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‘Had she been a man she could have commanded an army’

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller was a determined and influential patron of modern art who — independently of her husband — went on to co-found MoMA, as Lucy Hughes-Hallett reports

In 1929, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller wrote to her friend, the French High Commissioner for the Arts. She told him that ‘a small group of people’ (this group, widely known thereafter as ‘the indomitable ladies’, consisted of Abby herself, Lillie Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan) had resolved to set up a museum in New York ‘for the art of our time’. So, she went on, ‘if it would not be too much trouble, I would be very glad if you would give me the names of some of the younger French painters who have not arrived yet’.

Those who had ‘arrived’, she couldn’t afford. Her husband, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was the richest man in America, but this new venture was nothing to do with him, and would not be dependent on his money. ‘My husband,’ Abby told the commissioner, ‘is not at all interested in modern painting so that I have to go into it myself in a very modest way.’ So modest, in fact, that she could only, for the time being, buy one ‘small’ painting by Henri Matisse.

A quarter of a century later, Matisse designed, as his very last work, a stained-glass window as a memorial to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a tribute to her as a collector and champion of new art and the driving force behind the founding of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

It had taken ‘Junior’ a long time, in 1901, to muster the resolve to propose to Abigail Aldrich. As the only son of the founder of Standard Oil, he was the heir to an immense fortune, but the family into which he hoped to marry was as prominent as his own. Abby’s father was the leading Republican politician in the US Senate.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Photo courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Photo courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center

Nelson Aldrich was sophisticated, polished, patrician. A reporter described one of his speeches as ‘spirited, delicate... he reminds me in some indefinable way of a fine trained racehorse’. Junior must have felt like a lumbering dray horse by comparison when, after nearly five years of nervous courtship and praying for divine guidance, he finally came to ask Aldrich for his daughter’s hand.

He began a pedantic itemisation of his financial assets and expectations. Aldrich, amused, cut him short. (He knew enough about the Rockefellers to be pretty sure the young couple were unlikely ever to be short of money, and if they were, well, he was a millionaire, too.) And so Abby, who was later to tell one of her sons, ‘I really think I should like to give a party every day,’ married a teetotaller who had no small talk, and whose mother wrote to him on his 21st birthday suggesting he celebrate the occasion by re-dedicating himself to the ‘earnest work’ of saving the souls of his fellow college students.

Years later, one of his nephews wrote: ‘It was Aunt Abby who made a difference for the Rockefellers. When we went to her house we were amazed. There was dancing. There were picnics.’ Her husband loved her for her ‘gaiety’, but throughout their long marriage it made him anxious. He was prey to migraines. He slept badly, and was crotchety about it. She was quick and decisive: he laboriously pondered every move. ‘I kept wondering why she ever consented to marry a man like me,’ he mused.

To Abby it was obvious that ‘art enriches the spiritual life, as well as being good for one’s nerves’. An urge to acquire ran in the family

It wasn’t for lack of other suitors, though Abby was more striking than pretty. Her eyes were an arresting shade of amber, but she had a penetrating, nasal voice, and a large nose. She once embarrassed a visitor to her collection of American folk art by pointing out a carved wooden eagle and asking him whether he could see the resemblance between its tremendous beak and her own. Choosing, since she couldn’t be cute, to be dramatic, she liked to wear ‘astonishing’ hats.

When he married her, Junior gave her a large cheque. He also gave her an account book with instructions that she should record her expenditure in it. ‘I won’t,’ she said. When John later asked what she had done with her wedding present, she replied airily, ‘I gave it away’. She must have known he would have approved of her donation to the Young Women’s Christian Association: he had already begun the great sequence of gifts that would make him one of the most munificent philanthropists of all time. But money, once given to her, was hers to use as she pleased, without his oversight.

In 1902 her father-in-law, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., put Junior and Abby in charge of the design and furnishing of a palatial house on his country estate at Pocantico Hills in upstate New York. By 1913, the couple had built themselves a nine-storey mansion on New York’s West 54th Street. Each of these houses needed things to fill them, including pictures for their walls.

‘Senior’ didn’t believe in buying art. The very idea of spending money on useless objects seemed ludicrous to him, and morally suspect. Junior had absorbed his views, but to Abby it was obvious that ‘art enriches the spiritual life, as well as being good for one’s nerves’. For her, an urge to acquire ran in the family.

Abby (right) with sisters Elsie Aldrich and Lucy Aldrich, circa 1910. Photo courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center

Abby (right) with sisters Elsie Aldrich and Lucy Aldrich, circa 1910. Photo courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center

Her beloved sister, Lucy Aldrich, was kidnapped by bandits in China in 1923. Lucy was in grave danger but, being a connoisseur of Asian art, she couldn’t help noticing that one of her captors had an exquisite small carving — a flying fox in white jade — attached to his sash. ‘If they had left me any money,’ she wrote to Abby afterwards, ‘I would have offered to buy it.’

Cautiously, under Abby’s influence, Junior decided ‘that a man could buy things for himself ’, especially if those things would eventually be given to museums. He began collecting Chinese porcelain. In 1915, he wrote to his father asking for a loan so that he could buy some Kangxi vases. His letter is earnest: ‘I have never squandered money on horses, yachts, automobiles and other foolish extravagances. A fondness for these porcelains is my only hobby.’ As hobbies go, it was, he conceded, ‘a costly one’ but it was ‘unostentatious and not sensational’. He concluded with an argument likely to play well with Senior — rare and beautiful things tended to appreciate in value. He got his money.

The Rockefellers’ drawing room at 10 West 54th Street, displaying Chinese porcelains. Photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho, courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.

The Rockefellers’ drawing room at 10 West 54th Street, displaying Chinese porcelains. Photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho, courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.

He loved the porcelains (as he came to love Persian rugs and Flemish tapestries) for the precision of their workmanship, the meticulous care that had gone into their decoration. He didn’t look to art for expressions of emotion or for new ways of seeing. He felt he was going out on a limb when, in the first year of their marriage, he allowed Abby to introduce him to early Italian painting, and persuade him to buy two panels by Duccio. He went along with her when she began to read up on Buddhism and study Indian art. He gave her money to buy 15th-century Persian miniatures. He took no exception to her Japanese prints: by 1920, she had 14 by Utamaro. But when Abby began to take an interest in contemporary art, Junior backed off.

He was a conservator. He gave vast sums for the post-war restoration of the palaces of Versailles and Fontainebleau, and Reims Cathedral. He founded The Cloisters Museum, and filled it with fragments of medieval European buildings that he had saved from ruin. He undertook the restoration of Williamsburg, Virginia, making the entire town into an immaculately detailed reconstruction of its 18th-century self. He looked to the past. Abby looked to the future.

He was the most devoted of husbands, but perhaps not the easiest. He invoked the Almighty to justify his neediness. When Abby went to visit her parents without him, he wrote: ‘I am sure He intended that when He gave you to me we should always live constantly together.’

Abby Aldrich would hide in the bathroom to telephone her children, or, once they were grown-up, ask them to ring her from their offices. Photograph by H. T. Koshiba, courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.

Abby Aldrich would hide in the bathroom to telephone her children, or, once they were grown-up, ask them to ring her from their offices. Photograph by H. T. Koshiba, courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.

He disguised his possessiveness as solicitude. During her first pregnancy, he wrote: ‘My darling child. Perhaps the responsibility of the baby is too much for the dear child mother, and she needs her husband... I fear you are getting over tired with so much visiting and so many friends.’ It is a loving letter, but the ‘child’ was a 29-year-old woman, who had been accustomed to playing hostess for her father since her teens and who had a tremendous zest for society.

Junior didn’t want to share Abby. He was jealous of his children. Abby would hide in the bathroom to telephone them, or, once they were grown-up, ask them to ring her from their offices. It was partly that Junior, a multimillionaire, was worried about the expense of the calls: it was also that it bothered him to hear her chatting away happily to someone else she loved. Later he became jealous of his grandchildren. And he was very jealous indeed of Abby’s best-loved brainchild, the Museum of Modern Art.

In 1924, Abby travelled to Germany with the director of the Detroit Museum of Art as guide. She saw, and fell for, the works of Nolde and Grosz, and she bought her first work of contemporary art, a watercolour by Erich Heckel. Soon she was buying the French masters. She had only her allowance to spend: her purchases were of cheaper but always well-chosen works — a drawing by Seurat, a watercolour by Derain, a small flower painting by Manet.

She moved on to the next generation — drawings by Picasso and Matisse. She was buying Native American art, and work by living American artists: a watercolour by Edward Hopper, etchings by John Sloan. ‘Papa,’ she wrote to her son Nelson, ‘thinks they are terrible beyond words.’

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s private gallery on the seventh floor of her Manhattan home. Photo courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center. Artwork © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s private gallery on the seventh floor of her Manhattan home. Photo courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center. Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018.

It wasn’t just that Junior didn’t get the point of the work she was acquiring. He actively disliked and disapproved of it. He called it ‘irresponsible’. As Nelson wrote, he thought ‘the whole business was some sort of Bolshevik plot’. He didn’t stop Abby buying, but they agreed her purchases had better be hidden from him. Their seventh floor, redesigned in Art Deco aluminium and pale grey hardwood, became her private gallery. There she hung her Dalí, her Rousseau and her Redon, and there — while her husband contemplated his medieval tapestries elsewhere in the enormous house — she entertained the growing circle of dealers, critics and advisers upon whom she would rely in guiding MoMA through its early years.

She was the leader. ‘Had she been a man,’ wrote Philip Johnson, who mounted MoMA’s exhibition of modern architecture in 1932, ‘she could have commanded an army.’ With Alfred Barr as director, she put together a series of revelatory loan exhibitions, always following the principle, ‘We must show only the best’. MoMA opened in November 1929. More than 47,000 people visited the first exhibition. The Armory show of 1913 ‘was promise’ wrote one critic. ‘This is fulfilment.’ Still Junior maintained what Barr called his ‘granite indifference’.

Repeatedly over the years, Abby was to miss the opening of a major exhibition, into which she had poured immense effort, because her husband wanted her with him abroad or at their country house. MoMA, largely thanks to her, was full of exuberance and novelty. The Rockefeller household remained corseted in tradition. Alfred Barr’s wife, at Pocantico for a visit, was taken aback to find that at breakfast ‘the butler came by with a silver tray and there was a Bible on it and you helped yourself as if you were taking a roll’. Abby tended to take breakfast in her room.

When Abby gave MoMA 181 pictures from her own collection, Time magazine called her ‘the outstanding patron of living artists in the US’

In December 1930, Henri Matisse came to dinner with the Rockefellers. He tried to persuade his host that he was pursuing the same aesthetic goals as the master craftsmen who had made John’s marvellous Chinese porcelain. Junior remained politely unconvinced, but said Master Matisse should not despair of him, because Mrs Rockefeller was so persuasive she might ‘eventually wear him down to the consistency of jelly’.

She never quite did. The one time she broke her self-imposed rule never to ask him for money for MoMA, she felt mortified afterwards. Lillie Bliss (another of the ‘indomitable ladies’) had died. Bliss’s fabulous collection of post-Impressionist paintings had been left to MoMA, but only on condition that the museum could raise $1 million to ensure its safekeeping. Abby mentioned the problem to Junior. We do not know what he said, but this is what she afterwards wrote: ‘I am so sorry that I spoke to you about giving to the Modern Museum, it was very stupid of me... I am terribly, terribly sorry, please forgive me.’ She needed $200,000. His net worth at the time was around $500 million.

In 1935, Abby gave the museum 181 pictures from her own collection. When they went on view, Time  magazine put her on its cover, calling her ‘the outstanding patron of living artists in the US’. The following year, thanks to benignly Machiavellian manoeuvres on Abby’s part, Junior sold MoMA three building plots on West 53rd Street, and, better still, gave outright the plot backing onto them, on which his own immense townhouse stood.

Abby and John moved to an apartment on Park Avenue, and their West Side palace was demolished. Its site is now the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. John hadn’t turned to jelly, but he was no longer entirely granite, and it was his wife’s passionate connoisseurship and commitment that had softened him.

When Abby was still a newly-wed addition to the Rockefeller family, one of their neighbours in upstate New York remarked to another, ‘Pay attention to the filly. She’s the one really worth watching.’ How right he was.