The rebuilding of international relations following the end of the Second World War ushered in a new generation of art collectors, some of whom had lived and worked in Asia during the war. John D. Rockefeller 3rd and his wife Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller were part of this generation.

Adriana Proser
Adriana Proser

Mr. Rockefeller, founder of Asia Society and a son of collectors John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, played a significant role in fostering cultural understanding and cooperation between Asia and the United States during this period. Rockefeller first became involved in the international politics of Asia through his work for the 1951 peace mission to Japan led by John Foster Dulles. His work, and his own interests, led to extensive travel in Asia and the formation of strong friendships throughout the region.

He grew up surrounded by his parents’ collection of Chinese and Japanese ceramics, Japanese prints, and Buddhist sculpture works they had acquired. Rockefeller’s taste and interest in Asian art, however, would extend beyond those of his parents. His focus on Asian art and the selection of objects for his collection were directly tied to the politics of the world he lived in. Unlike his parents and other great collectors of Asian art- such as Charles Lang Freer, Avery Brundage and Norton Simon – Rockefeller and his wife saw a benefit that went well beyond ownership of these works. They hoped that through their support of Asian art and culture they would have a direct impact on international relations, ultimately improving understanding between the citizens of the United States and Asia.

Rockefeller made his first trip to Asia in 1929 as part of a world tour embarked upon his graduation from Princeton. Many of his initial impressions, including his awe upon seeing examples of Chinese and Japanese art and architecture, are recorded in the notebooks that were his diary of these travels. Though fascinated by what he encountered, at this stage of his life he made no mention of an interest in collecting Asian art.

Asia Society, New York
Mirror. North China, reportedly found in Henan Province. Tang period, about 8th century. Bronze with gold and silver inlays in lacquer. H. 5 7/8 x W. 5 7/8 in. (14.9 x 14.9 cm). Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.119. Photography by Lynton Gardiner, Asia Society

Sixteen years later, with the end of the war in 1945, the art historian Sherman E. Lee—who would become Rockefeller’s art advisor—set foot in Japan and China for the first time. In 1963 Lee began to collaborate with Rockefeller to build what would become the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection. The nature of the Rockefeller Collection owes a great deal to the experiences of Lee and Rockefeller in Asia, and Japan in particular, during the years 1946–1953. An understanding of that experience is critical if we wish to comprehend the nature of the collection and Rockefeller’s aspirations for it.

From 1946 to 1948 Lee worked in Japan for the Arts and Monuments Division of the Supreme Commander Allied Forces in the Pacific, as part of the effort to reestablish relations
between the United States and Japan. In this capacity, he inventoried and thus came to know major private Japanese art collections, as well as the collections of the Tokyo National Museum and the imperial household’s Shōsō-in warehouse in Nara.

Bodhisattva. Nepal
Bodhisattva. Nepal. Early Malla period, 13th century. Gilt copper with inlays of semiprecious stones. H. 18 3/4 in. (47.6 cm). Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.49. Photography by Synthescape

Lee had already returned to the United States from Japan, and was working as a curator at the Seattle Art Museum, when Rockefeller visited Japan in connection with the Peace Treaty Mission in 1951. Although their paths had previously crossed, it wasn’t until the early 1950s that they found themselves working on the major international loan exhibition Art Treasures from Japan. The show opened at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, in conjunction with the San Francisco Peace Conference in 1953. The exhibition toured to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Seattle Art Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston. With more than 420,000 viewers, the exhibition was a triumph of cultural diplomacy, which both Lee and Rockefeller experienced first-hand.

Three years later Rockefeller founded Asia Society, and soon he and his wife began to consider building a collection of Asian art in a focused and methodical manner. Prior to this they had acquired art as most collectors had, buying the occasional appealing object to remind them of a place or culture they had visited.

Krishna Dancing on Kaliya
Krishna Dancing on Kaliya (Kaliyahimarddaka Krishna). India, Tamil Nadu. Chola period, late 10th–early 11th century. Copper alloy. H. 34 1/2 x W. 16 x D. 11 in. (87.6 x 40.6 x 27.9 cm). Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.22. Photography by Synthescape

From 1963 until Rockefeller’s death in 1978, the Rockefellers employed Lee as their art advisor and the three collaborated to build a collection of antiquities from South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and the Himalayas. In 1974 the Rockefellers announced their bequest of the majority of their Asian collection to Asia Society and that year Lee wrote about the Rockefellers’ approach. They had, he said: “emphasized the human scale of the collection, preferring smaller, choicer groupings of works to an indigestible mass display.”
Lee added that the Rockefellers had acquired the objects based on “their capacity to be understood and enjoyed by the interested layman rather than only to be studied by the specialized scholar.” 1

For all these years, the couple were intimately involved in the choice of objects for their collection. Their focus was on quality; they were not interested in buying in bulk or acquiring art for the sake of investment. They wanted to form a group of great works created by great cultures. The bequest of Asian art from the Rockefeller estate to Asia Society ultimately amounted to nearly 300 objects, all of which: “stirred and lifted” the Rockefellers.2 It was their profound wish that the collection would do the same for those who came to the Asia Society. We are pleased to report, six decades after our founding, and 40 years after the bequest, that objects from the Rockefeller Collection have been featured in some 35 exhibitions, and they have toured museums across the United States and Asia. Visitors from all over the world have been “stirred and lifted”, as our founder was, and as he so fervently wished for others. Because as Rockefeller understood at an early stage, art was much more than a source of pride and beauty; it was a tool for global understanding.

1 Statement by Dr. Sherman E. Lee Director, The Cleveland Museum of Art,p. 1,2, JDR 3rd Papers, record group 5, series 3, sub-series 5, box 75, folder 517, Rockefeller Archive Center.

2 Letter from John D. Rockefeller 3rd to George Ball, January 31, 1974, JDR 3rd Papers, Record Group 5, series 3, sub-series 5, box 75, folder 517, Rockefeller Archive Center.