Stephen Lash, Chairman Emeritus of Christie’s, with Gilbert Stuarts ‘Vaughan type’ portrait of George Washington, painted in 1795

Live like a Rockefeller — A Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington

Stephen Lash, Chairman Emeritus of Christie’s, shares his personal memories of David Rockefeller, and explains why this important painting was a fitting piece for the collector, philanthropist and statesman to have loved and lived with

‘Today, there is a great deal of talk about art as an asset class or investment,’ says Stephen Lash, Chairman Emeritus of Christie’s. ‘Those pure investors who go out to buy often end up buying the right artist but the wrong painting.’ 

The acid test for the degree of interest someone has in art — for their real passion for it — is whether or not they live with the pieces they buy. ‘David Rockefeller not only lived with his art in his homes,’ observes Lash, ‘but he also constantly visited galleries and museums to look at art. It was truly his great passion and interest.’

The Rockefeller family’s ownership of this Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) portrait of President George Washington is ‘hugely important’, he continues. ‘That’s not only because this was a leading family in America collecting an outstanding work by an outstanding American artist, but because one also associates the values of George Washington with the values of a man like David Rockefeller. 

‘David enjoyed a very special position in this country, which he deserved. He was bright, he was engaged, he was seriously interested in other people and all issues. On top of that, he was a forceful but gentle human being.’

Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), George Washington (Vaughan type), painted in 1795. 29⅛ x 24⅛  in (74 x 61.3  cm). Estimate $800,000-1,200,000. This lot is offered in The Collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller Art of the Americas, Evening Sale on 9 May at Christie’s in New York

Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), George Washington (Vaughan type), painted in 1795. 29⅛ x 24⅛ in (74 x 61.3 cm). Estimate: $800,000-1,200,000. This lot is offered in The Collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller: Art of the Americas, Evening Sale on 9 May at Christie’s in New York

Stuart is believed to have painted three portraits of Washington from life, all of which served as the basis for numerous replicas. Having spent two decades in England and Ireland, the artist returned to his native America in the early 1790s. On leaving Ireland, he wrote to a friend and mentioned his hopes for the sitting with the first President of the United States: ‘I expect to make a fortune by Washington alone.’

The first portrait Stuart produced was painted in Philadelphia in 1795, and the other two in nearby Germantown in 1796. This is the first of the three, known as the ‘Vaughan type’ because it was commissioned by Samuel Vaughan, an English merchant who resided in Philadelphia. The second is known as the ‘Lansdowne type’ — a full-length portrait commissioned by Lord Lansdowne, an English admirer of Washington. The third is the ‘Athenaeum type’, so-called for its association with the Boston Athenaeum.

‘David Rockefeller was received by leading public figures around the world, almost up until the time of his death’

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller owned two of Stuart’s three portraits of Washington. The first, which they purchased in 1920, was the better-known and more widely copied Athenaeum version; the second, the present painting, was the version Abby preferred.

Writing in the collection catalogue that he commissioned, David Rockefeller explained that his parents ‘had known of the existence of this portrait for some time, and had sought over a period of years to acquire it from a family in New Jersey named Tilney. Finally, in 1946, they were able to do so. After Mother’s death, Father gave the painting to Peggy and me for our collection because he did not feel he needed both portraits.’

The catalogue notes that Stuart recorded his impressions of Washington’s appearance and character. ‘All his features were indicative of his strongest passions,’ Stuart wrote, ‘yet, like Socrates, his judgement and great self-command made him appear a man of a different cast in the eyes of the world.’

The Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington hanging in the dining room of David and Peggy Rockefellers’ home

The Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington hanging in the dining room of David and Peggy Rockefellers’ home

The same could be said for David Rockefeller. ‘He was a very special man and a leader in the world,’ says Lash, who recalls being first introduced to David by former Christie’s Chairman Lord Carrington, who served as British Foreign Secretary and First Lord of the Admiralty. ‘[David Rockefeller] was received by leading public figures around the world, almost up until the time of his death.’

Christie’s Chairman Emeritus recounts David coming down from his office at Rockefeller Center to walk around the auction exhibitions in Christie’s galleries, and a lunch held in David’s honour at a New York club of which they were both members. At the latter, Henry Kissinger got up to speak, admitting, ‘I have known David Rockefeller for so long; so long in fact that I’ve known him before I was Henry Kissinger.’

This important 18th-century portrait, which is a classic example of all that’s best about Gilbert Stuart, is, says Lash, a particularly interesting addition to the collection: ‘It tells a story about the breadth of the Rockefeller family’s taste,’ he explains. 

‘It also tells a story about the role of tradition within the Rockefeller family — it was owned by Mr Rockefeller’s parents and it connects, or reconnects, the family’s association with Colonial Williamsburg, and with Abby’s interest in American folk art. Importantly, the fact that the family lived with this piece speaks to their buying out of passion rather than as an investment.’