Discover how philanthropy and a love of art brought Rockefeller & J.P.Morgan together as major donors towards the New York Cloisters.
The history of the Cloisters is fascinating. This singular museum traces its beginnings to a collection of sculptures owned by American sculptor George Grey Barnard (1863-1938) who was also a dealer in medieval art. He had spent several years bicycling across Europe where, by 1907, he had massed a high-quality collection of medieval art at a relatively low cost. He opened his original Cloisters to the public in 1914 on Fort Washington Avenue, south of where the museum stands today in Fort Tryon Park at the northernmost tip of Manhattan. In 1925, with financial backing from John D. Rockefeller, the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Barnard’s Cloisters and the collection his museum housed. Rockefeller and the Met retained Barnard as an advisor.
By 1927 it became evident that the small museum had outgrown its collection. Rockefeller hired Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the designers of Central Park, to create a new park in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan as the eventual home of Barnard’s collection, on about 56 acres of land which he had donated to New York City. His donated parcel became Fort Tryon Park, with about 4 of the 56 acres set aside as space for the new museum. Incredibly, Rockefeller purchased a few hundred acres of land across the Hudson River in New Jersey atop the Palisades, so that the view from the Cloisters would never be sullied. He also donated several works from his own collection to the new museum, including the famous Unicorn Tapestries, which are today one of the highlights of a visit to the Cloisters. Today there is an endowment which funds the operation of the museum and allows the museum to acquire additional artwork, also established by Rockefeller.
Rockefeller’s support of the museum has been called “perhaps the supreme example of curatorial genius working in exquisite harmony with vast wealth.” J.P. Morgan is the second major donor to the collection at the Cloisters
On May 10, 1938 the museum opened to the public. Today the museum is home to about 5,000 individual artworks, displayed throughout the rooms and spaces as distinct from the installed architectural pieces. The collection includes a panel painting by Robert Campin from the early 15th century, Mérode Altarpiece; a 12th century walrus ivory cross; frescoes; Gothic boxwood miniatures; illuminated manuscripts; stained glass; tapestries; and much more.
The museum has three gardens: the Judy Black Garden at the Cuxa Cloister on the main floor; the Bonnefont and Trie Cloisters gardens are found on the lower level. They were designed and planted in 1938 when the museum opened and are planted with many rare medieval species totaling more than 250 genera of plants, flowers, herbs and trees. The number and variety found in the gardens makes them among the world’s most important collection of specialized gardens.