George Washington Vanderbilt was an American collector. He was the youngest of eight children and the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt whose fortune was founded on the American railroad. His father, William Henry Vanderbilt, died when he was twenty-six, leaving George six million dollars and a magnificent house at 640, Fifth Avenue in New York City. On 2 June 1898 he married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in Paris. He died of a heart attack at the age of 52.
Vanderbilt was well read. He studied philosophy and was fluent in eight languages. He made his name as a promoter of forestry and agriculture on his vast estate at Biltmore, North Carolina in the late 1890s. He had a noteworthy collection of Rembrandt and Whistler etchings, as well as rare tapestries, rugs, bronzes and books. He lent two Whistler etchings and drypoints to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
Possibly through a mutual friend, Jonathan Sturges, Vanderbilt approached Whistler in London in May 1897 to request that the artist paint his portrait. The portrait,Portrait of George W. Vanderbilt y481, was begun in June. There is a pencil drawing closely related to this work in the Hunterian Art Gallery, Portrait of George Vanderbilt m1505. In December 1897 when the first stage was over, Whistler wrote to Vanderbilt: 'And for once I think I may say as Ingres did when he was confronted with his own portrait of Prince Napoléon, Quel beau portrait que vous avez là mon Prince!' Vanderbilt offered to pay 1,000 guineas immediately and the same again when he took possession of the work. However, Whistler remained unsatisfied and the painting was never finished. It was amongst those found in Whistler's studio at his death in 1903. Whistler's executrix Rosalind Birnie Philip then delivered it to Vanderbilt who lent it the Whistler memorial exhibition in Paris in 1905.
Vanderbilt also commissioned portraits of his wife and child from Whistler (Ivoire et or: Portrait de Madame Vanderbilt y515 and Portrait of a Baby y549), and purchased Nocturne: Battersea y120, Gold and Brown y462 and The Little London Sparrow y477. Freer believed Brun et or: De race y511 to have been intended for Vanderbilt. However, it remained in Whistler's studio until his death. Whistler and Vanderbilt were in correspondence from 1897 to 1903.
Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer, and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980 ; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995 ; Vanderbilt II, Arthur, Fortune's Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt, London, 1898.