they captured the attention and imagination of the public and critics alike.
Chanler also played a highly visible role in the New York City art world in 1913, and created a life for himself that was nearly as fantastic as his painted screens. Born to a distinguished family descended from Astors, Delanos, Stuyvesants, and Livingstons, he spent his youth at Rokeby, the family’s sprawling 420-acre, 43-room estate on the Hudson River in Dutchess County, New York. In 1889, when he was about sixteen, he embarked for Europe, where he spent the next thirteen years loafing, studying, and painting in London, Rome, and Paris. When he returned to New York in 1902, he purchased a townhouse on East Nineteenth Street that he decorated with his own work. The space became a social center for New York’s art community and the alcohol-fueled parties he threw there were legendary. Stimulated by his so-called House of Fantasy, wealthy friends like Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney began to commission Chanler to create elaborate murals and painted screens for their own residences and for the exclusive Colony Club in New York.
My search for the screens Chanler exhibited at the Armory Show quickly turned up an article on the artist’s descendants that appeared in The New York Times on July 22, 2010, and a terrific slide show that accompanied the digital edition. It turns out that Rokeby remains home to several members of the family, who live and work among the screens and painted rooms that Chanler created.
The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution is on view October 11, 2013 through February 23, 2013 at the New-York Historical Society.