The Splendid Spoils of Standard Oil

The Rockefeller family’s vast cultural legacy resulted from a sense of civic duty and a love of beautiful things

In the fanciful 1953 film “Bienvenido Mister Marshall,” director Luis Berlanga envisioned America’s aid to Spain as Santa Claus dropping bags of presents from a gleaming silver airplane. Within the realm of institutional arts funding, the Rockefeller family might be imagined along similar lines, showering untold bounty on the fields of culture. In 2005, for instance, David Rockefeller pledged $100 million to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the largest cash gift in the museum’s history.

Fernand Léger’s ‘Woman With a Book’ (1923), given by Nelson Rockefeller to the Museum of Modern Art; John D. Rockefeller Sr. with his son, John Jr., in 1932.

But as Suzanne Loebl rightly emphasizes in “America’s Medicis,” the Rockefellers’ patronage has been notable not only for its generosity but also for its deliberativeness. By founding such diverse institutions as MoMA, Colonial Williamsburg, the Cloisters, Riverside Church and the Asia Society—as well as by commissioning the distinguished artworks that enliven the office complex at Rockefeller Center—various members of the family have been guided by a perception that a moral responsibility comes with the possession of great wealth.

John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (1839-1937), the founder and chairman of Standard Oil, was routinely vilified in the press as a ruthless monopolist who crushed competition the way a giant might crush a bug. This harsh portrayal was not wholly inaccurate. Senior, as he is called in Ms. Loebl’s book, aggressively maintained an overwhelming market share in most aspects of the petroleum industry. And yet he was not the cold-hearted miser that some supposed. A devout Baptist, he donated substantial sums every year to one or more of the congregations he attended, as well as to associated causes, such as the American Baptist Education Society, which founded the University of Chicago with his support in 1890.

Although Senior was not a significant patron of the arts and generally regarded high culture as a frivolous distraction, he was fond of gardening and garden design, activities that he believed brought him closer, in a small way, to his creator. He personally supervised the plantings at his various residences and took great satisfaction in tending his gardens with his own hands, remarking that this simple pleasure was “unembittered by the recollection of pain or injury inflicted on others, or the loss of moral rectitude.”

In 1911, the U. S. Supreme Court found Standard Oil to be in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and ordered the breakup of the company. The resulting stock sales and divestitures presented Senior with a cash windfall of unprecedented magnitude. One of his partners, Frederick T. Gates, advised him to formulate a plan for the charitable distribution of this idle capital. “If you do not,” Gates cautioned, “it will crush you and your children and your children’s children.”

This formidable mission of philanthropy was to be the life’s work of John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874-1960), known in Ms. Loebl’s book as Junior, an earnest man who was prone, especially in his youth, to pangs of self-doubt. During the early years of the 20th century, while he struggled to find his niche in the family business, Junior dutifully taught a weekly Bible class at the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church; in connection with these duties, he penned a speech titled “The Difficulty Inherent in Being the Only Son of a Very Rich Man.”

A contemplative person, Junior enjoyed studying objects of intense craftsmanship and collected polonaise rugs, medieval tapestries and Chinese porcelain. When the porcelain owned by the late J.P. Morgan came up at auction in 1915, Junior was eager to acquire it and sent a letter to his father requesting financial assistance. “I have never squandered money on horses, yachts, automobiles, and other foolish extravagances,” he wrote, acutely aware that his proposal might meet with scorn. “Is it unwise for me to gratify a desire for beautiful things, which will be a constant joy to my friends and my children as they grow to appreciate them, as well as to myself, when it is done in so quiet and unostentatious a manner?”

Whether due to his arguments or the earnest way in which they were stated, Junior received the funds. He would later give most of his porcelain collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was also the beneficiary of his largess when it created the Cloisters, a reconstructed medieval abbey overlooking the Hudson River where his “Unicorn Tapestries” and other medieval treasures now reside. Riverside Church (1930), although primarily an expression of support for the interfaith movement, stands as a significant architectural achievement in its own right and reflects Junior’s abiding fondness for the Gothic.

Unfortunately, not everyone behaved well in the face of Rockefeller munificence. The Mexican painter Diego Rivera, commissioned to create a sprawling mural for the lobby of Rockefeller Center, chose to deviate from his preparatory drawings and place an enormous portrait of Lenin at the center of the finished composition. Refusing to amend this egregious provocation, Rivera was paid in full for his work, which was then duly destroyed. A predictable uproar ensued, garnering the artist abundant publicity, which may have been his objective all along.

Modern art and Junior were never a good fit. But he raised no objections to his wife, Abby, collecting Modernist pictures, so long as he did not have to look at them. MoMA was her project, founded with two friends, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan. As a daughter of the Rhode Island millionaire Nelson Aldrich, Abby possessed significant funds of her own with which to support the fledgling institution, but it also received direct help from Junior through a lenient lease on Rockefeller real estate.

Two of the couple’s sons, Nelson and David, took a passionate interest in MoMA. The brothers formed their own collections of modern art, most of which have since been given to the museum. Ms. Loebl, although generous, for the most part, in her assessment of personalities, draws a mixed picture of Nelson Rockefeller, whom she portrays as rather narcissistic. His grandiose effort, as governor of New York, to remake Albany with the Empire State Mall (a financial boon doggle) confirms this assessment to some degree. But his decision to endow the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s primitive-art wing in memory of his son Michael, who died on an archaeological expedition to Africa, was a poignant and creditable gesture.

Ms. Loebl’s account is well grounded both in the existing literature and in original archival research. She has striven to be comprehensive and done a good job of incorporating lesser-known Rockefeller projects, for example the charming Wendell Gilley Museum of carved birds, in Maine, funded by Nelson’s son Steven. But several worthy undertakings, such as Junior’s restoration of the châteaux of Versailles and Fontainebleau, receive scant attention—as do Laurance Rockefeller’s extensive gifts for the purpose of creating and expanding our national parks. Organizationally, the book proceeds more by topics and subtopics than by thematic development, leaving the narrative at times somewhat dry. Still, this is an illuminating and impressive portrait of the Rockefellers’ vast cultural legacy, and it is perhaps simply the case that the family’s gifts are too great to be easily assessed.

Mr. Lopez is editor-at-large of Art & Antiques and the author of “The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren.”

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