A close friend of Whistler, George Washington Vanderbilt II commissioned this full-length portrait in 1897 to hang in Biltmore House, his enormous château on 125,000 acres of wilderness near Asheville, North Carolina. The artist quickly responded, "I could not ask for a more sympathetic subject than yourself and therefore am greatly pleased at the prospect of painting your portrait!" He commenced painting in June and by December the work was near completion. Vanderbilt sat for the finishing touches in August 1898, but Whistler then refused to relinquish the painting, claiming it was yet unfinished. The artist's poor health over the next few years prevented any further sittings, and the portrait was still in his studio at his death in 1903. Vanderbilt finally took possession of the painting the following year. In the meantime, he had commissioned a portrait from John Singer Sargent, which now hangs at Biltmore.
Vanderbilt was only twenty-six when his father, financier William Henry Vanderbilt and son of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, passed away in 1885, leaving him six million dollars and a Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City. In this portrait, Whistler presents the young heir as an American aristocrat, dressed in fashionable riding attire and holding a crop. While Vanderbilt's pose is debonair, his countenance is thoughtful, reflecting his reputation as a shy and studious intellectual. Cultivated and cultured, Vanderbilt traveled extensively and was fluent in several foreign languages. A lifelong interest in scientific farming led him to initiate experimental programs of agriculture and forestry on the grounds of the Biltmore. Vanderbilt was also a serious collector and patron of art, commissioning oil paintings by fashionable portraitists of the day and acquiring etchings and engravings by artists such as Dürer and Rembrandt.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II, pages 261-264, which is available as a free PDF (21MB).