“Look,” I told my friend Rochelle, with whom I was spending the afternoon at MoMA, “this was Nelson Rockefeller’s gift to the museum on its twenty-fifth birthday.” We were looking at Henri Rousseau’s The Dream, a surrealistic painting in which a naked woman, stretched out on a red velvet couch, is surrounded by jungle plants, lions, elephants and exotic birds. Max Wheeler, an American Cubist painter, happened to be at MoMA when Nelson’s gifts arrived at MoMA in 1954. He recalled his visit to Rousseau’s Paris studio in 1910, where the unfinished The Dream hung on a wall, whose size was that of the canvas. Wheeler remembered how Rousseau methodically filled the canvas, from left to right, as if he was copying it from an image preformed in his mind. Shortly thereafter, when The Dream was exhibited at the Salons des Independents, the press ridiculed it. Rousseau died shortly thereafter and eventually he gained fame in his native land as well as abroad. Ensuring that glory would come to painters in their life-time was one of the important reasons that Abby Rousseau, as well as her son David, are sponsoring contemporary artists. No question that Rousseau would have been proud to know that his The Dream, as well as his Sleeping Gypsy, have become star attractions at one of the world’s foremost museums of modern art.
I spent years gathering information about MoMA’s art works for America’s Medicis: The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy — published in November 2010 by Harper Collins–and now drowned my friend Rochelle with information: “Look at The Girl with the Mirror by Picasso,” I urged her, “it is the first painting that Alfred Barr—the founding director—bought with Olga Guggenheim’s blank check; look at the Demoiselle’s D’Avignons, bought with Lilly Bliss’s money; the Lehmbruck statues were given by Abby…that painting used to belong to Gertrude Stein…” If I had not stopped myself, I would have gone on overwhelming her with my stories. In-depth learning about a variety of topics is one of the major benefits of being a writer.
Even though the Rockefellers founded a wealth of museums, MoMA is central to their cultural legacy. Abby and her friends founded it in 1929. After only six months they opened their first exhibition in six rented galleries, in the Heckscher Building, a Manhattan office building. Nelson, Abby and John D. Jr’s second eldest son, presided over the museum during its adolescent growth spurt, and David, their youngest child, guided it into becoming a mega-museum. All three had the distinction of working with Alfred H. Barr, whom the doyenne hired when he was a mere twenty-seven years old.
As one of many Rockefeller chroniclers, I had the pleasure of unraveling the history and significance of some of the millions of art objects the museum now owns. Of the sixteen chapters that make up America’s Medicis, three long ones are devoted to MoMA. For the museum will never be the same. As my visit with Rochelle proved, I almost feel as if I owned the place! How “rich” can one person get? It is almost as if I had won the lottery.
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