Throughout his life, David Rockefeller retained vivid memories of his first trip outside the United States. It had been in the summer of 1927, aged 12, when he travelled with his parents and brother Winthrop to France. As well as visits to Paris, Normandy and the Loire Valley, the family spent a week at the Palace of Versailles.
In Memoirs, published in 2002, he wrote, ‘Winthrop and I were given permission to ride bicycles in the park and explore rooms in the château generally not open to the public. We especially enjoyed climbing over [its] vast lead roofs.’
If these sound like special privileges, it’s because they were: down to the fact that the boys’ father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was financing an overdue restoration of the Palace of Versailles at the time (to the tune of $2 million). While the children played, ‘Junior’ cast an eye over how the works were progressing.
John D Rockefeller, Jr. funded historic restoration of many war-torn sites in France, and attended special ceremonies at the Palace of Versailles with son David in 1936. Photo: The New York Times
In the 1920s, Junior funded the restoration of two other landmark French buildings, too: Reims Cathedral, which had suffered severe bomb damage in the First World War; and the medieval Palace of Fontainebleau. ‘The Rockefeller family’s relationship with France is a deep-rooted one across generations,’ confirms François de Ricqlès, President of Christie’s France. ‘There have been numerous manifestations of this, starting back in 1901.’
That was the year in which Junior’s father, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., founded the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research (later renamed the Rockefeller University), modelled on the Institut Pasteur in Paris. ‘America in the late 19th and early 20th century was still a young nation,’ says de Ricqlès, ‘and it looked to Europe — especially to France — for inspiration when it came to models for its new institutions and organisations.’
Through the Rockefeller Foundation, ‘Senior’ would go on to provide funds for the construction of medical schools in Strasbourg and Lyon, as well as a campaign to halt the alarming spread of tuberculosis across France during the First World War.
Alfred Janniot created the gilt relief above the entrance door of La Maison Francaise (main entrance of 610 Fifth Avenue). It is called Friendship Between America and France, 1934. Above Friendship Between America and France is Janniot’s Gallic Freedom. Photo: William J. Roege/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018
‘The Rockefellers were clearly exceptional, but you might say also that they were typical of a type of well-to-do, East-Coast American family a century or so ago, who had huge admiration for French culture,’ de Ricqlès adds. ‘There was a real connection between the two nations back then, based in part on the concept of liberté — or freedom — which they shared, dating back to the French Revolution and the American Revolutionary War in the 1780s.’
Probably the most visible proof of the Rockefeller family’s relationship with France can be found on Fifth Avenue, in midtown Manhattan, at the vast Rockefeller Center complex. In the early 1930s, with the United States in the midst of the Great Depression and its businesses in a state of uncertainty, tenants for the newly constructed Center were proving hard to come by. Junior thus hit upon the idea of ‘theming’ some of the buildings by country — in a bid to attract businesses from the foreign country in question.
The Maison Française duly appeared next to the British Empire Building (representing France and Great Britain respectively). For the former, Junior invited a handful of leading French artists to produce works referencing their homeland’s history. Above the main entrance, for example, Alfred Janniot produced the sculpture known as Gallic Freedom, in celebration of the French Revolution. For the lobby, meanwhile, the jewellery firm Cartier created Le point d’interrogation: a scale-model replica, in sterling silver, of the eponymous aeroplane used by French aviators Dieudonné Costes and Maurice Bellonte to make the first westbound flight across the Atlantic, in 1930.
Given this background, it’s perhaps no surprise that the art collection started by David’s mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and continued by David and his wife, Peggy, was full of work by important artists from, or based in, France. (While stationed with the US Army in Paris during the Second World War, David recalled lunching with Pablo Picasso, who was ‘warm and friendly’, as well as ‘pleased [Abby] had been an early collector of his drawings and prints’.)
Over the decades, the Rockefellers acquired works such as Manet’s Lilas et roses ; Degas’ Woman Seated in a Garden ; and two of Monet’s Water Lilies paintings. As brilliant as any of these, though, was Eugène Delacroix’s Tiger with Tortoise, from 1862. ‘It represents the artist at the absolute peak of his powers,’ says de Riqlès. ‘As much as any other painting really, it marks the beginning of modernity.’
Tigers had inspired and fascinated the artist throughout his career (The Tiger Hunt, now in the Musée d’Orsay, being another famous example), and he’d regularly go to watch them for hours on end at Paris’s Jardin des Plantes zoo. In the Rockefeller painting, a majestic tiger in the wilderness paws at the shell of a helpless, tiny tortoise. The viewer is left wondering what happens next: is the former just playing, or can the latter expect a grisly fate?
The work boasts an agitated brushwork and (in the tiger’s coat) a sheer vividness of colour that one readily — and groundbreakingly — associates with Delacroix, and the Impressionists after him. ‘We were exceptionally pleased to get it,’ David said of the 1966 acquisition. ‘It has enormous, lasting qualities and makes one recognise what an outstanding painter Delacroix was.’
Tiger with Tortoise was given a wall to itself on the third floor of the couple’s Upper East Side townhouse, and is a source of no less admiration today. According to Deborah Coy, Head of 19th-Century Paintings at Christie’s, ‘Delacroix canvases of such quality are very rare on the market — you just don’t see them. This is the artist at his boldest. Look at how he pushes the tiger right to the front of the picture plane, so it really dominates. Delacroix was one of the last great Romantics — this painting, essentially, is Beethoven in paint.’
As for Peggy and David, their love of France would last the rest of their lives, extending far beyond the artistic, too. In Memoirs, David spoke of the ‘great many times’ he and Peggy visited the country. Apparently they ‘could think of nothing more enjoyable than spending a few days driving a car around the French countryside, visiting beautiful places and tasting the incomparable food and wines.’