Robert Chanler: Over the top wasn’t enough

Robert Chanler screen depicting panther attacking white stag.

Robert Chanler screen depicting panther attacking white stag.

In 1990, while first writing for this paper, I began “ghosting about” what was then called the “Woodstock Artists Association.” One afternoon, through a half open door, I overheard a would-be curator informed in no uncertain terms: “We can’t have a Bob Chanler exhibition here! He was stark-raving mad!” It was precisely at this moment, then, that my fascination for this nearly unheard of genius began. Which is why, a quarter of a century later, it’s a privilege to announce that an astonishingly well-researched volume devoted to the masterful achievement of Chanler, a Woodstocker later in his life, has at last found its way into print via The Monacelli Press, in a book entited Robert Winthrop Chanler: Discovering The Fantastic, edited by Gina Wouters and Andrea Gollin.

Margaret Astor Ward, whose mother died in childbirth, was raised by her grandparents on a 420-acre estate upon which the climate-challenged mansion “Rokeby” still stands, less than a mile from what is today Bard College. Margaret’s grandfather was William B. Astor, “the wealthiest man in America,” who inherited Rokeby through his wife’s family. After marrying John Winthrop Chanler, Margaret gave birth to no less than eleven children before, understandably, succumbing to pneumonia in 1875 at 37; her husband met the same fate three years later. By 1883, three of the Chanler children had joined their parents, and the eight surviving “Astor Orphans,” including Robert, (1872-1930) were raised by a cousin, servants, and governesses at Rokeby.

Although the eldest, John Armstrong “Archie” Chanler, was the only sibling known to visit an insane asylum, eccentricity permeated the entire brood, with Robert, born in 1872, actually taking the cake.

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Brilliant, rebellious, precocious, and licentious, 17-year-old Bob Chanler was sent off to Rome in 1889 with Archie and his, then, wife; the artistic leanings of this gigantic “little brother,” were already quite pronounced. Upon coming into “his money” four years later, Chanler married Julia Remington Chamberlain, the sister of Archie’s wife. The newlyweds moved to Paris where Chanler continued formal art education and fathered the first of two daughters. However, “disgusted with the sterile instruction of atelier and academy” Chanler and family returned to Italy, the renaissance art of which, a six-foot-four Bob Chanler seems to have devoured whole. Completing his first decorative panel in Paris in 1900, RWC returned to New York, seeking sanctuary in the purchase of a farm in Red Hook he called “Sylvania,” a mile from Rokeby. In Manhattan, that same year, his first gallery show consisted of mural decorations.

Irresistibly popular, Chanler was elected to the New York State Assembly; a political detour which failed to prevent his return to Paris. Here, the atheistic omnivore encountered a Chinese screen which set his highly tuned sensibilities aflame. Spontaneously reimagining Whistler’s original annexation of this Eastern objet d’art, “Chanler’s screens” would become his personal calling among American millionaires for the next 25 years. On that same trip to Paris, Chanler also met his great patron, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, which probably had something to do with his subsequent divorce. Back in the States he became Sheriff of Dutchess County for the next three years, preferring the title “Sheriff Bob” ever after. Chanler now married “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Opera singer Lina Cavalier, however, first demanded a pre-nuptial agreement assuring her a fortune even should the marriage fail. Unstable brother Archie’s telegram was succinct: “Who’s Looney Now?” Tabloids on both sides of the Atlantic made a fortune all their own as Robert Chanler’s second marriage and honeymoon ended simultaneously.

Rebounding from financial as well as emotional disaster, Chanler rented (and soon bought) adjoining brownstones on East 19th Street in Manhattan. These became his notorious “House of Fantasy,” the artful equivalent of a mad professor’s laboratory cum fraternity house. Here all-night parties anticipated the Roaring Twenties while maintaining the decadence of fin-de-siecle Paris. The Gilded Age in hedonistic decline, Chanler managed what today would be termed “mania” with vast quantities of alcohol; his rapacious social life and increasingly eccentric career besting one another in an evermore bizarre bacchanal.

Now monied lightning struck as Chanler enjoyed one of the great publicity coups of the age. Because of his enormous popularity in high society, such movers ‘n shakers soon insisted their own Chanler be represented in a privately sponsored event, today known as “The Armory Show of 1913.” It would become Modernism’s “shot heard ‘round the world,” repercussions of which dethroned Paris, to make New York City the new hub of Art’s whirling roulette wheel. Here, remarkably enough, though a total stranger to museums, this enfant terrible of an insider, this gigantic, brilliant, all but overwhelming force known as Robert Winthrop Chanler, found no less than nine of his astonishing works lining the entrance of The Art Event of the Century. But it didn’t end there.

Recently released papers surrounding the centennial celebration of this mythic event reveal that Chanler’s VIP “access” allowed him to replace and rotate his most-talked-and-written-about screens with more than a dozen others. The result being, that in the single month during which the Armory Show captivated New York — and the world, Chanler was represented by as many as 24 works. In a sense, then, Chanler showed more of his work than any other American or European artist, including Picasso and Cezanne. Not surprisingly, the reputation of “The Grand Bohemian,” as Cosmopolitan called him, went through the roof. But astounding as his screens were and were to become, Chanler’s legend would depend upon the decorative environments he would create in the private homes of somewhat eccentric wealth. (Imagine Hearst’s San Simeon on LSD, and you begin to get the picture…)

Much of Robert Winthrop Chanler: Discovering The Fantastic understandably focuses on the restoration of these long-ignored treasures with increasingly technical chapters. Especially noteworthy is the newly revealed fireplace and chimney of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Greenwich Village studio; its massive, rigid flames obviously topping the French at their own game. Suffice to say: once you hold this book in your hands, the cheap tricks of a Jeff Koons are instantly exposed as such. While the authentic wonders found between the covers of this book indeed pry the lid off Chanler’s forgotten accomplishment…they reveal what? An American DuChamp? A Jules Verne of art — 40,000 leagues beneath historic recall? Actually, none of these descriptions do RWC justice, for the best of his work is beyond metaphor.

Which is why I highly recommend you acquire this book and, in Chanleresque style, consume it whole — with one caveat. We’ve all heard the cliché that true genius must risk failure at every turn. Well, with Chanler this old chestnut becomes formidable truth. For he does absolutely “lose it” from time to time, particularly in portraiture.

While the academic cool of a many-authored-essay-style art book infrequently satisfies a fan of biography, here such compartmentalization is welcome, perhaps even necessary. Front and center we find: the work, its place in history, and debate surrounding its importance, disappearance, restoration, and — we hope — renaissance. So our primary attention stays with the art, which is proper to any rediscovery process.

However, this approach begs for a full-scale biography, a portion of which is herewith supplied in miniature as regards RWC’s significance to Woodstock.

Immediately following his 1912 divorce from Lina Cavalieri (and just before the Armory Show), “Sheriff Bob” makes a pilgrimage to Indian Country in Arizona. Period photographs show him frolicking with a young actress named Clemence “Clemmie” Randolph, who becomes Chanler’s “primary life companion” thereafter.

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