Rockefeller family historian Peter J. Johnson discusses the importance of porcelain within the collection, and why the qualities of these birds by one of the greatest modellers of his age reflect the values of their owners
‘I’ve always thought that perhaps more than some of the great paintings in this collection, the porcelain is the art that you can trace through the family for generations,’ says Peter J. Johnson, the Rockefeller family historian and a close friend and associate of David Rockefeller.
David was a great collector of Meissen, following in a tradition of collecting porcelain that was established by his parents — his father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., purchased a portion of the famous J.P. Morgan collection in the early 1900s.
‘He would speak very authoritatively and fondly of the Meissen birds,’ continues Johnson, who worked in the Rockefeller Family Office for decades, and supervised the project that became Memoirs, David’s acclaimed 2002 autobiography. ‘I loved to sit and listen to him explain how things were made, and who the modeller was.’
These exquisite Meissen hoopoes were the work of Johann Kändler (1706-1775), the greatest and most talented European porcelain modeller of his age.
In the 18th century, porcelain — known at the time as ‘white gold’ — was one of the most highly prized commodities in the world. Developed in China around 2,000 years ago, the method for making porcelain remained a mystery to Europeans until Johann Friedrich Böttger discovered the magic formula. Shortly afterwards, in 1710, the Meissen factory was established by Emperor Augustus the Strong, ruler of Saxony.
‘When you had lunch or dinner with the Rockefellers, all of your senses were filled with beautiful colours and the exquisite craftsmanship surrounding you’
Johann Kändler trained as a sculptor in Dresden before joining the Meissen factory in 1731. There, at the behest of Emperor Augustus, he began modelling technically challenging large figures of birds and animals for the Japanese Palace at Dresden. In 1733 he was promoted to chief modeller at Meissen, a position he held until his death.
Kändler was responsible for a new kind of porcelain, introducing a range of smaller figures with fired-on enamels in the late 1730s. He was also responsible for taking on and training the next generation of master modellers. His principal assistant was Johann Eberlein, who joined Meissen in 1735, followed by Johann Gottlieb Ehder, Peter Reinicke and Friedrich Elias Meyer. The Meissen records reflect that both Kändler and Ehder worked on these rare and exceptional hoopoe birds, which David and Peggy Rockefeller acquired from the estate of David’s brother, Laurance S. Rockefeller, in 2004.
‘The meticulous quality and perfect nature of these objects tells you a lot about the Rockefellers,’ says Johnson. ‘They appreciated the effort and work and skill that it took to ensure the hoopoes were as close to life as possible. They believed that doing something as well as you can is an obligation, and the painstaking qualities evident in these Meissen birds reflect that.’
These porcelain models were displayed in the dining room of David and Peggy Rockefeller’s home on 65th Street in New York, a space decorated in original wallpaper from the 18th century. ‘They were on a small table underneath a wonderful painting,’ Johnson explains. ‘When you had dinner or lunch in this room with Mr Rockefeller, all of your senses were filled with the beautiful colours and the exquisite craftsmanship surrounding you.
‘David and Peggy acquired their art knowing it wasn’t going to be hidden away or protected from onlookers,’ adds the author and historian. ‘They wanted to live with it and for it to be part of their lives. They were careful with their art, but they were also willing to take the risk of having it on display because they felt strongly that the beauty of these objects should be shared with as many people as possible.’