Abigail Aldrich Rockefeller, 1874-1948, was the daughter of U.S. Sen. Nelson Aldrich, patron of the arts, and advocate for women’s rights. She worked with her husband, John D. Rockefeller Jr., in restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. Through her marriage to financier and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., she was a prominent member of the Rockefeller family and was known for being the driving force behind the establishment of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Born in Providence to Senator Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich and Abigail Pearce Truman Chapman, she was a sister of Congressman Richard Steere Aldrich and banker/financier Winthrop Williams Aldrich. Educated by Quaker governesses, she was a typical young socialite of the day. After a long engagement, she married John D. Rockefeller, Jr. 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. The couple settled in New York and raised the famed five “Rockefeller Brothers” who established the renowned six-generation-strong business/philanthropic/banking/real estate dynasty.
Abby Rockefeller began collecting art paintings, watercolors, and drawings by a number of contemporary American artists in 1925, as well as a number of European modernists such as Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In 1928, she established an art gallery on the 7th floor of their New York home. Known as the Topside Gallery, this gallery allowed her to display and organize changing exhibitions of her growing collection. She integrated modern and folk art and led the way for other collectors to come.
Abby Rockefeller went on to become a prominent patron of modern art and artists in America. She was a leader in establishing the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. Due to the stock market crash and her husband’s lack of interest in modern art, financing for the museum and acquisition of paintings came from her solicitation of corporations and prominent New York individuals. In 1929, she was elected to the museum’s Board of Trustees and also served as treasurer until 1934. She was also First Vice-President from 1934″1936 and and First Vice-Chairman between 1941″1945. In addition to the MoMA, Rockefeller gave generously to other museums, including the Rhode Island School of Design, which received her collection of Japanese prints. In 1953, The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Gallery,at the MoMA opened to showcase Japanese woodblock prints from the RISD museum’s permanent collection.
A supporter of the advancement and welfare of women, Rockefeller was one of the charter founders of the Cosmopolitan Club in New York. She was also a member of numerous women’s clubs, the Faculty Club at Harvard, the Society of Mayflower descendants and served with her husband on the board of trustees of the International House of New York. She was chairman of the YWCA’s housing committee National Board in 1918. She supported the YWCA’s mission to build structures for working women. Rockefeller also contributed to the war effort during World War I and continued to start and lend a hand to other organizations supporting women.
Beginning in the mid-1920s, the Rockefellers became involved in the restoration of Williamsburg to its glory days prior to the American Revolution. Their generous funding resulted in the creation of Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, in Colonial Williamsburg is named in her honor
Abby Rockefeller suffered a heart attack and died on April 5, 1948 at the family home at 740 Park Avenue in New York City, at the age of 73. She was buried in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Her son Nelson became its president of MoMa following his mother’s tenure and involved himself in its financing and the establishment of its new permanent headquarters on 53rd Street,in 1939. Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, one of her six children, became governor of New York and vice president of the United States.