The Rockefellers and the road to Modern Art

David Rockefeller’s outstanding collection of paintings was greatly influenced by the advice of Alfred Barr, the first director of MoMA. John Elderfield, a former curator at the museum, tells the story of the two men’s friendship

David Rockefeller in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden at MoMA with Ellsworth Kelly, Green Blue, 1968. Painted aluminium, 262.7 x 285.5 x 173.7 cm. Photo: Les Stone/Polaris/eyevine. Artwork: © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

I had the pleasure of knowing David Rockefeller for some 40 years, initially in the formal way that a young curator at the Museum of Modern Art would know a distinguished trustee, but increasingly closely over the years. This meant talking to him a lot about art and other things, and enjoying the Martinis he mixed himself — up, with a mint leaf — that I have never drunk anywhere else.

I met Alfred Barr only a couple of times, after he had retired from MoMA in 1967 but before I began to work there in 1975. We talked about Kurt Schwitters, on whom I was working at the time, and about some of Barr’s great acquisitions at MoMA, starting with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. I remember that David Rockefeller’s name came up as a major donor to the museum’s collections, but I didn’t grasp then that they had been such close friends. This is a brief account of how that came to be.


Alfred Barr in his office at MoMA, 1961. Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

My first one-on-one conversation with David Rockefeller took place in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden in the late 1970s. He asked me two questions: did I know that the garden was named after his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller? Yes, I did. Good; but did I also know that this was where he was born? The conversation was a long time ago, but I still remember looking at the pond in the garden and an image of Moses found in the bulrushes coming to my mind. What could he possibly mean?

What he meant, he explained with a smile, was that he was born in his family’s home on West 54th Street, where the museum’s garden would be built in 1937. This was then the largest private residence in the city, a huge edifice comprising two linked nine-storey houses, one with its own infirmary, in which he, David, was born. But the root of his affiliation with the museum wasn’t simply that its garden had replaced his childhood home; it was what had happened in that home.

The Rockefeller family residence at 10 West 54th Street, which was demolished. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden at MoMA is now where the house stood. Photo: Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center

Exterior of new MoMA building, 1939. Photo: Michael Rougier/Getty Images

It had been full of art — including, I learned later to my astonishment, the six Unicorn Tapestries now at the Cloisters — but no modern art. David’s mother, prompted perhaps by the 1913 Armory Show, had by the 1920s become interested enough in contemporary art to begin acquiring it. However, her husband disliked it and discouraged her from hanging it in the house at large. So she had a small gallery built on the seventh floor, in which she rotated her growing collection, and began to present exhibitions of borrowed works alongside her own.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s interest in contemporary art brought her into contact with like-minded collectors, including Lillie P. Bliss and Mrs Cornelius J. Sullivan, and in the late 1920s the three women determined to create what they believed would be the first museum anywhere primarily devoted to exhibiting contemporary art. David, then a schoolboy, was frequently present at their meetings. So was a Harvard graduate student, Alfred H. Barr Jr., who was teaching at Wellesley College what was probably the first course, in the United States at least, on modern art. He would become, at 27, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, which was established by this trio of remarkable women in 1929; as David acknowledged, his mother came to look on Alfred almost as a son.

David would also become extremely close to Alfred, but not yet. He shared some of his father’s scepticism about modern art. It was his brother Nelson who followed their mother’s lead, collecting contemporary art and playing an important role at MoMA from the 1930s onward.


Installation view of the first exhibition at MoMA, Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Van Gogh (7 November to 7 December, 1929). From left: Vincent van Gogh, Grapes, Lemons, Pears and Apples; (on back wall) Georges Seurat, Circus Sideshow (Parade de Cirque); Paul Cezanne, Ginger Pot with Pomegranate and Pears. Photo: © 2018, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. Photographer: Peter Juley.

As is well known, Barr’s vision for MoMA was as a multi-departmental museum with sections devoted to architecture, film, photography and so on, as well as paintings and sculptures, drawings and prints. But he was unquestionably most interested in painting and sculpture, and, thanks to the generosity of the trustees — notably the early gift of Lillie P. Bliss’s collection and a substantial acquisition fund from Mrs Simon Guggenheim — began to create the extraordinary collection that we know today.

David, however, did not become actively involved in MoMA until 1948, when his mother died and he was asked to take her seat on the board of trustees; and especially after Nelson withdrew from the museum a decade later to run for governor of New York State. But even into the early 1940s, David hadn’t escaped from his father’s conservative tastes. That would soon change, largely due to Alfred Barr and his wife Margaret Scolari Barr, usually referred to as Marga.


Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Philip Johnson, Margaret Scolari Barr. Cortona, Italy. 1932. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. The Margaret S. Barr Papers. Photo © 2018, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Marga was fully fluent in French, as well as Italian and German — unlike Alfred, who had dismal foreign language skills — which made her indispensable to him in his dealings with European artists and dealers. Agnes Mongan, a distinguished curator at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, described them in this way: ‘I know no pair more divergent in background, in emotional inheritance, or in outward manner — & more devoted or more reliant upon the well-being of the other... Marga’s Italo-Hibernian ebullience, quickness & force. Alfred’s Scotch quiet, steadiness & tenacity, her gaiety & energy, his contemplative judgments & almost silent perceptions — & both for their extraordinary intelligence and taste and loyalty.’

‘I knew [Alfred Barr] very well. He had an encyclopaedic kind of mind, on many subjects... He was an extraordinary and fascinating, brilliant person’ — David Rockefeller

It was Marga’s forthrightness that triggered David’s conversion to modern art. In the summer of 1948, he and Peggy had acquired the house on East 65th Street in which both would mainly reside for the rest of their lives, and furnished it with some run-of-the-mill 18th-century portraits, including two of men in red coats, one by Arthur Devis and one by Thomas Hickey

David tells the story: ‘A day or two after we had acquired our house, Alfred Barr and his wife, Marga, came for cocktails. Marga quite shocked us by saying, as she looked around our living room, that she could not understand how we could be satisfied with such banal and uninteresting paintings when there were so many exciting things to be had — indeed, I remember her commenting somewhat disparagingly about “all the men in little red coats”. We were, understandably I think, rather annoyed at the time.’ However, he continued, ‘Her comments left their mark. From then on, Alfred Barr began bringing to our attention a variety of high-quality paintings we had never been exposed to before... For the most part, we were still not drawn to abstract painting, but we found ourselves more and more tempted by the French Impressionists and other French painters who anticipated the Impressionists, such as Boudin, Courbet, and Delacroix.’

Hand-drawn diagram of the origins and evolution of modern art by Alfred H Barr, circa 1936. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. Photo © 2018, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Pablo Picasso. Hand-decorated envelope and tie sent by Picasso, to Alfred H. Barr, Jr. 1957. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. Photo © 2018, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. Artwork: © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2018

Alfred was no longer director of MoMA, having been replaced unceremoniously for his poor administrative skills in an expanding institution, and for having put on some exhibitions that the trustees thought frivolous. However, he was kept on as an adviser to, and then the director of, the collection. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because he could not only give more time to his own ambitious exhibitions, but also work with trustees on aiding the development of their collections — with the understanding that key works would eventually come to MoMA. And the more David got to know Alfred, the more he admired him. ‘I knew him very well,’ he recalled much later. ‘He had an encyclopaedic kind of mind, on many subjects... He was an extraordinary and fascinating, brilliant person.’

Unsurprisingly, then, Barr’s advice slowly and surely guided David and Peggy beyond the Impressionists and their predecessors to paintings made after 1880, then (as now) considered the nominal starting date of the museum’s painting and sculpture collection. This process began with modest acquisitions, but became more ambitious when, in 1955, Barr learned that Paul Rosenberg had acquired a substantial part of Mrs Chester Beatty’s great collection, numbering 80 works including Cézanne’s Boy in a Red Vest of 1888–90 (MoMA).

Alfred took a photograph of this painting to a cocktail party he knew David would be attending; David was won over. Then Alfred asked, if David acquired it, would he leave it to MoMA in his will? Alfred, in turn, would try to persuade Rosenberg that the Rockefellers should have first pick of paintings from the whole group. As a result, they also bought Seurat’s La rade de Grandcamp (1885) and Manet’s The Brioche (1870) — now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Recalling what had occurred, David said he wished they had bought more; but, even so, they had spent far more on these works than they had previously paid for any such possessions. David had to ask the committee that managed the trust his father had set up for him to give him the money to buy the three works.


Claude Monet (1840-1926), Nymphéas en fleur, circa 1914-1917. 63 x 70⅞ in (160.3 x 180 cm). Estimate on request. This lot is offered in The Collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller: 19th & 20th Century Art, Evening Sale on 8 May at Christie’s in New York

That deal done, between 1957 and 1963 David went on to buy — with Barr’s encouragement — Claude Monet’s Nymphéas (circa 1914–17); Paul Signac’s Île la Comtesse (1888); Paul Gauguin’s La Vague (1888); Armand Séguin’s four-part Art Nouveau screen, The Delights of Life (circa 1894); Giorgio Morandi’s Still Life (1940); Henri Matisse’s Landscape at Collioure (1905); a Cézanne watercolour of Mont Sainte-Victoire; and Matisse’s Still Life with Grapes (1896). And so it continued.

The consultancy with MoMA, thus established, continued after Barr’s retirement in 1967, with input from other curators at the museum. Two initiatives were particularly notable. First, in 1968, David put together a syndicate with his brother Nelson, William S. Paley, John Hay Whitney and André Meyer to purchase the former collection of Gertrude Stein, including Picasso’s Fillette à la corbeille eurie (1905). Second, David became close to the curator William Rubin, who recommended to him important paintings by Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque, Cézanne, Matisse and Signac, which went to the museum after his death.


View of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden (designed 1953). East terrace and east wing of the museum, 1964. Photo © 2018, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. Photograph by Alexandre Georges

Back in 1960, David had also begun a parallel initiative: the development of a collection for Chase Manhattan Bank, towards which end he established an art committee comprising, among others, Barr and his closest MoMA colleague, Dorothy Miller. She appears to have been the one to have found Mark Rothko’s White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) of 1950; but it was Alfred who suggested that David should buy it for himself rather than the bank. In June 1960, David acquired this important canvas.

In 2007, I had a phone call from David saying that an auction house wanted to sell it for him, and were hoping it could realise more than $40 million; what did I think? I said prices for Rothko’s paintings were very strong, and thought that, with his name on it, it might in fact realise $50 million, or even more. David said something like, ‘Well that is a figure to get your attention.’ As we know, it was sold for $72.84 million. I called David to congratulate him. ‘Not bad,’ he said, ‘for a painting for which I paid $10,000.’

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