Robert Winthrop Charler, “Leopard and Deer”, 1912, Gouache or Tempera on Canvas on Wood, Single Panel Screen, 194.3 x 133.4 cm, Rokeby Collection
Born in February of 1872 into the Astor family, one of America’s oldest and wealthiest, Robert Winthrop Chanler was a largely self-taught decorative artist, designer, and muralist. One of eleven children in the family, he and his siblings became orphans after the death of their mother, Margaret Astor War, in 1875 and their father, John Winthrop Chanler, in 1877, both of whom succumbed to pneumonia. They were raised at their parents’ Rokeby Estate in Barrytown, New York, and amply provided for by their father’s will with twenty-thousand dollars a year for each child, equivalent to approximately four hundred seventy thousand dollars today.
Coming of age, Chanler traveled to Europe, where he stayed in Paris in the 1890s and associated with the artists of the city. His formal training in the arts was done at Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts, where he produced his best known work, the screen “Giraffes”, which was exhibited later at the 1905 Salon d’Autumne and purchased by the French government. Returning to the United States in the early 1900s, he purchased a townhouse in New York City on East 19th Street. This townhouse, decorated with his own works, became a social center for the art community of the city. Whole living in the city, Chanler was a member of the New York State Assembly in 1904 and the sheriff of Dutchess County from 1907 to 1910.
Robert Chanler’s work involved the use of sculpted gesso, gilded finishes, and transparent glazes to produce highly ornamental and decorative designs. His work included paintings, fresco murals, stained glass windows, and architectural interiors whose compositions featured fantastical avian, jungle, and aquatic creatures, many overlaid with iridescent metallic finishes. However, Chanler’s specialty was exotic and brilliantly colored, multi-paneled, lacquered screens.
Chanler painted what interested and entertained him; his work attracted the wealthy Gilded Age patrons, which included Gertrude Vanderbilt and Mai Rogers Coe, and earned him both critical and popular acclaim at many exhibitions. He exhibited his works at the 1905 Salon d’Automne in Paris; his refined work, with its glazes and lacquered finishes, balanced the salon’s exhibition which was dominated by the bold colors and aggressive brushwork of the Fauvist painters. Chanler exhibited his painted screens, with great success, at the legendary “International Exhibition of Modern Art” in New York City, known as the 1913 Armory Show.
His elaborately painted screens were placed in Gallery A near the entrance of the show, where they immediately captured the attention of the arriving public and critics. Chanler exhibited twenty-five screens during the three weeks of the Manhattan show and at least nine at the show when it relocated to Chicago. Two of these exhibited screens were his five-panel “Hopi Indian Snake Dance”, one of two works that focused on Native American subjects, and the single-panel, oil on wood “Porcupines”, currently in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection.
Robert Winthrop Chanler was a member of the National Society of Mural Painters and a member of the New York Architectural League. Known for both his artistic prominence, bohemian lifestyle, and eccentricity, he was a close friend of novelist and poet Hervey White, who was one of the original founders of the Byrdcliffe Art Colony in Woodstock, New York. Founded in 1902, it is the oldest operating arts and crafts colony in America. Chanler became a member of the colony in the early 1920s and, toward the end of his life, owned a house in Woodstock, where he participated in local exhibitions. Robert Winthrop Chanler died, after having lain in a coma for twelve hours, at the Byrdcliffe Colony on October 24th in 1930.
Top Insert Image: Robert Winthrop Chanler, “Before the Wind”, 1919, Painted Screen, Private Collection
Middle Insert Image: Whitney Cox, “Robert Winthrop Chanler”, circa 1900, Private Collection
Bottom Insert Image: Robert Winthrop Chanler and Hunt Diederich, “Mille Fleurs”, 1919, Painted Screen, Private Collection