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On February 22, 1872, Robert Winthrop Chanler was born the grand nephew of the great Jacob Astor and descendant of a long-line of influential politicians and businessmen in New York. Spending much of his childhood on his family’s mansion in upstate New York, Rokeby, Chanler developed his early interests in art through drawing the natural landscape and animals of this region.

 

Chanler began his formal artistic training in 1889, traveling between Rome and Paris to study with established painters. He began his study with “Jack” John Elliot in Rome, and then concentrated on sculpture with Mariano Benlliure y Gil in Rome and Alexandre Falguière in Paris. Chanler’s focus turned to painting at the Acadé­mie Julien and the Académie Colarossi and he then studied privately with the academic painter Jean Léon Gérome. Chanler developed his own artistic style and began to earn his own reputation as a decorative artist. He painted large wall panels and elaborate screens for wealthy friends and relatives, and his work molded together the traditions of “Oriental art”, the Old Masters and Art Nouveau.  His best known work was the panel Giraffes, exhibited in 1906, which was purchased by the French government to be displayed in the Luxembourg Museum.

 
Portrait of Robert Winthrop Chanler, 1913. Rokeby Estate
  Upon returning to the United States, Chanler served a brief stint as the sheriff of Dutchess County, earning him the name “Sheriff Bob” from that point on.  He continuously battled between his family’s aristocratic identity and his eccentric passion for painting colors, textures and movement. The greatest critical recognition he received during his lifetime was at the New York Armory Show in 1913. The controversial and critically acclaimed work of the show was Chanler’s Parody of the Fauve Painters who Exhibited in the Armory Show, which depicted five blindly adoring aesthetes paying homage to a seated monkey, meant to mimic the painter Henri Matisse. While Chanler was a respected painter, much of his artistic career was overshadowed by his public persona as a playboy. Having divorced his first wife, he entered into a celebrated marriage with the opera singer, Lina Cavalieri, who was famous for her stunning beauty and dramatic personality. The union was short, and erupted into a stormy divorce, personified in Chanler’s panel, the Death of the White Hart.
Entrance to the International Exhibition in Chicago, featuring screens by Robert Chanler and sculptures by Henri Matisse, Aristide Maillol, and Joseph Bernard, 1913.
Detail of Chanler’s Death of the White Hart. Rokeby Estate
 

Chanler’s most well-known interior spaces include the Grotto at Vizcaya, the Buffalo Room in Coe Hall and the Whitney Studio in New York City.  He benefitted greatly from the patronage of his friends and family, forming lifelong relationships with women like Mae Coe and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Though he was most successful for his elaborately decorated screens, he no longer produced them after 1923, instead focusing on portraiture. His portraits were noted for their quick, impressionistic like­nesses to their subjects, and this often resulted in “less-than-happy” sitters. Financial bankers and close friends alike were shown as the artist saw them, sometimes being depicted as “wolves, with dripping jaws” or “hideously bloated serpents.”

 

“Bob the Sheriff” Chanler, after a life-long passion for indulgences, succumbed to heart failure in 1930. He died at the age of fifty eight- a gargantuan bohemian who had a pivotal impact on many in the art community. Chanler was buried among some of New York’s most famous residents in the cemetery at Chanler vault in Trinity Cemetery at Wall Street and Broadway.

 
Portrait of Louise Hellstrom by Robert Winthrop Chanler, c. 1924. Kiki Randolph