Online Exhibition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation Highlights the Portraits of Kykuit's Residents

By Katrina London

In June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation launched a new online collections portal to showcase artworks and artifacts from their 27 historic sites across America. The site hosts digital collections and specially-curated exhibitions, including a debut exhibit of portraits from Kykuit, the historic home of four generations of the Rockefeller family.

Portrayals of its former residents, commissioned from prominent artists of the 20th century, are among the most important paintings in Kykuit’s extensive collection. Portraiture requires careful consideration of how to present a subject both favorably and authentically, including artist and style, dress and surroundings, and the location where the picture will be displayed. Kykuit’s portraits thus not only provide visitors with the opportunity to view the primary residents of this remarkable country estate but, upon further inquiry, reveal interesting facets of the artist-patron relationship, each subject’s interests, and other cultural or historical factors that influenced these paintings.

This inaugural exhibition includes portraits of each of Kykuit’s primary residents from its completion in 1913 to its designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1976: John D. Rockefeller (John Singer Sargent, 1917); Laura Spellman Rockefeller (James Jebusa Shannon, 1906); John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (Frank O. Salisbury, 1947); Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (Adele McGinnis Herter, 1907); Nelson Rockefeller (Andy Warhol, 1967); and Happy Rockefeller (Warhol, 1968-69).

Little was known about the remarkable portrait of Laura Spelman Rockefeller, a gift to the National Trust for Historic Preservation from the estate of Laurance S. Rockefeller, which currently hangs in the entryway to The Pocantico Center's Abeyton Lodge building. Correspondence from the Rockefeller Archive Center indicates only that James Jebusa Shannon was paid $7,500—approximately $210,000 in today’s dollars—upon completing the portrait in 1906.

Looking at the painting, I was struck by the ornate gilded wingback armchair in which Laura is pictured, as my previous research had indicated that John and Laura did not own any furniture of this style. This led me to wonder where the portrait had been painted, if not at the Rockefeller residences.

I began to research the artist further and eventually came across Seeking Beauty: Paintings by James Jebusa Shannon, a 2014 exhibition catalogue written by Barbara Dayer Gallati, the foremost expert on Shannon. Although the artist is not well known today, the catalogue indicates that Shannon was considered a rival of John Singer Sargent and very much in demand in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Further reading showed that, although he had taken up permanent residence in London, Shannon rented a studio in New York for a short time between 1904 and 1907, which is almost certainly where he painted Laura in 1906. An image of his London studio illustrated in the catalogue depicts an armchair that matches the one pictured in Laura’s portrait. Clearly Shannon admired the chair, and perhaps brought it with him from London or acquired a similar one for his work in New York.

This combination of careful visual analysis and traditional research methods revealed long-forgotten details of a family treasure and historic artifact. This kind of piecing together bits of information in order to paint a picture of the story behind a work of art is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.

The complete online exhibit, Family Resemblances: Portraits of Kykuit’s Primary Residents, 1906-1968, is now available to the public at the National Trust’s online collection portal at savingplaces.org/collections. I hope you will enjoy viewing and reading about some of the fascinating objects in the collection, and I look forward to sharing more of Kykuit’s storied past through future exhibitions.