James Rorimer was born to a Jewish American family in Cleveland, Ohio; the family surname was originally Rohrheimer. He attended a private high school in Cleveland and spent the years 1920 to 1922 studying drawing and art at the École Gory in Paris. In 1927, he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in fine arts and was immediately hired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, "the Met," thus beginning a career there that lasted his entire adult life. He rose through the ranks from his initial position as an assistant in the Decorative Arts Department to become Curator of Medieval Art in 1934. In this role, he continued the most important project of his former boss and mentor, Joseph Breck: the planning and construction of the Cloisters, the new medieval extension to the museum. Rorimer was named Curator of the Cloisters when it opened in 1938. Among the pieces he purchased for the museum were many that are now considered its signature works, including the Unicorn Tapestries. In 1943, Rorimer took a leave of absence from the Cloisters to join the U.S. Army in World War II. He was appointed as the head of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section, known at the "Monuments Men," to find and preserve art treasures looted by the Nazis. His later book, Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War (1950) detailed his experiences. After the war, he became Director of the Cloisters, and then in 1955, was named Director of the Met. During these years, he acquired many of the works for which the Met is now famous, including the painting Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer by Rembrandt. He died at age 60 following a heart attack. His daughter, Anne Rorimer, is also an art historian.