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The New York Times brought to light recent efforts to rehabilitate and restore the reputation and work of Robert Winthrop Chanler this morning.

Eve Kahn, writing in the antiques section, shared the story of Lauren Vollono Drapala, a graduate student in the historic preservation program at the University of Pennsylvania, who has taken an interest in Chanler and his works. Research in the former studio space of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney has revealed evidence of a brilliant mural and relief resting beneath layers of whitewash.

The ex-Sheriff of Dutchess County had financed a less than mild mannered lifestyle in the early part of the 20th century with a not insubstantial inheritance from his grandfather, John Jacob Astor. The Whitney Studio is among a handful of prime examples of his installation work, among them the Rokeby House and the Coe House. His artistic accomplishments were mostly categorized as decorative, and as such, we would never recognize him as an participant at the famous Armory show. Though he was refused a reputation for his artistic contributions, he did earn one for poor judgement.

Immediately following his 1910 marriage in Paris to the opera singer Mile, Lina Cavalleri, his lawyer filed the much discussed ante-nuptial agreement. Chanler “divested himself of all his real estate in New York County, which is considerable, and also of his real estate holdings in Dutchess County.” He did so to the amazement of his family and for the benefit of none other than Mile, Lina Cavalleri. Not only did she receive the real estate, “he bound himself to pay his bride $20,000 a year.” Just in case he was thinking about side-stepping these obligations, he also named her his irrevocable attorney. In a famous telegram, Chanler’s brother John, who offered all of those around him eager descriptions of his budding X-Faculty and the many sonnets, plays and stock-tips it had dictated to him, who changed his surname to Chaloner, which he claimed was the earlier variant of the family name, and was generally unknown for soundness of mind, wired him in Paris: “Who’s looney now?” The question would become famous in its own right. The marriage lasted two years, and Cavalleri went on to marry an opera singer and later open a beauty parlor in Paris.

Chanler’s brother, Marion Ward Chanler, lost far greater stakes from a similar disabuse of judgment. Reportedly, he engaged Marshall Latham Bond in an eating contest in February 1883 at the St Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. Bond and his brother would later employ Jack London during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, and Buck was actually based on Bond’s dog Dawson. Chanler had received ten pounds of Turkish Delight from his grandfather, Samuel Ward. The task, consume it all, and may the greater appetite be the winner. Bond lost, and Marion died, so the story goes, from a surfeit of Turkish Delight.

Chanler, nonetheless, maintained a steady stream of contributions to what would be considered decorative arts. These include screens, murals, stained glass windows, and the mural and relief in the former Whitney studio space. One can find them at the Rokeby House in Dutchess County, the Coe House in Oyster Bay, Villa Vizcaya in Miami, and various public and private collections. For a collection of poor judgement such as this, however, requires a bit more digging.

Giraffes - Robert Winthrop Chanler

Giraffes, Robert Winthrop Chanler: via NYPL

Robert Winthrop Chanler, muralist, painter, grandson of John Jacob Astor, and otherwise known as Sheriff Bob Chanler to his friends. The NYT printed full-color photos of a screen of the Leopard and the Deer and the mural from the crow room in situ at the Rokeby House in the slideshow accompanying the article on the same.

Chanler is perhaps best known for his piece, The Giraffes, which was completed in 1905 and purchased by the Salon d’ Automne during his time in Paris. The geometry and intricacy of his work might descend from classical narrative tapestries or suggest an ancestor to the stripped-down, though vibrant aesthetic of Fred Tomaselli, or the embroiled wildlife studies of Walton Ford. Others, such as Nightmare, which is paired with Porcupines and housed at the Met, suggest a relish of detail and scope of action reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch. The meandering compositions of Henri Rousseau, whose Hungry Lion was also completed in 1905, offer a more generally appreciated, though when viewed through the prism of The Giraffes, seemingly related aesthetic.

Chanler’s screens occupy an unusual aesthetic space. They are neither mural nor canvassed art. Instead, they invoke a fin de siècle fascination with Asian formats and styles: among them, the screen. Chanler seizes and exploits the medium. Said to be an homage to a ferocious ex-wife, Chanler’s Leopard and the Deer rolls on casters in a black, ebonized frame around and across the reception room to Rokeby House, as though stalking its inhabitants. The principal leopard rises and curls over and down upon the frozen struggle of a white stag. It’s knees bent, with one fore-leg struggling to stand, the stag looks skyward and accepts the leopard’s toothsome embrace over neck, chest and back. Meanwhile, the leap of leopards rollick up a hill in pursuit of still more prey among the narrow cover of a sparsely placed forest. It’s a scene that rises and falls with the search and capture of desperate and vulnerable prey. It’s a scene that feels like might animate the screen itself and send it around the room in pursuit of the odd and unfortunate visitor.

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