ROCKEFELLERS is one of the wealthiest and most influential families in America. Their contribution to the fields of art, culture and education is nearly unmatched by anyone, anywhere. Over thirty institutions in America bear the “imprint of this legendary family.”
Rockefellers are one of the most written about also. More than 200 books have been written on them. A latest book America’s Medicis: The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy by Suzanne Loebl focuses on the family’s contribution to art. Medici was the ruler of Florence in the fifteenth century, during Renaissance and is known for patronizing artists.
The connection between Rockefeller and art began with Abby and John D Rockefeller Jr. John was partial to sculptures and was keen on artistic perfection, and aesthetic appeal. Abby’s interests were more broad-based and wide ranging. Together they collected art objects and filled their home, shifted houses to accommodate their precious collections and passed on their passion to their six children. John’s father had made money in oil and Abby’s father was a self-made businessman.
Suzanne Loebl, prolific art writer and author of fourteen books, meticulously goes through the major purchases made by the couple. The Rockefellers kept systematic records not only of their buys but the letters as well. The mother, father and the children – they all wrote to each other, even while living in the same house. John was not keen on modern art at all. But Abby was, in fact she worked to buy and promote the new artists. Since John did not like them, she used the money from her inheritance from her father. John quietly added to her money, $25,000 a month to indulge herself.
One of the interesting anecdotes mentioned in the book is about how John acquired two tall Black Hawthorn vases, created in China during 16th-17th century. He fell in love with them and did not have the $1.5 million to buy them. He applied to the father for a loan, who promptly refused, considering it a wasteful expenditure. The son, undaunted wrote, “I have never squandered money on horses, yachts, automobiles and other foolish extravagances. A fondness for these porcelains is my only hobby – the only thing on which I have cared to spend money- The money put into these porcelains is not lost or squandered- Is it unwise for me to gratify a desire for beautiful things, which will be a constant joy to my friends and to my children as they grow to appreciate them, as well as to myself, when it is done in so quiet and unostentatious manner?” Moved by the letter, the father not only advanced the money, but made it a gift.
The Rockefellers discovered a taste for Asian art objects and enriched their collection with material mainly from China and Japan.
What sets this family apart from several other passionate art collectors is that it was not a mere pass time of the rich for them. They loved art and architecture, and contributed to their flourishing by donating space, buildings, their collections and setting up centres for patronage. Thus, the Museum of Modern Art, the Rockefeller Centre, Lincoln Centre, the Cloisters, and nearly a dozen museums sponsored by them stand testimony to their commitment.
Art today has become a commercial proposition, with art collectors only in the business of buying and selling. Given that scenario, the work done by the Rockefellers stands even taller, as they as a family added a national purpose to their passion. Suzanne Loebl has used the well-documented family sources and collated their service to art.
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