James Joseph Rorimer (1905-1966)
Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1905, James Joseph Rorimer became one of the premier museum directors of the twentieth century. His early tours of Europe as a youth exposed him to the world’s greatest public collections, providing a wealth of knowledge that would prove beneficial during his service as a Monuments Man and his successful career in the art world.
Rorimer’s lifelong career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art began soon after his graduation from Harvard in 1927. He was named Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts in 1929 and Associate Curator in 1932. Largely responsible for the development of the Metropolitan’s medieval collections, he actively began planning for their extension in 1930. He worked closely with John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who gifted to the museum for this purpose a four-acre lot in Fort Tyron Park in northern Manhattan. He became Curator of Medieval Art at the Metropolitan in 1934 and Curator of The Cloisters upon its opening in 1938. A forward-thinking man, Rorimer was one of the early proponents of using radiography to examine works of art. In 1931 he published Ultraviolet Rays and Their Use in the Examination of Works of Art.
In May 1943 Rorimer was drafted into the U.S. Army. One of the first Monuments Men in the field, he arrived in England for training in early 1944 and was on the ground in France by August. He reached Paris atop a U.S. Army tank and participated in the liberation of the city he loved so dearly. Rorimer spent several weeks inspecting monuments in Normandy before being assigned to the Seine Section in Paris. While serving in Paris, he began actively investigating the looting of private French collections by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR, the Nazi looting organization tasked with assembling coveted works of art for Hitler’s planned Führermuseum in Linz, Austria).
Rorimer was transferred to the headquarters of U.S. Seventh Army in 1945 and arrived in Germany just before the end of the war. During his service as a Monuments Man, he was directly involved in some of the most notable achievements of the MFAA. He was instrumental in the discovery of the Heilbronn and Kochendorf mines, which contained tens of thousands of works of art and other cultural objects, and tracked the art collection of Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering to Berchtesgaden, Germany. Information supplied by Capt. Rose Valland, the great French heroine who spied on the Nazis and their looting operations at the Jeu de Paume, enabled Rorimer to discover the enormous cache of looted art at Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps. Hidden inside were more than 20,000 of the greatest treasures stolen from private collectors and art dealers in France, many of whom were Jews. These included the Rothschild jewelry collection, silver from the David-Weill collection, paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt, Gainsborough, and Watteau, and the records of the ERR, which documented the Nazi looting operation.
Rorimer remained a determined force for the good of displaced art in occupied Europe. A consummate showman, he confronted the staff of General Eisenhower regarding the use of objects from the Palace of Versailles as office décor, and sealed the doors at Neuschwanstein Castle with an ancient Rothschild wax seal to prevent unauthorized entry. For his devoted efforts as a Monuments Man, he was awarded the Bronze Star, the Belgian Croix de Guerre, the French Legion of Honor, and the Cross of the Commander of the Order of Denmark. In 1950 he published a personal account of his experience entitled Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War.
Upon his return to the United States, Rorimer resumed his career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was promoted to Director of the Cloisters in 1949 and Director of the Metropolitan in 1955. His eleven-year tenure as director saw a threefold increase in museum attendance, a forty percent increase in exhibition space, and the development of the Watson Library into one of the largest art reference libraries in the country. Under his leadership, the museum amassed millions of dollars in donations, which Rorimer used to acquire some of the most famous masterpieces in the Metropolitan’s collection, including Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer by Rembrandt and the Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin.
Rorimer served as the museum’s director until 1966, when he died unexpectedly in his sleep. His papers are conserved in the archives of the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.