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James Rorimer was born in Cleveland in 1905, and became a leading figure in the museum world. Upon graduating cum laude from Harvard in 1927, where he was a student in Paul Sachs’s distinguished museum course, Rorimer joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He was named Assistant Curator in 1929 and Associate Curator in 1932. Rorimer was largely responsible for developing the Metropolitan’s medieval collections known as, and housed in the Cloisters. He began planning this new medieval extension in 1930, becoming Curator of Medieval Art 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 artworks; in 1931 he published Ultraviolet Rays and Their Use in the Examination of Works of Art.
After being drafted into the army as a private in the infantry in 1943, he soon became a commissioned officer. Rorimer was selected at the recommendation of his Harvard professor Paul Sachs to become one of the first Monuments Men, and arrived in England for training in early 1944. By August, Rorimer was on the ground in France. He spent several weeks inspecting monuments in Normandy before being assigned to the Seine Section in Paris. In addition to inspecting buildings in Paris and the surrounding countryside, he began investigating the looting of private French collections by the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg), an official Nazi looting operation. Rorimer was transferred to Seventh Army in the spring of 1945, and arrived in Germany during the last month of the war. In this capacity, Rorimer helped discover some of the greatest repositories of hidden treasures, including the castle Neuschwanstein which housed ERR loot from France, and the Heilbronn mines that contained art evacuated from German museums. After the war, he also played an important role in the establishment of the Munich Collecting Point, which served as the primary facility for receiving, processing, caring for, and restituting thousands of artworks after the war. For his instrumental role in the Allied effort to locate and restitute displaced works of art, Rorimer 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, Rorimer published a book about his experience as a Monuments Man entitled Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War.
Following the war, Rorimer returned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was promoted to the position of Director of the Cloisters in 1949. He then succeeded Francis Henry Taylor as Director of the museum in 1955. During his tenure, Rorimer was a remarkably successful fundraiser and museum director. He helped develop the Watson Library into one of the largest art libraries in the U.S., and also increased museum attendance from two million to six million visitors annually. He amassed millions of dollars in donations which he used to acquire some of the most famous artworks in the Metropolitan’s collection, such as Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer by Rembrandt and the Annunciation, or Merode Altarpiece, by the Early Netherlandish master Robert Campin. Rorimer served as the museum’s director until 1966, when he died unexpectedly from a heart attack.
Rorimer’s papers are conserved at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. in the Gallery Archives, and at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.