The Rockefellers and the Age of America
The Rockefellers were instrumental in creating the prosperity that made the USA the world’s leading power, and they led the way in preserving the nation’s natural and cultural heritage
Only the America of legend — with its pioneering industrialists, fiercely independent women, and vast natural resources — could have served as the backdrop for the Rockefeller family saga, in which an ambitious young man rose to unparalleled success through faith and fortitude.
That family patriarch, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., came to prominence just under 150 years ago with the founding of Standard Oil. Yet such is the power of the mythic American Dream that ‘Rockefeller’ has, across generations, come to symbolise an enduring, uniquely American brand of success.
In 1927, composer Irving Berlin invited audiences to come ‘mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks’; nearly 70 years later, the rapper Jay-Z founded Roc-a-Fella Records in a nod toward that ultimate vision of achievement.
'Their civic patronage has been a truly multi-generational endeavour, encompassing the entirety of the American experience'
Beyond the Rockefellers’ place in the popular imagination are the monumental contributions the family has made throughout the United States; contributions that, combined with their all-American success story, have kept them in the public eye.
Their civic patronage has been a truly multi-generational endeavour, encompassing the entirety of the American experience: from the preservation of the nation’s pre-independence heritage at Colonial Williamsburg, to national parks such as Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and urban renewal projects in New York City and beyond. From John D. Rockefeller’s modest roots came an unwavering commitment to the greater community that has lasted to the present day.
Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, left, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., discussing plans for the Williamsburg restoration, 1928. Photo: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center
From a young age, David Rockefeller witnessed these philanthropic ventures expand across the country. He was there in 1926 as the family toured the ‘sleepy village’ of Williamsburg, Virginia, the state’s colonial capital and home to a striking number of historically significant buildings. Local preservationist W.A.R. Goodwin guided David’s parents, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, through Williamsburg’s historic streets, espousing the potential in restoring the town to its vibrant colonial past. Williamsburg, Goodwin declared, was ‘an opportunity to create a shrine that would bear witness to the faith and the devotion and the sacrifice of the [American] national builders’.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller camping in Montana, 1926. Photo: Laurance S Rockefeller, courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center
Under ‘Junior’s’ patronage, the town became Colonial Williamsburg, one of the USA’s most important historical sites. As David later wrote in his memoirs, the transformation of Colonial Williamsburg gave his father — the man whose heritage initiatives included excavations at Luxor and the restoration of Versailles — ‘as much pleasure as anything he did in the field of philanthropy during his lifetime’.
The Rockefellers’ embrace of American history would greatly influence their collecting. Peggy and David’s penchant for 18th-century furniture and decorative art — an aesthetic that dominated their residences in Manhattan and Pocantico Hills, New York — emerged as David assisted his parents in acquiring important period pieces for Colonial Williamsburg.
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller was a trailblazing, polymathic collector who found inspiration in fields as widespread as Buddhist sculpture, Japanese textiles, and modern European painting and sculpture. In the late 1920s, she turned her eye closer to home, assembling what would become the USA’s premier collection of folk art.
‘Few, if any, of my mother’s many interests gave her more pleasure than her collection of American folk art,’ Abby’s son Winthrop Rockefeller observed, ‘and none... more clearly demonstrates her deep pride in the cultural life of the American people.’ Acquired with the assistance of notable New York gallerist Edith Halpert and first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932, the grouping showcased Abby’s intuitive appreciation of beauty.
In Abby’s view, a metal weathervane by an anonymous American craftsman could stand proudly with MoMA’s boldest international pictures. In 1940, she bequeathed works from her seminal folk collection to Colonial Williamsburg, where the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum continues to expand today.
Peggy and David built their own collection of American works that, hanging alongside their renowned examples of Impressionist and Modern art, illustrated the centuries-long vitality of the USA’s cultural production. Many of the American works in the collection, including folk art and paintings by 20th-century artists, were gifts from Abby. The couple were enthralled by what David described as the ‘fine talents of American craftsmen and artists’ — figures whose output spanned the entirety of the nation’s art-historical canon.
These included not only modern American artists favoured by Abby — including Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Davies — but also venerable painters such as Gilbert Stuart, George Inness and John Singer Sargent. Sargent’s ties to the Rockefellers began when the artist painted a portrait of ‘Senior’; so taken was Sargent with his subject — ‘Grandfather reminded him of a medieval saint,’ David noted — that the artist insisted on painting a second picture of the famed Standard Oil founder.
Peggy and David’s collection of American art encompassed works as diverse as Stuart’s iconic portrait of George Washington, a gift from Junior that hung prominently in the couple’s dining room; hand-carved wooden hunting decoys; landscapes by artists such as Fairfield Porter; and Latin American paintings representing ‘the enormous talents,’ in David’s words, ‘of... artists to the south’.
During his lifetime, Junior was one of America’s most prominent conservationists, and provided millions of dollars to the national parks and US archaeological exploration. In 1926, he took his family on a cross-country journey aboard a private Pullman train carriage. In locales including Santa Fe, Taos and Mesa Verde, David and his parents acquired works by Native American artists, including the famed Pueblo potter Maria Martinez, who was later asked by the family to lay a cornerstone at Rockefeller Center.
In California, the 11-year-old David stood under coastal redwood trees protected by his father’s sizable (and anonymous) financial backing; at Yellowstone, another place of Rockefeller patronage, David rode to Old Faithful on horseback. Following his sophomore year at Harvard, David joined an entomological expedition to the Grand Canyon; Junior surprised his son with a week-long visit to Arizona, where the pair visited Monument Valley, the Anasazi ruins in Canyon de Chelly, and Hopi villages in the Painted Desert.
‘In those days there were no paved roads in that part of Arizona and there were few visitors,’ David recalled. ‘It is a hauntingly beautiful and wild section of our country, and it meant a great deal to me to have been able to spend a week there alone with my father.’ It was, David noted, ‘one of the best times we ever had together’.
Junior was instrumental in the creation and expansion of America’s national parks, purchasing and gifting vast expanses of land at now-treasured sites such as Acadia, the Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Teton and Yosemite.
In later years, Peggy and David would continue this Rockefeller family tradition through initiatives such as the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture and land conservation in New York and Maine. It was on Maine’s Mount Desert Island that Junior built his family’s grand summer home, the Eyrie, and where he and his family drove antique carriages through Acadia, the national park whose conservation he funded. ‘They were marvels of engineering and meticulous planning,’ David said of his father’s carriage trails, ‘and provided spectacular views of the ocean, mountains, lakes and forests.’
David and Peggy Rockefeller visiting a ranch in Texas. Photo: Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center
The Rockefellers’ impact on the urban landscape was equally impressive: in New York City alone, the family was responsible for projects including the Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park, Riverside Church and, most famously, the landmark Rockefeller Center.
America’s natural riches, combined with its ideals of industry and ingenuity, allowed the Rockefellers to undertake their philanthropic enterprise. Few families have benefited so greatly from, and contributed so greatly to, the United States. Throughout the 20th century, David and his siblings would widen the scope of the family’s impact in politics, business, art and philanthropy. The Rockefeller name, synonymous with American leadership since the days of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., now resonates around the world.