One of New York’s big tourist attractions is the Metropolitan Museum of Art , which is actually three different museums. Most people know the one on Fifth Avenue but there is also the Met Breuer (a museum of modern and contemporary art) on 945 Madison Avenue, and the Met Cloisters, which displays medieval artefacts in a quasi-medieval setting in Fort Tyron Park by the Hudson River.
I’d already visited the Cloisters but that was back in winter and I got there half an hour before closing time so I’d had to walk-run through the rooms doing a quick look-see, which is not really the true spirit of museum visiting nor cloistering. Now that New York City is in the sweaty grip of summer, with humid green days slumping into evenings of pink-grey haze, I decided to drag John there for a day trip in order to enjoy it in a more meditative fashion.
As luck would have it, the apartment where we’re staying has a guide to the museum written by James R. Rorimer, published in 1963. This meant that I had something to read on the 90-minute subway ride across town. John, who didn’t want any more Middle Ages than absolutely necessary, contented himself with people-watching. One of the perks of living in New York City is the Subway experience, which is a bit like physically jumping into Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘Harrowing of Hell’. You have the crush of humanity, the chaos, the darkness, the confined spaces, occasional nakedness, scuttling rats and funny smells.
I’m not saying that it’s bad, necessarily. It might be uncomfortable to be trapped there eternally, but hourly doses here and there can be an enriching experience. Gazing at all the different people and their funny little ways without having to interact with them is restful and lowers the heartrate, like watching tropical fish.
There were people of all races, ages, creeds and sartorial preference. It being Pride month, there were plenty of gorgeously dressed and made-up and bespangled mermaids, princesses and rainbow unicorns. One of the city’s most destitute and desperate citizens entered the car, which happens occasionally, and delivered a speech that someone must have taught her to memorize because the speeches was identical to others I’ve heard, with an odd impersonal wording and upbeat delivery.
‘Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen, My name is [XXX] and I hope you can help me today. I live in a shelter and am hungry. Anything you can spare will help, whether it be a dollar or a dime. If you have food you can spare that would also be much appreciated. I’m currently looking to buy a [collared shirt/pair of workboots/coat] so that I can look presentable at my job interview. Thank you, have a blessed day.’
A very thin jaundiced looking woman of sixty, she delivered this speech with impressive dignity and panache before moving on to the next car. At the next stop a couple stepped in, the man strumming on a guitar and the woman belting out a mariachi tune at top volume. Most passengers amused themselves by scrolling through messages on their phones, playing Candy Crush, fidgeting or napping. A can of some kind of milky substance had fallen on the floor of the subway car and was creating a sticky white streak.
As John swam in all of this local color, I started reading the guide, which began thusly:
The purpose of The Cloisters, as expressed by the donor, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., is to provide a culminating point of interest in the architectural design of Fort Tyron Park and to display in an appropriate setting works of art and architecture of the Middle Ages. The original plan of the museum was developed around elements of the cloisters of five French monasteries, dating from the twelfth to the fifteenth century; it was from these elements that the name of The Cloisters was derived.
Not the liveliest paragraph ever written. After flicking ahead, I realized the whole thing was written in this dust-on-toast prose. Even the photos were dull, black-and-white, flat and grainy, conveying as much mystique and grandeur as a medieval slop-bucket. It had no draw. It lacked sex appeal.
Luckily, thanks to the Internet, I discovered a much more interesting backstory, one involving Forbidden Love, Tragic Death and Homoerotic Sculpture.
John D. Rockefeller may have donated the museum to the city, but he bought the cloisters themselves from someone else, a handsome young American sculptor named George Grey Barnard (1863-1938). This talented artist from Pennsylvania went to Paris as a youth to study at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts and whilst there met an extremely wealthy American named Alfred Corning Clark.
Clark was the only surviving child of Edward Cabot Clark, lawyer, businessman and co-founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Much to his father’s annoyance, he had a horror of business and preferred to be a gay collector and patron of the arts. Although he bowed to convention by marrying a woman and fathering four children, Alfred’s true love was a strapping Norwegian tenor named Lorentz Severin Skougaard. In 1869, the same year that Alfred married Elizabeth Scriven, he started making annual summer trips to Norway. When his first child was born, Alfred even named him ‘Edward Severin Clark’, which may or may not have annoyed his wife. This situation continued for nineteen years, when Skougaard died of typhoid and died on a visit in New York in 1885.
In 1886, Clark commissioned Barnard to sculpt a tombstone called Brotherly Love, which now stands in Langesund, Norway. He also provided financial support towards Barnard’s upkeep in Paris and commissioned more works such as Struggle of Two Natures in Man (1888), which Rodin admired.
Now that he was considered hot stuff in the Parisian artworld, and had a wealthy patron, Barnard returned to the US in 1895. Unfortunately, Alfred Clark died in 1896, so Barnard had to start cosying up to some of the other biggest wallets in New York, J.D. Rockefeller among others.
In 1902 he got a commission to do a statue for the Pennsylvania Capitol Building. While he was working on this project in France, however, the money fell through and he had to think quickly about how to make money on the side. It was about this time that he started bicycling around the French countryside picking up odds and ends from medieval ruins. Either he would buy from French dealers or ‘gather’ things in situ or bargain with locals who were propping the barns up with scavenged gargoyles. Barnard had an eye for fine sculpture, a burning need for cash and an awareness that at that very time (1900-1912) the American banker John Pierpont Morgan was going on a massive spending spree, buying up as many artworks as he could, especially medieval artworks.
The French art collector René Gimpel, who often travelled to New York and met Barnard, acidly observed in his journals, that Barnard was “very much engrossed in carving himself a fortune out of the trade in works of art.” and that he “talks of art as if it were a cabalistic science of which he is the only astrologer…he speaks to impress. He’s a sort of Rasputin of criticism. The Rockefellers are his imperial family. And the dealers court him.”
Apart from a wheelbarrowful of artefacts, Barnard managed to acquire four cloisters: Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem, Bonnefont and Trie, reportedly paying very little for them. A couple of cloisters were only partially complete so he went about carving new fixtures to make them look more or less whole and medievalish. By 1914, he had enough to create his own museum in Manhattan. But he didn’t have a good head for money and in 1925 had one of many financial crises. J.D. Rockefeller, who did have a good head for money, acquired the whole collection for $700,000 and made plans to build the Cloisters for the Metropolitan. He bought land, hired park designers and architects and financed the purchase of more artworks. The work was complete in 1938 and officially opened on May 10, just a couple of weeks after Barnard’s death by heart attack.