Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, (October 26, 1874 – April 5, 1948), was a prominent socialite and philanthropist and the second-generation matriarch of the renowned Rockefeller family. Referred to as the "woman in the family", she was especially noteworthy for being the driving force behind the establishment of the Museum of Modern Art, on 53rd Street in New York, in November, 1929.
She was born Abigail "Abby" Greene Aldrich in Providence, Rhode Island, the daughter of the influential Senator Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, and the former Abby Pearce Truman Chapman, a distant descendant of the fourth signer of the Mayflower Compact. Her sister, Lucy Aldrich, who was nearly completely deaf (at the time thought because of a childhood bout of scarlet fever, now believed to be the result of waardenburg syndrome, a genetic anomaly found in several generations of the Aldrich family), would be one of her closest friends throughout their lives, and is believed to have fostered Abby's interest in American folk art.
Her early education came at the hands of Quaker governesses. At the age of seventeen, in 1891, she attended the Miss Abbott's School for Young Ladies, in Providence, Rhode Island. While there she studied English composition and literature, French, German, art history and ancient history, gymnastics, and dancing. She graduated in 1893 and made her debut in November 1893.
On June 30, 1894, she sailed for Liverpool, beginning a lifetime of extensive European and later Asian travel. The aesthetic education she gained from abroad, initially fostered by her father, helped to inform her future discernment as an art collector. This initial four-month sojourn included the countries of England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and France.
In the fall of 1894 she met her future husband, John Davison Rockefeller, Jr., the sole son and scion of the wealthy oil industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, at a friend's house in Providence. They went through a protracted engagement, during which they were invited for a trip to Cuba in 1900, on President William McKinley's yacht. They finally married on October 9, 1901, in the major society wedding of the Gilded Age, in front of around a thousand of the elite personages of the time, at her father's summer home in Warwick Neck, Kent County, Rhode Island.
They settled in 13 West 54th Street from 1901 until 1913, when the construction of the nine-story mansion at 10 West 54th Street, the largest in New York city at the time, was completed by her husband. They resided at Number 10 until 1938, when they moved to a 40-room triplex apartment at 740 Park Avenue.
They became the parents of six children, including the famed five "Rockefeller Brothers" - and established the renowned six-generation-strong business/philanthropic/banking/real estate dynasty:
She died at the family home at 740 Park Avenue in New York City, at the age of 73.
Abby Rockefeller began collecting paintings, watercolors, and drawings by a number of contemporary American artists in 1925, as well as a number of European modernists: Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
In 1929, she employed a designer to create a suite of art deco rooms and furnishings for herself on the 7th floor of their nine-story house at 10 West Fifty-fourth Street. Called the Topside Gallery, it allowed her to display and organize changing exhibitions of her growing collection, integrating modern and folk art. Visitors took the elevator directly to the 7th floor, bypassing the private domain of the rest of her family. The news of her interests and activities spread quickly from this period, and many subsequent collectors began to follow her lead.
She became a prominent patron of modern art and artists in America, using the example of their European predecessors, such as Picasso and Matisse. Most notable was her avid interest in becoming the driving force in the establishment and ongoing operations of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, on November 7, 1929, nine days after the Wall Street Crash. In this project she could not rely on financing from her husband, who was repelled by much of modern abstract painting, nor did she have great wealth of her own to draw on as she received only an allowance from him. Financing for the museum and acquisition of paintings came from her solicitation of corporations and prominent New York individuals.
She was elected to the museum's Board of Trustees in October 1929 and also served as inaugural treasurer from 1929 until 1934. Other roles included terms as First Vice-President (1934-1936) and First Vice-Chairman (1941-1945). Her son Nelson subsequently became its president and involved himself in its financing and the establishment of its new permanent headquarters on 53rd Street, in 1939.
The Art Gallery named in her honor, The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Gallery, designed by architect Philip Johnson and opened in 1953, showcases Japanese woodblock prints from the permanent collection at The Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (The RISD Museum). In 1949, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Print Room opened at MoMA, housing Abby's gift of 1600 prints, which had been given nine years earlier.
In addition to her gifts to the MoMA, Mrs Rockefeller gave substantially to other museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Cloisters, which received much of her collection of sculpture and decorative arts, as well as to the Rhode Island School of Design, which received her collection of Japanese prints.
With a lifelong dedication to the advancement and welfare of women, Abby was one of the charter founders of the Cosmopolitan Club in New York. She was also a member of the Colony Club, the Women's City Club, the National Society of Colonial Dames, the Women's National Republican Club, the Faculty Club of Harvard University, the Society of Mayflower Descendants, and the Garden Club of America, among others. Along with her husband, she also served on the board of trustees of the International House of New York.
For decades she was involved with the YWCA's National Board, starting as chairman of its housing committee in 1918, building demonstration structures to accommodate working women contributing to the war effort, including, in 1919, the Bayway Cottage and Community House, in New Jersey, with financing from her husband.
She was later to chair the Grace Dodge Hotel committee for fifteen years, organizing the construction of a major hotel for business and professional women involved in government work, as well as accommodating city visitors to Washington.
In the mid 1920s, Abby and John Rockefeller Junior were contacted by Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, who was rector of Bruton Parish Church and an instructor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. After seeing Dr. Goodwin's restored church, they explored further his concept of a massive restoration of the city to its glory days prior to the American Revolution, as the capital of the Virginia Colony. They became committed to funding the project, which commenced in 1927.
The result was Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum which has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world. One of the museums within the complex, The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, is named in her honor. .