A visionary patron, an artist, a hidden masterpiece:
Lowy Resurrects the Whitney Studio Mural by Howard Gardiner Cushing
In March 2016 Alexandra Cushing Howard invited the Lowy team to examine the mural in situ to determine if it would be possible to rescue her grandfather’s remarkable work. For Larry Shar, the drive to the Whitney estate in Old Westbury was an emotionally-charged trip through time. Like Howard, his interest in the undertaking was highly personal, a wonderful reminder of childhood excursions with his father, master restorer Hilly Shar. When Shar was growing up, father and son regularly traveled to Long Island’s fabled Gold Coast to visit important clients such as the Phippses, the Blisses, the Fricks, the Woolworths, and of course the Whitneys and the Cushings, to see their art collections. These families on the north shore of Long Island were among the founders of MOMA, The Whitney, and the Frick. “My father would examine the paintings, talk about condition and framing, and I soaked it up, listening and learning. I was in awe of his knowledge and felt privileged to meet people who were cultured, elegant, and passionate about their homes, their grounds, and their art. These were true patrons of the arts who admired and revered artists and artisans as much as the Medicis had in their day,” Shar reminisces.
Exterior of The Whitney Studio in 2017
Shar is nostalgic for that time when art was valued for its beauty and mastery, a time when collectors loved art for art’s sake. “The art world has changed dramatically over the years and I would argue that art has become more of a commodity, and that the real passion for the art has waned, creating more investors than collectors and sadly making my job less romantic than my original orientation and apprenticeship under my father,” he observes. When Shar saw the Whitney Studio Mural with its rich history, he felt a connection to both his storied past and a more genteel art world.
For Lauren Rich, Lowy’s Senior Paintings Conservator, the Cushing project was compelling because it promised to be a challenge, perhaps the greatest challenge of her career to date. She and the Lowy team have revived countless masterpieces, but the resurrection of the Whitney Studio Mural would test her mastery of art history, organic chemistry, restoration, and conservation every step of the way. “I spoke with other conservators who thought I was insane,” she says. But Rich was not deterred.
Sections of the mural in situ before removal from the walls.
The Lowy team was enthusiastic about working on the Whitney Studio Mural because it was beautiful and unusual, and its complex restoration would enable everyone involved to do what they do best. But the seldom-seen masterpiece also had the ineffable power and drama of a good story, a story that begins in 1910. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a gifted sculptress and
visionary patron of the arts (who went on to found the Whitney Museum), built her studio and invited her longtime soulmate and mentor, Howard Gardiner Cushing, to create a mural for the area surrounding a staircase, knowing that he could transform the narrow, nondescript space into something magical.
A Boston Brahmin whose forbears amassed a fortune in the China Trade, Cushing was the Gilded Age gentleman who had it all. He was an unusually handsome American aristocrat, happily married to Ethel Cochrane Cushing, a beauty known for her brilliant red hair, and the loving father of Olivia, Howard Jr., Lily, and later, Alexander. In reviewing Cushing’s breakout show at the Montrose Galleries in 1909, the New York Times critic observed that the artist’s use of light and color rivaled the works of the Impressionists. He suggested that the group known as “The Ten,” including Childe Hassam, Edmund Tarbell, and Thomas Wilmer Dewing, should be expanded to “The Eleven,” with Cushing taking his rightful place among these important American artists.
Inspired by electrifying cultural influences such as Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and Whistler’s Peacock Room, Whitney and Cushing conceived a fanciful wraparound mural that featured figures evoking “Scheherazade” and the Arabian Nights, and fleurs du mal, including graphic female anthurium, poppies, carniverous drosera, cactus flowers and poisonous
nightshade. The culmination of the mural is a portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney herself, in a sorceress costume by Leon Bakst - a white tunic with black cactus flowers, orange trousers, and a plumed hat. Cloistered in its stairwell seraglio, the mural existed for Whitney and her closest friends, who were delighted by its unusual color palette and exotic figures.
Section of the mural depicting Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, which hung at the top of the stairwell
Cushing died suddenly in 1916, a relatively young man at the age of 47. Then, when Whitney died in 1942, the unusual artistic treasures in the Westbury Studio were as if frozen in amber, left in their quiet space, rarely seen by anyone outside of the Whitney family.
In 1985, Alexandra Cushing Howard contacted Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s granddaughter, Pamela Tower LeBoutillier, to ask if she and an art photographer could visit the mural, which she had never seen. She was mesmerized by the work’s unusual beauty, and when the LeBoutillier family decided to sell the mural in 2015, Howard turned to Lowy, the country’s leading fine art services firm, to assess how to move forward. During their visit to the studio in Old Westbury, the team was happy to see that the mural was in good shape.
Rich was excited by the project and determined to take it on. “I remember saying to Larry, ‘I want this,’” she recalls. And when he asked, ‘Do you think we can do it?’ I said, ‘I know we can.’” The process, which would take a year, involved removing the mural from the walls and then safely transporting it to Lowy to begin the complex job of restoring the piece and converting it into free-standing works of art.
The team established a daily routine, driving out to the Whitney studio early in the morning. They were joined by Alexandra Cushing Howard, who was on hand to observe and, as the work progressed, to make key decisions regarding the fabrication of the panels.
It took planning on multiple levels to remove the mural from the stairwell, beginning with the complicated job of setting up scaffolding in a circular space that was impossibly tight. The team focused on set down, facing, and removal, a delicate process, and Shar himself was there to help. “Having grown up hands-on in all aspects of Lowy, I sometimes get involved in not only overseeing, but demonstrating techniques and practices that have historically been effective to our current staff. In this particular case, an extra hand came in handy, and at Lowy, we always pitch in as needed,” he points out. But Shar confesses that he had another motive. “As I felt a nostalgic responsibility to preserve these paintings, I also wanted the pleasure of actually touching and feeling the art as sort of an homage to that era and to my father.”
For both Shar and Rich, removing the mural from the walls was the most suspenseful – and ultimately the most gratifying moment. “That process always has potential ‘surprises’ that can be problematic and unexpected,” Shar explains. “I knew that when we got them out of the space, and into the studio, we could do our magic because that’s what we do every day.” Rich was so tense that she admitted, “You never exhale during the removal, your stomach is literally in your throat!”
Erecting the scaffolding at the Whitney Studio
Images of the facing and removal of the mural from the walls of the Whitney Studio
The team breathed a sigh of relief once the canvases were safely installed in the Lowy studios. In a controlled environment, the conservators were ready to begin the painstaking work they were well-prepared to handle – cleaning, in-painting, re-stretching, and framing. When the facing was removed, and the paintings were placed in the proper light for the first time, they had a real “Why, Miss Jones, you’re beautiful!” moment. Rich marveled at the colors and the brushstrokes, observing, “They are beautiful and unique. You really respect the choices the artist made.”
Then, it was time to determine the pieces de resistance, the frame. This was unchartered territory because the artist had not envisioned the mural, or any part of it, as a work that would be framed. Shar and Howard experimented with several different approaches, finally choosing “a simple frame that simulates the marble molding in the stairwell at the Whitney studio, which I think turned out to be quite effective,” says Shar.
The final framed panels displayed at the Ouvo art storage facility after completion of the project
For Alexandra Cushing Howard, the resurrection the Whitney Studio Mural was the fulfillment of her long-held dream to shine a spotlight on her grandfather’s most ambitious – and arguably most spectacular -- work of art. She hopes to find a proper home for the panels, where they will delight and inspire a new generation of art lovers. For conservator Lauren Rich and the Lowy team, working on the Whitney Studio Mural was a landmark professional achievement. “For me, it was my proudest moment,” she says. And for Larry Shar, the time he spent with the mural transported him to his glory days with his father. “Hilly Shar was an extremely passionate, artistic, and sensitive man -- a hero to his son and to all the works of art he enhanced in countless ways. I revered him for his love of art, and for his love for people. This one’s for you, Dad.”
Above: Howard Gardiner Cushing and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney at work in their respective studios, circa 1915.