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).
Sold 1898 to George W. Vanderbilt [1862-1914], Asheville, North Carolina, but retained in Whistler's studio until 1903; bequeathed 1914 to Vanderbilt's widow, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser Vanderbilt [later Mrs. Peter G. Gerry, d. 1958], Asheville, North Carolina, and Providence, Rhode Island; gift 1959 to NGA.
- Oeuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905, no. 22, as Inachevé--(Le dernier portrait en pied que Whistler ait peint).
- James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, 1969, no. 52, repro. 49.
- Loan for display with permanent collection, Biltmore House and Gardens, Asheville, North Carolina, 1972-1974.
- Post-Impressionism: Cross-Currents in European and American Painting 1880-1906, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980, no. 255, repro.
- American Portraiture in the Grand Manner: 1720-1920, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1981-1982, no. 65, repro.
- Whistler and Vanderbilt: An Artist and His Patron, Biltmore House, Asheville, 1999, no cat.
- The Year 1900: Art at the Crossroads, Royal Academy of Arts, London; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2000, no. 89, repro.
- High Society: American Portraits of the Gilded Age, Bucerius Kunst Forum, Hamburg, 2008, no. 11, repro.
- Americani a Firenze: Sargent e gli impressionisti del Nuovo Mondo (Americans in Florence: Sargent and the American Impressionists), Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, 2012, no. 33, repro.
- Cary, Elizabeth Luther. The Works of James McNeill Whistler: A Study, with a Tentative List of the Artist's Works. New York, 1907: no. 191, 188.
- Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell. The Life of James McNeill Whistler. 2 vols. London, 1908: 2:203.
- Duret, Théodore. Whistler. Translated by Frank Rutter. London, 1917: 116-117 (original edition, Paris, 1904).
- Sutton, Denys. Nocturne: The Art of James McNeill Whistler. London, 1963: 134, fig. 56.
- Sutton, Denys. James McNeill Whistler: Paintings, Etchings, Pastels, Watercolours. London, 1966: 38, 197, pl. 123.
- MacInnes, Margaret F. "Whistler's Last Years: Spring 1901--Algiers and Corsica." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 73 (May-June 1969): 330.
- American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 122, repro.
- McMullen, Roy. Victorian Outsider: A Biography of J.A.M. Whistler. New York, 1973: 268.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 259, repro.
- Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, and Robin Spencer, with the assistance of Hamish Miles. The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler. 2 vols. New Haven, 1980: 1:208-209, no. 481; 2:pl. 310.
- American Portraiture in the Grand Manner: 1720-1920. Exh. cat. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1981: 67-68, 194-195, color pl. 65.
- Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: repro. 131, 133, 135.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 382, repro.
- Dorment, Richard, and Margaret F. MacDonald. James McNeill Whistler. Exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London; Musée d'Orsay, Paris; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. London, 1994: no. 199, 279-280 (not shown in the exhibition; catalogue is in error).
- Torchia, Robert Wilson, with Deborah Chotner and Ellen G. Miles. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1998: 261-264, color repro.
- Merrill, Linda, et al. After Whistler: The Artist and His Influence on American Painting. Exh. cat. High Museum of Art, Atlanta; The Detroit Institute of Arts. Atlanta, 2003: 154, fig. 97.