"The Unicorn in Captivity," from The Hunt for the Unicorn tapestries, c. 1495-1500
The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art
A Gift of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., 1937
I am running to Washington Heights this afternoon to see The Cloisters' charming exhibition In Search of the Unicorn for the last time. This small collection of art and artifacts which depict a beloved mythical creature deserves another unhurried visit before we must say adieu (not to the tapestries but the installation).
I love The Cloisters: compact and serene. A few hours yield plenty to consider and yet the search never feels completely exhausted. Plus the whole setting (museum and grounds) provides a mini-vacation from the 21st century just a few blocks from the 190th Street subway station (A train) or at the northern terminus of the M4 bus. Time-travel on the NYC transit system - or in your own car (there is convenient parking right in front of the entrance) - was never as easy or inexpensive.
In Search of the Unicorn celebrates the 75th anniversary of The Cloisters' existence. Based on a collection of assorted cloister architecture which the sculptor George Grey Barnard (1863-1938) brought from France to New York in 1914, the museum (it is not a replica of a medieval monastery as is often mistakenly believed) opened it doors in 1938 with some additions from its mother museum, the Met, and its benefactor John D. Rockefeller Jr., who shepherded the project from start to finish. Among the Rockefeller Bequest were the precious Unicorn Tapestries which had been purchased from Count Gabriel de la Rochefoucauld whose family owned the works as far back as 1680 (according to their inventory) and perhaps even longer. The tapestries were probably made in Brussels around 1500, as the abundance of flowers throughout seems to be an excellent example of Belgian mille fleurs design and the figures wear fashions contemporary with that date.
The Metropolitan Museum created an impressive online exhibition to accompany the show. There you will find the history of unicorns in literature, the story that unites the Unicorn tapestries and the tale of their acquisition. So even if you cannot rush out to The Cloisters on August 18th, you can learn a good deal about the tapestries and the museum right now - or later.
Forgive me for not urging you to visit this exquisite exhibition sooner. Who knew the Met would close a summer show in the middle of August! Labor Day must be just around the corner (17 more days to be exact).
Beth New York
aka Beth S. Gersh-Nesic, Ph.D.