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Biographical Note | A Finding Aid to the James J. Rorimer papers, 1921-1982, bulk 1943-1950

James J. Rorimer papers, 1921-1982, bulk 1943-1950

Biographical Note

James J. Rorimer (1905-1966) was a museum director and curator of medieval art working in New York City. Rorimer was the primary force and first director of The Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During World War II, Rorimer served in the U.S. Army Monuments, Fine Art and Archives Section protecting cultural sites and recovering stolen art work.
James J. Rorimer was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1905 and attended the University School there until he left in 1921 in order to study abroad in Europe. He studied at the Ecole Gory in Paris for two years, then returned to the United States to finish his studies at the University School in Cleveland. In 1927, Rorimer graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. Soon after, he began working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City where he worked his way up from a position as an assistant to Head Curator of Medieval Art, a position he filled from 1934 to 1955, director of The Cloisters, and eventually director and trustee of the museum.
Rorimer was heavily involved with the planning and development of The Cloisters, working closely with the architect Charles Collens. When The Cloisters opened in 1938, Rorimer worked there as a curator and later became the first director in 1949. During this time, Rorimer developed a professional relationship with John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who donated to New York City a large tract of land, a portion of which was given to the Metropolitan Museum as a location to build The Cloisters. The Cloisters' collections evolved into a world renown collection of medieval art under Rorimer's curatorship and directorship.
As the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1955-1966, Rorimer nearly doubled membership and attendance, raised a substantial amount of endowment funding, renovated almost half of the galleries, and increased the exhibition space.
Rorimer married Katherine Newton in 1942. They had two children, Anne and Louis.
During World War II, from 1943 to 1946, Rorimer served in the U.S. Army's Monuments, Fine Art and Archives (MFAA) Section. The "Monuments Men" of the U.S. Army were charged with locating and protecting historical sites, monuments, artwork, and buildings from Allied bombing. Towards the end of the war, the section led recovery efforts to locate and retrieve Nazi stolen art works and other cultural heritage items. Rorimer served as a MFAA officer in Normandy and Paris, and, while in Germany, was promoted to chief of the MFAA Section of the 7th Army Western Military District.
While in Paris, Rorimer worked closely with Rose Valland, an employee of the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris who spied on the Nazis and recorded in detail the movements of artwork stolen by members of the Nazi party, including Hermann Wilhelm Goering and Joseph Goebbels. With Valland's assistance, Rorimer discovered a large cache of stolen and confiscated artwork at the Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps. He and his team also recovered other artwork, European antiquities, and cultural icons that were stored in nearby salt mines. Rorimer and the other Monuments Men arranged the recovery and removal of the cache of stolen goods.
Rorimer received numerous awards for his work during World War II including, the French Cross of War in 1945, Chevalier in 1947, and officer of the French Legion of Honor in 1957. Rorimer wrote about his work as a Monuments Man in his book Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War, published by Abelard Press in 1950. James J. Rorimer died in 1966.