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Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Keeping the Partridge Table

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    Artist Robert Winthrop Chanler at Vizcaya

    A Re-emerging American Modernist

    Presented by Nathaniel Sandler, Writer,
    with Gina Wouters, Curator

    The Portuguese traders who shipwrecked in Japan in 1543 were the first European contact for the isolated island nation. Their arrival immediately preceded Japan’s Momoyama period (1573–1615), when the country transitioned from the middle ages into the modern era. It was an incredibly fertile time in the arts, and the European contact helped provide fodder for works produced. Among the oddest of the flourishing art forms were the namban byobu, or Southern Barbarian screens. While screens have a long history in Asian art, the namban byobu are unique, distinguished in part by their very specific subject matter, which centers on Japan’s first encounters with Portuguese and Spanish traders and missionaries.

    Nearly four hundred years later, in 1920, the modernist American painter Robert Winthrop Chanler (1872-1930) made a namban byobu for Vizcaya. Chanler was celebrated for his meticulously crafted, fantastical screens and architectural interiors; his work was a status symbol for the wealthiest and most pedigreed strata of Gilded Age society, of which he was a member. Impressively, approximately twenty-five of his screens were included at the famous 1913 Armory Show in New York, or International Exhibition of Modern Art, the groundbreaking exhibition that introduced the European avant-garde to America.

    Chanler was also notorious for his flamboyant, headline-grabbing lifestyle--wild, all-night parties; ill-conceived marriages, including a short-lived but never-lived-down liaison with international opera singer Lina Cavalieri; and a menagerie in the basement of his New York home/studio with exotic animals ranging from flamingos to monkeys to horseshoe crabs, which served as models for his paintings. Chanler lived with an exuberance and eccentricity that made an impression on all who met him. But although his larger-than-life sensibility bolstered his reputation during his lifetime, it seems to have contributed, after his passing, to a dismissal of him as a dilettante and his work as merely decorative. That perception is changing now--many scholars have re-discovered Chanler in recent years.

    In keeping with his re-emergence and a growing urgency to preserve his remaining works, Vizcaya organized a symposium on Chanler in October 2014 that brought together dozens of art historians, preservationists, collectors and Chanler family descendants. The symposium was a critical step in sharing knowledge of Chanler’s life, work and methods along with potential approaches to the preservation of his work at Vizcaya and other historic sites.

    Vizcaya has many screens, but none so original as Chanler’s Vizcayan Bay (1920), currently on view in the Sitting Room. A deft masterstroke of Floridiana, the five-panel screen depicts several Native American dugout canoes, most holding two figures, along with a larger Spanish caravel that strangely appears to have room for only one regal conquistador. More caravels--Deering’s preferred emblem for Vizcaya--trail behind. Elsewhere, two large crocodilians and several towering flamingos are depicted among foliage, not far from the significantly smaller canoes. Size doesn’t matter in namban byobu--perspective is irrelevant--but story does. Vizcayan Bay is a first encounter narrative, framed with lush subtropical flora and fauna (for the most part--Chanler managed to work in some Maine lobsters hanging out on the wild Miami shoreline). The plants and animals of Vizcayan Bay unify and guide the eye, much like in namban byobu, in which the Japanese artists used clouds of gold leaf for aesthetic unity. The viewer is directed toward the middle of the image where the two populations, previously unknown to each other, are meeting.

    Vizcayan Bay ushers the viewer into another world, an early, imagined Florida, one designed specifically for James Deering’s grand estate on Biscayne Bay. Chanler, whose choice of the screen as his preferred form was spurred by his own first encounter with a Chinese screen in a Parisian shop in 1905, is here using Japanese techniques to tell a very American and very Miami story, further highlighting the eclectic mix of elements that inform the piece.  Chanler had an extensive knowledge of art history and an incredible library--he was known to borrow from a great range of sources, very much in the spirit of appropriation for which Vizcaya is known.

    The screen was Chanler’s second commission for Vizcaya--and it was his second screen, as Deering did not like Chanler’s first offering--a dark screen with birds, which Deering found not specific enough to Vizcaya. The resulting Vizcayan Bay is perfectly Vizcaya both in terms of the narrative on the front as well as the image on the back--a gentle, subtropical scene with bamboo and birds, inspired by the silk wall panels in Vizcaya’s Reception Room.

    Drawing inspiration from nature and mixing in a good dose of fantasy was what Chanler did best, as evidenced in his other piece at Vizcaya, the ceiling of the Swimming Pool grotto. The ceiling is a painted and sculptural mural completed in late 1916, just in time for Deering’s official arrival at the estate. The work is a beautiful, twisting mass of sea life, framed with elaborate garlands of molded plaster shells and coral. There are sea turtles, seahorses, octopi, alligators and fish, creating the sense of an undersea fantasy; upon viewing, the visitor for a moment becomes a disciple of Poseidon.

    Chanler’s otherworldly marine scene fits seamlessly within Deering’s vision of Vizcaya. The grotto’s luxurious backdrop, enhanced by its curved ceiling, is a perfect canvas for Chanler’s undersea fantasy within the walls of an estate that incorporated European antiquities, American technology and local themes to create a surreal beauty.

    The Swimming Pool grotto ceiling unfortunately lacks much of its original glory. The paint job is seriously compromised, with signs of wear documented as early as 1918. Vizcaya plans to undertake an extensive treatment of the space beginning in 2016, its centennial, and is currently studying the site. At least five coats of paint have been applied since Chanler’s original. Getting underneath to the artist’s initial intent is complex, in part because Chanler used unusual materials and techniques. Extensive analysis has revealed that Chanler--much like the Japanese and their ubiquitous gold--used iridescent, metallic leaf for the scales of the fish, which would have shined brightly in spectacle, but has been painted over with subsequent coats that have eroded. It doesn’t help that the Swimming Pool grotto is vulnerable to the elements and has been damaged by several hurricanes.

    Vizcaya’s ceiling is one of only two Chanler interiors accessible to the public. While some of Chanler’s screens and his later portraits are in museum collections, a good deal of his work has been lost or is in private collections. Much of Chanler’s surviving work shares a fate similar to that of Vizcaya’s ceiling--it is desperately in need of conservation.

    Chanler’s rediscovery, after being basically forgotten, is gaining momentum in art historical and preservation circles. It is Vizcaya’s hope that knowledge of this unusual artist will continue to grow in the public’s consciousness and that due respect--and wonder for a true American master--will finally rise to the surface.

    On October 19-21, 2014 Vizcaya Museum and Gardens hosted a symposium exploring the life and work of Robert Winthrop Chanler. Both Chanler pieces discussed here were showcased in Vizcaya’s 2013-14 exhibition,The Academic and the Avant-Garde. In addition, Chanler’s Vizcayan Bay inspired artist Naomi Fisher’s 2011 piece Jungle Sweat, Roseate, commissioned for Vizcaya’s Contemporary Arts Program.

    --December 2014

    For more information on the series “Keeping the Partridge Table,” contact