The Rockefellers and their American Art masterpieces

Peggy and David Rockefeller's ‘virtually encyclopaedic’ collection of 20th-century American Art spanned from Hopper to Porter, O’Keeffe to de Kooning. Christie’s Elizabeth Beaman and Sara Friedlander pick out a few of their personal favourites

‘American art is really defined for me as something that could have only been made by an American artist, and that has a really distinctive national flavour,’ says Elizabeth Beaman, Senior Vice President and Senior Director in Christie’s American Art department. The specialist describes the collection of American art assembled by Peggy and David Rockefeller as ‘virtually encyclopaedic’.

After Abby Aldrich Rockefeller passed away in 1948, her son David was invited to take her seat on the board of trustees at MoMA, the museum she had co-founded. MoMA’s inaugural director was a fresh-faced 27-year-old Harvard graduate named Alfred H. Barr, Jr., whom Abby had come to look upon almost as a son. It was Barr who guided David and Peggy down a path that led from 18th-century portraits to American 20th-century modern art, and to acquiring masterpieces by artists including Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Arthur Davies, Charles Sheeler, Willem de Kooning and Fairfield Porter.

Fairfield Porter (1907-1975), The Schooner II, 1965. Oil on canvas. 37⅛ x 54⅛ in (94.2 x 137.5 cm). Estimate: $1,000,000-1,500,000. This lot is offered in The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller: Art of the Americas, Evening Sale on 9 May at Christie’s in New York © 2018 The Estate of Fairfield Porter / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Schooner II  [above] is really one of the most magnificent Fairfield Porters I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing,’ says Beaman of a work in which the artist can be seen ‘delighting in the painterly surface’. This view of Barred Island on Maine’s coast was loved both by the artist and Peggy and David, who spent most summers at Ringing Point, their home on nearby Mount Desert Island.

The Porters owned a house on Great Spruce Head Island in Penobscot Bay, which David often sailed past. The Schooner II  was bought in 1965 and was eventually hung in the guest room of Peggy and David’s Maine house, then their New York house, where it was greatly enjoyed by visitors.

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), New Mexico — Near Taos, 1929. Oil on canvas laid down on board. 17¾ x 23⅞ in (45.1 x 60.7 cm). Estimate: $2,000,000-3,000,000. This lot is offered in The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller: Art of the Americas, Evening Sale on 9 May at Christie’s in New York © 2018 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

‘The American modernist works in the collection are really very landscape-focused,’ remarks Sara Friedlander, International Director and Specialist Head of Department, Post-War and Contemporary Art, turning to Georgia O’Keeffe’s New Mexico — Near Taos, painted in 1929.

‘[O'Keeffe] was actually painting these mostly from a car window,’ explains Beaman. ‘The sensation we get in front of the painting is that we’re almost on top of the mountain. And those undulating forms are anthropomorphised.’

Peggy and David Rockefeller acquired the painting at auction in 1973, later revealing that they had been drawn to it because it reminded them of the hills to the north of Sante Fe, where Georgia O’Keeffe lived in the last years of her life, and where Peggy and David had visited numerous friends. 

New York painter Milton Avery was one of the artists Peggy and David collected in depth. ‘Figurative work from the 1940s is really considered to be Avery at the height of his career,’ says Beaman, pointing out the artist’s playful incorporation of his own work in the background of 1947’s Woman with Rebozo   (above).

Avery, who was regarded as America’s answer to the European Fauvists, was greatly inspired by the bold style of Henri Matisse. ‘With Avery,’ says Friedlander, ‘you have these amazing moments of colour, moving towards figuration, towards pure abstraction, which feels like a theme throughout the collection.’

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), Untitled XIX, 1982. Oil and charcoal on canvas. 80 x 70 in (203.2 x 177.8 cm). Estimate: $6,000,000-8,000,000. This lot is offered in The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller: Art of the Americas, Evening Sale on 9 May at Christie’s in New York. Artwork: © 2018 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

For Friedlander, the paintings of Willem de Kooning —‘in many ways the quintessential American artist’ — represent some of the most intriguing works in the collection. ‘What’s particularly interesting to me about de Kooning’s Untitled XIX  from 1982,’ she says, ‘is that you have a painting by an artist at the very end of his career, and a collector who was buying at the very end of his career as well.’

De Kooning completed Untitled XIX  in his late seventies, having resumed painting after a bout of alcoholism and depression. Other works from the same group by de Kooning were acquired by MoMA in New York and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C.

‘[De Kooning] was looking at his European roots to create a visual language that was uniquely his own,’ explains the specialist. ‘This idea of colour and abstraction became increasingly important to him — particularly in the later years of his career.’ In David Rockefeller’s own later years, his tastes would evolve and develop in similar ways, and Untitled XIX  was displayed prominently on the walls of his Rockefeller Center office.

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