COLLECTORS WITH PANACHE
The Rockefeller family's stunning sculpture, ceramics, bronzes
and other works of art are on view at the Asia Society.
|By Diana Mehl
Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection of Asian Art
at the Asia Society in New York City is one of the most notable
assemblages of Asian art in the United States. Though modest
in size – with 258 objects – the collection includes numerous
masterpiece-quality works. Among its strengths are the Chinese
ceramics of the Song and Ming periods, Chola-period Indian
bronzes and early Southeast Asian sculptures.
John D. Rockefeller 3rd and Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller
viewing a display of some of their collection in the
reception area of Mr. Rockefeller's office at
Rockefeller Plaza, New York; circa 1968.
Eleven-Headed Lokeshvara, Nepal, 14th to 15th century,
gilt bronze with jewels.
John D. Rockefeller 3rd, who founded the Asia Society in 1956,
was committed to promoting a better understanding between
Asia and the United States. He believed that the best way
to learn about the complex history and sophisticated cultures
of Asian countries was through their works of art. He viewed
art as instrumental in bringing diverse cultures together.
The Rockefeller Collection was begun in earnest following
the establishment of the Asia Society, with advisor Sherman
E. Lee, a noted scholar and one of the foremost experts on
Asian art at the time, who was also director and curator at
the Cleveland Museum of Art.
John D. Rockefeller 3rd and his wife, Blanchette, were destined
to collect works of art. John had grown up surrounded by beautiful
art objects. He had the opportunity to travel extensively
and knew about the importance of preserving the past and supporting
the arts. His parents, John and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller,
had collected American, European and Asian art, including
Chinese porcelains, Islamic textiles and Iranian glazed pottery,
for which they developed special surroundings – the Abby Aldrich
Rockefeller Garden in Maine, which integrated both Eastern
and Western aesthetics; the Japanese garden with its tea house
in Pocantico; and Chinese and Buddha rooms in their New York
and Maine residences. In addition to nearly 800 Japanese prints,
Abby acquired Buddhist sculpture, Chinese carpets and Korean
In amassing their collection, John and Blanchette felt strongly
that the works should represent the finest arts of Asia and
the scope of its cultures. John had inherited a number of
ceramics upon his father's death in 1960, including Qing Dynasty
famille noir vases. He loved the intricate tracery and technical
mastery of the decoration and glazing, as did his father.
Among the works of art he and Blanchette added were Tang Dynasty
funerary pieces, Northern Song period Ding ware, Jun ware,
a Cizhou bottle with peony blossoms and foliage, porcelain
from Jingdezhen of the Ming period, medieval Buddhist images
and Indian sculpture
The permanent collection of the Asia Society is a legacy to
the Rockefeller family's dedication to sharing with the public
their love of the art and culture of Asia.
In 2006, the Asia Society celebrates its 50th anniversary.
In honor of the Rockefeller family's longstanding commitment
to Asia, the Society will host a series of programs, conferences
and galas in New York City and at Society centers throughout
the U.S. and Asia, from January through December. A Passion
for Asia: The Rockefeller Family Collects, curated by Dr.
Vishakha N. Desai, president, Asia Society, and Dr. Adriana
Proser, John H. Foster Curator for Traditional Asian Art,
Asia Society, focuses on the contributions of the Rockefeller
family as collectors of Asian art. The exhibition will feature
150 of the most important Asian art works originally purchased
and owned by family members, including objects now held in
both public and private collections.
from top left: Eight Views of Kanazawa in Moonlight (Byo
Kanzawa Hassho Yakei), Japan, Edo period (1615 - 1868),
1857, woodblock printed in colors, oban tate-e triptych. Bodhisattva,
China; Hebei province, Tang period (618-906), marble, Collection
of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Nelson A.
Rockefeller bequest, Kykuit. Dish. Japan, Edo period
(1615 - 1868), 17th century, porcelain with overglaze enamel
(Ko Kutani style). Noh Robe - Karaori With Pattern of
Pampas Grass and Chrysanthemums With Lattice Fence on an Orange-Red
Ground, Japan, Edo period (1615 - 1868), late-18th to
early-19th century, silk, gold-leafed paper. Stacked Clothing
Storage Chest (Nong), Korea, Choson dynasty (1392 - 1910),
mid-18th to early-19th century, wood with panels of reverse-painted
ox horn and brass fittings. Amitabha Buddha, China,
Ming period (1368 - 1644), gilt bronze, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller
Garden Leach Gallery. Center: the interior of the Asia Society
and Museum in New York.
Below, Charles Rockefeller discusses his family's legacy,
and their interest in and appreciation of Asian art and Asian
do you think are the most important contributions of the Rockefeller
family as collectors of Asian art?
The primary contribution of my paternal great-grandparents
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller,
and my grandparents John D. Rockefeller 3rd and his wife,
Blanchette, is their appreciation of Asian art not just as
objects of beauty but as reflections of the sophisticated
cultures from which they came. My family wasn't just
interested in the beauty and appearance of the pieces, but
in the context and meaning of the art. They showed us that
art can lead Americans and others to want to learn more about
the cultures of the countries that produced it. The U.S. can
benefit greatly from having as deep an understanding and appreciation
of Asian cultures as possible. My family had an early interest
in Asian culture and contemporary Asian-American artists such
as Noguchi, Nakashima and Kenzo Okada. They fostered the talent
and careers of those artists and introduced some of them to
My relatives were prescient art collectors. They had the foresight
to collect this art when not a lot of other people knew about
it. It was so generous of them to provide their art to the
Asia Society for everybody to enjoy.
How did your grandfather find pieces for his collection?
My grandfather would take a long time to look at, analyze
and choose the objects that he added to his collection. One
of his favorite pieces was a Bodhisattva in the front
hall of his apartment. He would study it, seeking an understanding
of and developing a personal relationship with the piece.
My father observed how much it meant to him and remarked how
much time he spent with the art.
My grandfather's Asian art advisor was Sherman Lee,
from the Cleveland Museum of Art. They were so close that
he gave a eulogy at my grandfather's funeral.
Are other family members interested in Asian art?
Anniversary Asia Society Events
24 - September 3
Exhibition sections on spirituality and
landscape will close on May 14
A Passion for Asia: The Rockefeller
Asia Society, NYC
50th Anniversary Gala Dinner
The Waldorf Astoria, NYC
International Asian Art Fair Benefit Preview
Opening for the Asia Society
Seventh Regiment Armory, NYC
June 1 - 8
Asia on My Mind: Fifty for the Fiftieth
The Asia Society's summer gala benefit
will feature 50 exclusive dinners in private
homes, each with its own theme and celebrity
guest of honor. Dinners will be held in
New York and in other cities in the U.S.
and Asia where the Asia Society maintains
50th Anniversary Public Celebration and
Open House at the Asia Society
My father [West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller] lived in
Japan for three years – in between his junior and senior
year at Harvard. He went to study at International Christian
University in Tokyo, which, for him, was a life-transforming
experience. He came back to pursue Chinese studies at Yale,
and, to this day, his work takes him to a couple of countries
in Asia every year. For 45 years, Asian culture has been a
big part of his life.
A few cousins of mine have told me about their interest in
the emerging field of contemporary Chinese painting. I have
also learned about this field through my work at Sotheby's
in business development. It just so happens that worldwide,
contemporary Chinese painting – as well as other Asian
sales – has done tremendously well lately. The current
generation is just lucky to be exposed to what we have been
What are your favorite pieces in the collection?
The sixth-century Chinese bronze food vessel Gui. It is very
decorative, and I like the concept of making art out of everyday
useful objects. The Chinese took great pride in making an
everyday object beautiful.
The Thai Bodhisattva Maitreya, an 8th-century copper
alloy with an inlay of silver-and-black stone, is both exotic
and otherworldly while being serene and introspective at the
same time – a very interesting combination.
The Japanese screen, Pheasants Under Cherry and Willow
Trees and Irises and Mist by Kano Ryokei displays a delicate
appreciation of nature.
The Indian nandi (animal) – a sacred bull.
Indian depictions of animals have a playful element to them
that I like.
What types of Asian art do you collect?
I recently received a gift of some objects from my maternal
grandparents. My grandfather Senator Charles Percy went to
India 71 times, and was known to have pioneered relations
between the U.S. and India via the Senate. Some of the objects
are depictions of animals – I fortunately received an
elephant from India and a Persian camel. The camel, which
is hundreds of years old, is still bright yellow – it's
amazing how well the color has been preserved.
Image 1: Bernard Wolf. Courtesy Rockefeller Archive Center,
image 2: Neil Greentree; clockwise from top right, image 3:
David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection, image 4: John Begelow
Taylor, image 5: David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection, image
6: Rhode Island School of Design, Museum of Art, Lucy Truman
Aldrich Collection, image 7: David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection;
Photo by Shin Hada, image 8: Photo by Malcolm Varon, image
9: Frank Oudeman. Courtesy of Asia Society.