Timothy B Husband “Creating the Cloisters”:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 70, no. 4 (Spring, 2013)
Published in 2013 to mark the 75th anniversary of The Cloisters in New York, “Creating the Cloisters” documents the origins, development during the 1920s and ’30s and eventual opening of this ‘landmark’ museum, its unveiling taking place the year before war ripped Europe apart for the second time in two decades. The Cloisters is the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art “dedicated,” as it proclaims, “to the art, architecture, and gardens of medieval Europe.” Sited at the city’s highest point on the northern tip of Manhattan, the museum overlooks the Hudson River and the Palisades on the opposite bank, and is regarded as a pre-eminent jewel in New York’s crown. But a little over eighty years ago this site was largely a bare rock with a scatter of unrelated buildings.
Timothy Husband, curator in the Met’s Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, is well placed to recount the genesis of this branch of the museum. He begins his account with two contrasting characters, John D Rockefeller Jr and sculptor George Grey Barnard. Barnard had been collecting works of art and items of architecture at the beginning of the century, eventually housing them in what was to become known as Barnard’s Cloisters on Washington Heights. As Husband explains, J Pierpont Morgan had largely created an appetite for Gothic and medieval art by loaning part of his art collection to the Met; when it went on show in early 1914 the public’s enthusiasm for the period’s treasures was further encouraged when Barnard’s collection opened later in the year at his Cloisters.
Initially, Rockefeller had no such enthusiasm for such ‘primitive’ works; but as time went on, Barnard’s attempts to persuade Rockefeller to buy and display his Gothic pieces in a new building — though long and protracted — bore fruit. Husband tracks the intricacy of this pas de deux with its offers and deals and gamesmanship. The outcome was that Rockefeller not only acquired these and other pieces but also commissioned a new building to incorporate both salvaged architecture and medieval artworks, all to be situated in a prepared landscape that was to be known as Fort Tryon Park. Medieval cloisters, windows and portals were sympathetically arranged in a complex of structures based on European — principally French and Spanish — models. Objets d’art, ranging from stained glass to tapestries, crucifixes and frescoes, were then to be displayed within those spaces; and quiet areas — gardens as well as cloisters — generously were incorporated to enhance the visitor experience.
Husband also documents the ups and downs of commissioning the structures, with architects Charles Collens and Joseph Breck bringing different strengths to the evolving museum buildings. Sadly Breck, who had contributed so much, died in 1933 on a trip to Europe, and so didn’t get to witness the triumphant opening in May 1938. The resulting edifice, as can be gauged by the wealth of photos and architects’ drawings displayed in this Bulletin, was a triumph of art and taste, sympathetically complementing the centuries-old pieces incorporated within the whole.
That so much of Europe’s heritage thus found its way safely across the Atlantic is miraculous, bearing in mind those careless stewards in France, Germany and Spain who didn’t overvalue their relics; that war and development could have wiped all trace of them from the face of the earth; and the possibility that a lesser collector might have kept them solely for private viewing or pure investment, locked away from the public eye. As for the ethics of such work changing hands, Husband doesn’t debate them — why should he in such a short work as this? — but of course there is a balance to be kept, hinging on whether ‘alienation’ counts for more than possible destruction or disappearance. Whatever one’s thoughts are on the political and financial power of the moneyed elite, the world must surely be grateful for any philanthropic instincts they might possess, without which collections like The Cloisters would never exist.
• I’m very grateful to Lizzie Ross for sending me a hard copy of this. You may also like to know that the out-of-print 48-page illustrated booklet is available as a pdf file from