The Rockefeller family’s commitment to and extraordinary influence in the print collecting field began with Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s donation of her personal collection of 1,600 prints to the Museum of Modern Art in 1940. In addition to being a major patron of sculpture and painting, Mrs. Rockefeller also understood the importance of prints as a means for education and study. As a result of her landmark gifts to the department, the Museum opened a dedicated area for the study of prints in 1949. This space, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Print Room, continues to be an important element of the Museum of Modern Art to the present day. 1
Within her collection, Mrs. Rockefeller had a special affinity for the graphic work of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, who she believed was integral to the origination of modernism and the avant-garde in 19th century France. In 1946, Mrs. Rockefeller donated sixtyone lithographs by Toulouse-Lautrec to the Museum, which were shown in a major exhibition the following year. This donation was regarded as one of the most important accessions at the time, and the Museum’s holdings of Toulouse-Lautrec’s works became among the most significant in the world.2
The family’s interest in Toulouse-Lautrec continued throughout the 20th century with Nelson Rockefeller’s acquisition of a large group of prints by the artist in 1956. These works were hung prominently in his office and dining room in his residence at 13 West 54th Street before they were acquired by David and Peggy Rockefeller. The following three Toulouse-Lautrec lithographs are from this group.
La Clownesse assise (Mademoiselle CHA-U-KA-O) was published in Toulouse-Lautrec’s celebrated 1896 portfolio of ten lithographs, Elles, which was dedicated primarily to the depiction of prostitutes in the maisons closes or brothels of Paris. A regular visitor and at times a long-term guest of these establishments, the artist was well-acquainted with the women who lived and worked there. He was particularly interested in depicting them in their daily routines, whether at the wash table, getting dressed, or dozing in bed. These quiet domestic scenes were mostly printed with only one or very few colors. La Clownesse is an exception amongst this portfolio, and it remains unclear why Toulouse-Lautrec decided to include her, a stage performer and not a prostitute, in this series.
A dancer at the Nouveau Cirque and the Moulin Rouge, Mademoiselle CHA-U-KA-O claimed to be Japanese, yet her name was in fact a phonetic transcription of the French word “chahut” (an acrobatic dance derived from the cancan) and evocative of the chaos she caused whenever she came on stage. CHA-U-KA-O began her performing life as a lithe and supple gymnast, as evident in this photograph taken by Toulouse-Lautrec’s close companion Maurice Guibert. By 1895 however, the agile, slender dancer had metamorphosed into that of the ageing, slightly overweight clownesse. The arc of CHA-U-KA-O’s life, ending in physical ruin, was bound to attract Lautrec. Fascinated as he was by decadence and decline, it was his ability to empathize with his subjects and his willingness to show them in all their human frailty and vulnerability—off-stage rather than in the spotlight—that sets him apart from most of his contemporaries.
1 Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Print Collecting: An Early Mission for MoMA, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999, p. 3.
2 Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Print Collecting: An Early Mission for MoMA, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999, p. 14.