The Advisor: Sherman E. Lee and Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd

Art historian, curator, teacher, and museum director Sherman E. Lee (1918–2008) was a major force in the world of Asian Art in the United States. His considerable influence is apparent in the works he selected for the remarkable collections of the Seattle Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Asia Society Museum’s Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection. Lee’s book A History of Far Eastern Art, first published in 1964, was used as the standard text for the study of Asian Art for over a decade. Lee studied at Western Reserve University in Cleveland under his mentor Howard Coonly Hollis (1899–1995). His later experiences in Japan served to enhance this formal art historical and connoisseurship training.

Sherman E. Lee served as advisor to Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd (JDR 3rd) from 1963 to 1978, when the collection was donated to Asia Society. Lee helped the couple assemble one of the most spectacular private collections of Asian art in the United States by introducing them to major dealers and informing them of important pieces that were available.

Both Lee and JDR 3rd had extraordinary knowledge of the art and politics of Asia, and their partnership led to a very particular vision of collection building. The Rockefeller collection, Lee said, was “one that insists on the highest possible quality in the objects acquired and on their capacity to be understood and enjoyed by the interested layman rather than only to be studied by the specialized scholar.”1 For the Rockefellers, however, their goal in building a collection went beyond this. JDR 3rd felt a responsibility to contribute to understanding and cooperation between Asia and the United Sates.

1Asia Society Advance for Release in Morning Papers, 1974

Hon’ami Kōetsu (Japanese, 1558–1637) and Tawaraya Sōtastsu (Japanese, died ca. 1640)
Calligraphy by Kōetsu of Waka Poems from Shinkokin wakashū
Edo period (1615–1868), early 17th century
Handscroll; ink, gold, and silver on paper
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund, 1966.118


Hon’ami Kōetsu (Japanese, 1558–1637)
Poem Scroll with Selections from the Anthology of Chinese and Japanese Poems for Recitation (Wakan Rōei shū)
Edo period (1615–1868), dated 1626
Handscroll; ink and gold on silk
Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.214


In his A History of Far Eastern Art, Sherman E. Lee states that the school of art associated with Hon’ami Koetsu and Tawaraya Sotatsu (the Rinpa school) is representative of the “culmination of later Japanese decorative style.” Lee acquired the scroll on display with poems from Shinkokin wakashÅ« in 1966; Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd acquired their scroll four years later in 1970.

Both scrolls feature the bold forms and lavish surfaces associated with the work of these two artists. The poems on the Cleveland scroll, in Japanese, and those on the Rockefeller collection scroll, in both Chinese and Japanese, are written in Kōetsu’s distinctive, elegant cursive calligraphy.

Head of Buddha
Gupta period (320–647), 5th century
The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severence Fund, 1963.504


India, Uttar Pradesh, Sarnath area
Gupta period (320–647), about 475
Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.5


The frontality, precise gestures, and organic treatment of the figures seen in this Buddha from the Rockefeller collection, as well as in the Buddha head from the Cleveland Museum, are noted as characteristics of Gupta sculpture—the “classic creation of Buddhism in India”—in Sherman E. Lee’s A History of Far Eastern Art. The graceful proportions, relaxed posture, clinging drapery, and slight introspective smiles also are characteristic of this period.
Meiping Vase
Southern Song period (1127–1279), 13th century
Glazed porcelain (Longquan ware)
The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severence Fund, 1957.52


China, Zhejiang Province
Southern Song period (1127–1279), late 12th–early 13th century
Stoneware with glaze (Ge ware)
Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.146


In his A History of Far Eastern Art, Sherman E. Lee explained that the ceramics of the Chinese Song period ”achieved a unity of the essentials of the ceramic art which has never been surpassed.” Both Asia Society’s Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd collection and the Cleveland Museum of Art collection include superb examples of Song period wares acquired under Lee’s recommendation. 

These rare Song period pieces demonstrate the Song potters’ desire to produce wares that rivaled the qualities of jade, a highly honored material in China due to its appealing appearance and symbolism of virtue and permanence. The graceful porcelain body of the vase is covered by a thick, lustrous sea green glaze, typical of wares from the Longquan area in Zhejiang province. The incense burner, created for the court of the Southern Song dynasty, is modeled after a bronze ritual vessel called gui that was produced during the Shang (ca. 1600–1100 BCE) and Zhou (ca. 1100–256 BCE) periods.

Bodhisattva Maitreya
Thailand, Buriram province, Prasat Hin Khao Plai Bat II
8th century
Copper alloy with inlaid black glass eyes
Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.63


This cast image of the Bodhisattva Maitreya (the Buddha of the Future) is one of the finest eighth-century Southeast Asian bronze sculptures in the world. It is also considered by many to be the crown jewel of the Rockefeller collection. The scanty clothing, long matted hair, and lack of jewelry indicate that this image represents Maitreya as an ascetic bodhisattva, a type found throughout Southeast Asia from the seventh through ninth century.

Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd purchased the sculpture in 1966. Eleven years later, Mr. Rockefeller wrote a letter to the London dealer who sold him the sculpture, demonstrating the continuing advisory relationship between the Rockefellers and Lee: “We have now had a chance to talk with Sherman Lee and the conversation confirmed my own feelings that the really outstanding Maitreya piece which we bought from you several years ago adequately represents this phase of Cambodian art.”

Krishna Dancing on Kaliya (Kaliyahimarddaka Krishna)
India, Tamil Nadu
Chola period (880–1279), late 10th–early 11th century
Copper alloy
Asia Society, New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.22


A masterpiece of lost wax casting, this large bronze sculpture depicts the Hindu god Krishna dancing on the head of the serpent-demon Kaliya. Krishna celebrates his triumph over the serpent after unintentionally provoking a fight when he chased ball into a whirlpool in the sacred river Yamuna, where the poisonous and terrifying Kaliya had been residing. This bronze from the Chola period exhibits the sensuous bodies, sense of movement and balance, and detailed treatment of clothing and jewelry that have lead many to consider Chola bronzes among the best bronze sculptures in the world.