Known as “the banker’s banker” with Chase Manhattan and as a U.S. unofficial diplomat, David Rockefeller was also a real expert in the art that he collected, spanning early Impressionism to the European and American classics and antiquities from all civilizations. 

David Rockefeller died on March 20th, 2017 in his sleep at home in Pocantico Hills, New York, as a result of congestive heart failure, according to a family spokesperson Fraser P. Seitel. 

The businessman, who had an estimated fortune of $3 billion, is said to have donated almost $2 billion over his lifetime to various institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, his alma mater Harvard, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Rockefeller University founded on the basis of his family-sponsored medical research center.

David was the youngest of six children born to John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the grandson of Standard Oil co-founder and the United States’ first billionaire John D. Rockefeller. 

Abby Aldrich and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., with their children in Seal Harbor, Maine, 1921.

From left to right: Laurance, Babs, John 3rd, David, Winthrop, and Nelson. (Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center)

Both David's father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, were interested in art. Father was fond of the Renaissance, classical and oriental art, as well as antiquity. Mother’s taste was eclectic and ranged from the ancient world to the Modern art from Europe to the U.S.

Being exposed to the art since his birth, David started making his own choice in selecting artworks he liked when he was 10 years old. His mother, Abby, let him choose paintings for his room and he picked watercolors by a French artist DeWeese.

She constantly encouraged and expanded David’s interest in the art. He recalled in his eighties, "I learned more from my mother than from all the art historians and curators who have informed me about technical aspects of art history and art appreciation over the years... I owe much to mother. She had an expert’s understanding, but also approached art emotionally. She taught us to be open to all art, to allow color, texture, content, composition to speak to us." 
David outside the Rockefeller home in Seal Harbor, Maine, in the mid-1920s with his mother, Abby,
who imparted to him her life-long love of art. (Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center)

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, along with Miss Lillie P. Bliss and Mrs. Cornelius J. Sullivan, founded New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1929.

"MoMA has been part of my life from the very beginning because as a young boy, I would sit in on some of the discussions between the three ladies who started it, one of them being my mother."

In the late 1940s, David replaced his mother on the museum’s board. He has served the MоМА with great distinction in many capacities, including two terms as Chairman of the Board of Trustees and as Honorary Chairman.

As Chairman of the MoMA for many years Mr. David Rockefeller encouraged corporations to buy and display art in their office buildings and to subsidize local museums. He lined the walls and filled office space on 56 floors above the streets at Rockefeller Center with hundreds art works and renowned masterpieces from his collection by artists including Fernando Botero, Willem de Kooning, Paul Gauguin, Claude Manet, Pablo Picasso and Mark Rothko to list a few.

1.1. David Rockefeller is in his Chase Manhattan office in 1972. Credit Michael Evans/The New York Times
1.2. Mr. Rockefeller and the French sculptor Jean Dubuffet, whose 22-ton, 40-foot sculpture for the Museum of Modern Art stands behind them. The sculpture was dedicated in October 1972. Credit Carl T. Gossett/The New York Times

David Rockefeller also contributed $77 million toward the MoMA’s $858 renovation and expansion plan.

In 2001, Mr. Rockefeller (left) with former NY Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani at the groundbreaking for the expansion of the MoMA.

Credit Bill Cunningham/The New York Times

In 2005, the year of his ninetieth birthday, David Rockefeller announced a bequest of $100 million to the MoMA, the largest gift in its history.

Donated as “fractional gifts,” these include five paintings by Pablo Picasso, three by Paul Cézanne, two by Pierre Bonnard, and one each by Georges Braque, André Derain, Raoul Dufy, Sam Francis, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and Paul Signac.

The group of nine exceptional early modern European paintings was exhibited in July-August 2009 at MoMA displayed as “Cézanne to Picasso: Paintings from the David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection.” Thematically, the ensemble provided a small survey of portraiture, landscape, and still-life painting during the early period of modern art, featuring superb examples of Post-Impressionist, Fauvist, and Cubist painting.

1.1. Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Fruit Dish. 1879-80
1.2. Pablo Picasso, The Reservoir, Horta de Ebro Horta de San Joan, summer 1909

Over the years, David Rockefeller has given the MoMA numerous paintings, prints and drawings from his extensive personal collection amassed by him and his wife, Peggy McGrath. He has also lent paintings to other museums around the world.

André Derain, Charing Cross Bridge London. 1905-06

According to the New York Times, Mr. Rockfeller owned an extensive art collection of about 15,000 works, including hundreds of paintings as well as decorative arts objects such as colored glass, porcelain, petrified wood and furniture.

Paul Signac, Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890. 1890

Although he himself declined to specify the amount of collecting he has done or how much he has spent on the acquisition of art, as reported by NBC, it was once valued at $500 million.

Mr. Rockefeller with a Mark Rothko painting that he sold at auction in 2007. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

When David Rockefeller sold a 1950 Mark Rothko painting from his collection at Sotheby’s in 2007, it went for $72.8 million—a record at the time for a postwar work sold at auction.

Édouard Manet, La brioche, 1870

In David Rockefeller’s collection were paintings, drawings, and prints by Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Alfred Sisley, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Willem de Kooning, Georgia O’Keeffe, Lucian Freud, and Chuck Close among many others.

1.1. Paul Cézanne, Boy in a Red Vest. 1888-90
1.2. Pablo Picasso, Young Girl with a Basket of Flowers. Paris. Spring 1905

Mr. Rockefeller donated his parent’s collection to New York’s Asia Society. He also founded the JPMorgan Chase Art Collection in 1959, which now oversees more than 30,000 objects in 450 corporate offices around the globe.

1.1. Georges Braque, The Large Trees L'Estaque. 1906-07
1.2. Henri Matisse, Interior with a Young Girl (Girl Reading). Paris, 1905-06

David Rockefeller's philanthropy was monumental and so was his art collection. However, he was not an irrational collector at all, “When I see something I like, I buy it, but I do not look for it madly. I try to be reasonable. The price one pays should be relative, first to one’s pocket but also to the quality and pleasure that the piece will give you.” 

Pierre Auguste Renoir, Gabrielle at the Mirror, 1910

By his own admission, Rockefeller was startled and bewildered when it came to contemporary art. “When I return to the comforting confines of my home and its Cézannes, Signacs, and Derains glowing peaceably around me, I feel relieved,” he confessed in his interview to The Art Newspaper. As a real expert in art, he, nonetheless, knew well enough that once these artists also violated the fine arts basics, and their art work was deemed as vulgar and meaningless. So, he gave contemporary art a chance saying, "Perhaps the present generation of “modern” artists has more to offer than I am giving them credit for."

Written by Natalia Korchina on materials by

All paintings illustrate David Rockefeller's collection.