The BLOG: Culture

Even At 93, Art and Home Studio Show Little Gloria Is Still Little Gloria

Courtesy of Flickr

Gloria Vanderbilt turns 93 on February 20. For nine decades the society-sparkler has been laminated into our zeitgeist through glossy shots of pop-culture. These days she maintains a regular work schedule as a prolific artist of autobiographical and idealized primitives. It may be a little surprising to know like many nine-to fivers, she breaks at noon for a lunchtime peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The Vanderbilt name initially landmarked American history through intercontinental and interstate transportation. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s spirit of entrepreneurialism forged a new lexicon of infrastructure into 19th century America. Motivated to extend trade routes, the work-ethic of the once-poor man from Staten Island helped to define our nation by expanding the horizon of business opportunities.  Ever adaptive when challenged, the rough-around-the-edges visionary, nicknamed Commodore, lived modestly while earning a fortune sufficient to establish Vanderbilt University, fund churches, and indulge many whims of his thirteen children. 

As a toddler, in 1925, great-great-granddaughter Gloria inherited a small portion of the wealth Cornelius Vanderbilt amassed.

Of far more relevance, she appears also to have inherited his creative intellect and tenacity. For most of her life the heiress has worked as an actress, an author, and designer of personal and domestic fashions. Of her many artistic permutations canvas work remains a constant driver and perhaps therapy in her well-documented life of celebrity and sensation.    

Losing her father to diseases of excess, Gloria was litigated into loneliness, caught in a scandalous child-custody trial between her willful young mother and emotionally detached aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Frenzied media devoured detailed legalities of family power-plays that forced the young girl to be shuttled between manse with her nanny, Dodo. Fearing unwanted influence on Gloria, the emotionally bankrupt family eventually dismissed Dodo, depriving the prepubescent of the only consistently reliable source of maternal comfort she had known since birth.

The absence of a loving family may explain a few eyebrow-raising relationships of Ms. Vanderbilt until she married her fourth husband, Wyatt Cooper, with whom she had two of her four sons, Carter and Anderson. Heart disease and suicide claimed the lives of both Wyatt and Carter, leaving the socialite in darkness.  

The metronome of Ms. Vanderbilt’s successes and suffering is the transportive motif of her works.  “Hiraerth,” a Welsh word for homesickness, a longing for a home that perhaps never was, is incorporated literally and figuratively in acrylic, collage, pastels, and object d’art dream boxes of Lucite.

In the mother-son documentary Nothing Left Unsaid, 60 Minutes correspondent Anderson Cooper, host of AC 360, refers to his mother’s emotionally evocative work as a way to “get it out.” The scope of her renderings references monumental grief exercised through her adaptive creativities. 

Gloria Vanderbilt and her son Anderson Cooper photographed during launch party of Gloria Book at the Ralph Lauren Women’s Boutique in New York, November 4, 2010. Courtesy of Flickr

Last month, Christopher Madkour, Executive Director of The Huntsville Museum of Art in Alabama, extended an invitation to visit a time-stamped prism of American history personalized inside the Upper East Side home of Ms. Vanderbilt. Working as a curator of her collections, Mr. Madkour graciously opened the legend’s front door to a reveal a refracted kaleidoscope of intimacies.    

Moldings of black lacquer frame a foyer of magenta that welcomes guests into memory-filled tableaux where a sense of belonging and longing are reflected through Ms. Vanderbilt’s juxtaposition of refined treasures. Beyond an archway of raspberry drapes, heirloom art lines the walls of an adjacent dining room that flows into a conversational living room upholstered in richly saturated earth and jewel tones. Ms. Vanderbilt and her guests are surrounded by ancestral faces that live in all places of the atelier. Strategically positioned mirrors kinetically, momentarily add visitors to oil paintings, charcoal sketches, and figurines cultivated by the woman whose painterly lyrics emote a desire always to be surrounded by love in her signature style of understated elegance.

A hand-painted living room fireplace articulates Ms. Vanderbilt’s mantra “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” The spirit of the home is balanced throughout including traditional and non-traditional symbols of Christianity and Buddhism with designs of mother and child and a oneness with nature.   

Below the home gallery is Ms. Vanderbilt’s work studio.  As disciple and inspiration define the artist’s challenges each day, a bust of her father looks over her shoulder. Alongside her easel, finished works of adored family and friends perimeter her process, colorfully punctuating her “Once Upon a Time” articulations of longing.  A composite of Wyatt Cooper’s youthful swagger leans near Dodo forever holding little Gloria’s hand. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates is a life-size pastel abstract studio companion of Ms. Vanderbilt. Much like the artist’s reflections, JCO frequently explores dark realities and vulnerability with an emerging sense of hope and resilience.

Poignantly in Nothing Left Unsaid, Ms. Vanderbilt playfully shares with her son Anderson a lifetime of longing for an imaginary love letter written by her father that will arrive ~ one of these days.  The visceral simplicity of her wish is universally understandable. She explains how she longs for a comforting note of reassurance reminding her she was loved and appreciated for the extraordinary qualities she possesses. 

Reconciling her realities with her fantasies the home-gallery and studio can be seen as an ever-unfolding letter that creatively conjugates love as a verb. Her art collection is unambiguous; Ms. Vanderbilt has been loved, is loved, and will be loved for the contributions she has made to the world through her artistic gifts.  Mr. Madkour explained her works are also an unfiltered heart-felt legacy left to her children and admirers as inspiration and a reminder to all to be kind and live life with nothing left unsaid.