What accounts for an institution’s longevity? In New York City, real estate is key. Most histories of the Art Students League credit disaffected art students with the school’s founding, its democratic government, and communal character. This is fitting. Less recognized, however, is the role non-artists played in buying prime lots along Fifty-seventh Street and erecting a building for this once peripatetic art school. Three men—a lawyer, a scion of a railroad magnate, and an architect—deserve special recognition for their role in erecting the American Fine Arts Society building, home of the Art Students League since 1892.
Without the indefatigable efforts of Howard Russell Butler (1856–1934), the Art Students League of New York would not have its current home and may not even have survived. Butler discovered his unlikely vocation after he abandoned a successful law practice, in 1885, to study painting with Frederick Edwin Church in Mexico. A Princeton graduate, Butler possessed a methodical mind, legal expertise, and social connections that he put to use as an advocate for artists, helping their organizations secure permanent quarters. The American Fine Arts Society was his first, and perhaps, most successful venture. Butler acknowledged, in his unpublished memoir, the speculative nature of the endeavor: “The whole project of the Fine Arts Building was built up on wind.” Each morning he wrote letters to five capitalists, hoping they would lend an ear to his plan. His real challenge, though, was to channel the passion these eminent New York collectors felt for their art objects to a related concern for the welfare of contemporary American artists. This fundraising strategy, even if haphazard, was sincere and ultimately proved effective. Many patrons must have been enticed by the possibility of the capacious, street-level galleries where they might display their own fine collections. In just over four years, the American Fine Arts Society project was complete, and the building opened with a grand inaugural exhibition of over five hundred prints by Rembrandt, Dürer, and Sir Joshua Reynolds that had been lent by George Washington Vanderbilt, the society’s most distinguished patron.
George Washington Vanderbilt’s involvement with the American Fine Arts Society was brief, but his legacy, the Vanderbilt Gallery, is enduring. The youngest son of William H. Vanderbilt, George (1862–1914) grew up in a mansion on the corner of Fifth Avenue at Fifty-first Street, and likely understood both the privileges of extraordinary wealth and the philanthropic obligations it entailed. A well-traveled and passionate collector of art and curios, Vanderbilt made his home into a virtual museum filled with “etchings, old prints, rare books, paintings, statuary, carved ivory, china, pottery, tapestries, vases, arms and armor, coins, musical instruments, and jewels.” The first of several men to donate $5000 to the society’s Gift Fund, Vanderbilt was tapped a second time by its principal organizer, Howard Russell Butler, to purchase land and build a gallery on the adjoining property on Fifty-eighth Street, which the society would then rent for exhibitions. In late December 1892, Vanderbilt unexpectedly donated $100,000 to the society for the purchase of his gallery and land, a gift without strings that met with Butler’s shock and delight. Thereafter Vanderbilt gradually withdrew from New York City, shifting his attention to what would become a lifelong project: a new estate, The Biltmore, in Asheville, North Carolina. Of Vanderbilt’s generosity, Butler reflected: “No gift ever did so much for the art of this community.”
Of the thirty-eight architects who submitted designs for the American Fine Arts Society Building, Henry Hardenbergh (1847–1918) possessed a decisive advantage over his competitors. Already acclaimed for his “innovati[ve] and daring” Dakota Apartments (1881–84), he had been an incorporator of the American Fine Arts Society, in 1889, and at the time of the competition served as vice president of one of its constituent organizations: the Architectural League of New York. After Hardenbergh had been selected, his design met initially with a lukewarm public reception. A reviewer in the New York Advertiser criticized the façade’s lack of “especial charm” going so far as to dismiss it as “commonplace…and quite unattractive.” After the building’s construction, however, other writers acknowledged the interior’s unique combination of amenities catering to the needs of its inhabitants: spacious north-lit studios, a lecture hall, modeling room, library, and public art galleries. Late in his career, Hardenbergh expressed his fondness for the building, calling it “a work of love.”