The oil portrait of Mobile-born Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont is on exhibit at the museum at Versailles until this month. The canvas had been on display at the Historic Oakleigh House Museum since 1965, when it was bequeathed to the Historic Mobile Preservation Society by Alva’s daughter, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan. Balsan stated that she wanted Mobile to have something of her mother’s since she grew up hearing stories of Alabama’s port city.
Alva Smith was born in 1853 in her parents’ recently completed mansion on the southwest corner of Government and Conception streets. Alva’s father was a successful cotton factor named Murray Forbes Smith, and her mother, Phoebe, had high aspirations for social success in Mobile. The two-story Gothic-style home built by the couple in 1852 was covered in smooth gray stucco scored to resemble stone. No one in Mobile had seen anything quite like it.
Phoebe ordered her furniture and the family’s wardrobes from Paris. She attempted, with little success, to be a social leader in Mobile, but her parties always fell flat.
Meanwhile, young Alva may have been wearing French finery, but it didn’t keep her from getting into physical confrontations with neighborhood boys. When one saw her climbing a tree and told her girls couldn’t do that, Alva chased him down the street and tackled him. A neighbor had to intervene.
The family left Mobile around 1860 and moved to New York and then later to France. It was during her years in France that Alva became a true Francophile, which is what ultimately led to the exhibit at Versailles more than 85 years after her death.
The Vanderbilt Connection
In 1875, the 22-year-old Alva married William Kissam Vanderbilt, an heir to one of the nation’s largest fortunes, in a New York ceremony. They arrived in Saratoga by private railway car, and Vanderbilt registered at the hotel as “William Kissam Vanderbilt, wife, two maids, two dogs and 15 horses.” Alva would soon prove to be more than just “wife.”
Alva discovered that, as far as old New York was concerned, the Vanderbilt money was a bit too new. She followed her mother’s lead and built a unique home — a French chateau on Fifth Avenue covered in white limestone. It stood out brilliantly among the dark brownstone houses around it, and her housewarming party in 1883 took place with nearly 1,200 costumed guests in attendance. Alva had certainly succeeded where her mother had failed.
Marble House — French Inspiration
In 1888, Alva and William purchased property in Newport, Rhode Island, for a summer “cottage.” Four years and $11 million later (about $315 million today), Marble House was opened for the summer season. The design of the house was greatly influenced by the neo-classical Petit Trianon at Versailles. This smaller chateau on the grounds of the palace of Versailles had been completed in 1768 and was a great favorite of the ill-fated Marie Antoinette. The current French exhibit explores the late 19th century nostalgia for the architecture and fashion developed at Versailles a hundred years earlier, before the revolution and the guillotine ended the parties. The French rediscovered the palace in the mid-19th century, and by the 1890s, the government was using the palace to receive foreign dignitaries and hold important assemblies.
Tastemakers from Paris to California took note, and architects and eminent artists were influenced in their work by designs discovered during the enthusiastic restoration of Versailles. Alva Vanderbilt’s love of all things French led to her portrait being displayed at Versailles — it is one of 350 objects that “trace a period of art when Versailles played a role in literary, pictorial and musical motifs.”
The circa 1879 portrait was painted by Benjamin Curtis Porter (1843 – 1908) who was a member of the social set Alva sought to join. He captured Alva in her late 20s, about the time she demonstrated her ability to break into New York’s upper crust. And she did it with the same determination that proved to a little boy in Mobile that girls could do anything they set their minds to — including climbing a tree.