Long before the art world forgot his fantastical scenes of marine life and forests, Robert Winthrop Chanler was known as something of an eccentric bon vivant, a flamboyant painter with an aristocratic pedigree and an outsized appetite for . . . well, for everything.
He was prolific and unorthodox in both technique and subject matter. Wealthy clients collected his work, though they might have flinched at his parties and his lifestyle. Even as his vision was expressed in unusual fashion on decorative screens, murals, stained glass panels and, later, in portraiture, one critic labeled him “one of the most truly imaginative and original artists living.”
A Modernist, Chanler spanned the worlds of both fine and decorative art. Yet this artist of the Gilded Age slipped into semi-obscurity after his death in 1930.
Now, a Miami curator along with a local editor, as well as art historians and preservationists across the country, are busy remedying this — and Miami’s Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is playing a starring role. “Robert Winthrop Chanler: Discovering the Fantastic” ($50, Monacelli Press) is the first comprehensive examination of his work (and his over-the-top life) in more than 80 years. The book, which coincides with Vizcaya’s centennial this year, is the result of a symposium on Chanler’s work that the museum organized back in 2014.
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“We wanted to introduce him to a new audience,” says Vizcaya curator Gina Wouters, who worked with editor Andrea Gollin on the book, “and we wanted to produce something for a lay audience that would draw them in through visuals.”
Certainly the book and the essays do that, but Vizcaya’s connection with Chanler began 100 years ago. Vizcaya, the winter estate of Chicago industrialist James Deering, is home to two commissioned Chanler pieces. One, the ceiling mural of its swimming pool grotto, is designed to evoke an undersea fantasy world and, as Wouters writes in the book, “the only occasion where Chanler applied ornaments cast from nature into his work.” The swimming pool ceiling also has the distinction of being one of only two publicly accessible Chanler murals in the country, namely because most of his work is in private collections. (The other is at the Tudor Revival mansion Coe Hall at Planting Fields State Historic Park in Oyster Bar, N.Y.)
The second Chanler piece at Vizcaya is Vizcayan Bay, a 1920 custom-made decorative screen that depicts flamingos, conquistadors and Native Americans in Florida swampland. Both works cost Deering $11,000.
When Deering was building Vizcaya in what was then considered the hinterlands along Biscayne Bay (1914-1916), the estate’s Main House was meant to look old, a nod to aristocratic Europe. Antique furnishings and artwork were brought back from Europe to underscore the décor, yet Deering struck out into the new century with his choice of pioneering artists whose work he commissioned, among them Chanler.
“These artists were early modernists,” Wouters explains. “They were pushing the boundaries of what art was.”
Few pushed as hard as Chanler, in almost every aspect of his life. In New York, where he lived near Gramercy Park, he named his residence the “House of Fantasy,” an appropriate title because he kept a menagerie and a large aquarium in the basement, populated by rare simians, toucans, English ravens and a wide collection of sea creatures. He hosted raucous parties almost every night with, as one guest noted, much drink and “intellectual sexual emancipation.” His two marriages were brief, the second one a scandalous union with opera singer Lina Cavalieri.
Yet, for Deering as well as for other patrons, Chanler managed to incorporate his patron’s design aesthetic to his own unique style. The pool mural in Vizcaya, for instance, was designed to suggest a Renaissance grotto as well as create an underwater experience with its encrusted shells and diverse collection of turtles, fish, rays and crustaceans. (And for a true Chanler wink-wink effect, the artist included three sturgeons, fish not found in tropical waters but in the Hudson River of his childhood home.)
When Chanler finished his work, in time for the 1916 Christmas Day arrival of Deering, the fish were adorned with metallic leaf to imitate the iridescence of scales, but years and layers of overpainting later the viewer cannot see the detailed grandeur of what Chanler accomplished. In fact, because of the materials Chanler used and how he applied them, Vizcaya caretakers have been kept busy preserving the mural almost as soon as he finished.
There have been five or six over-paints of the original, resulting in more muted colors and what Wouters calls “a compromise version.” And preservation of the work has been unusually difficult because “we have no sketches, no preparatory drawing of his work to follow,” Wouters says.
The latest effort to renew the mural began more than 10 years ago, when Hurricane Wilma sprayed the pool ceiling with damaging saltwater in 2015. Though preservation work had been done earlier, “it was a challenge because there was this lack of scholarship and knowledge of Chanler,” Wouters adds. “We didn’t really know much about the artist so the natural question was: Why?”
That why spurred Wouters to reach out to art historians, preservationists, collectors and even family members of the artist. It also inspired the curator to bring them together for the 2014 symposium. Despite the renewed scholarship, though, the repair work remains difficult.
“The best minds in conservation have no idea of how best to do it,” she says, laughing ruefully.
The Vizcayan Bay screen, on the other hand, is relatively well preserved. It is a two-sided piece that portrays the meeting of European explorers with Native Americans on one side and a more monochromatic landscape on the other, with butterflies and birds flying among bamboo tree. The decorative screen now stands in Deering’s sitting room on the Main House’s second floor.
There has been growing interest in Chanler’s work since a 2013 exhibition in New York revisited the groundbreaking 1913 New York Armory Show on its 100th anniversary. Presented at the Lexington Avenue Armory (and thus nicknamed the Armory Show), it introduced the American public to avant-garde painting and sculpture, including two Chanler pieces. The Armory Show eventually inspired seismic shifts in American culture, politics and society.
Wouters hopes to build on the interest that centennial show prompted, as well as position Vizcaya as a place to promote scholarship of both art and history through art.
“We’re trying to add to what Vizcaya means to the area because this place has so many dimensions in addition to its beauty,” she says. “I sometimes say that the beauty of this place can be its own worst enemy.”