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“Good as Gold”: Kurt Weitzmann at Dumbarton Oaks

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 15:39 pm | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

Byzantine art historian Kurt Weitzmann was born on March 7, 1904, in Klein Almerode, Germany. In the summer of 1923, he began to study law in Münster but, by winter of the same year, decided that law was not for him and opted instead to pursue a degree in art history and classical archaeology. Weitzmann would spend the better part of the next seven years studying at various universities in Würzburg, Berlin, and Vienna.

In the early 1930s, Weitzmann worked for the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut in Berlin and was coeditor of the Archaeological Yearbook. In collaboration with the medieval art historian Adolph Goldschmidt, Weitzmann published two major works on Byzantine ivories in 1930 and 1934. In the intervening years, he undertook research in Greece, Germany, and Russia and he furthered his knowledge of early Christian and Byzantine art, especially ivories and manuscripts. It was during these same years that he met and married his wife, Josepha Fiedler, a fellow student of Goldschmidt.

Weitzmann’s pursuit of an academic teaching position in Germany proved fruitless: he refused to submit to Nazi ideology, a decision that was partially inspired by his close affiliation with Goldschmidt, who was Jewish. In the 1930s, when Weitzmann was seeking work, those who wanted to become educators in Germany were required to first take a yearlong “indoctrination” to Nazi ideology in Kiel. On moral principal, Weitzmann refused to do so, effectively eliminating his chance to work as an academic in Germany.

In 1935, Charles Rufus Morey, chair of the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, invited Weitzmann to come to Princeton to undertake research during the 1935–36 academic year. Within a few months of his arrival, Weitzmann was offered a position at Princeton, becoming a permanent member of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. He became a professor in the Department of Art History in 1945, and remained at Princeton until his death. Looking back, Weitzmann later said that his decision to leave Germany was “not a difficult one.”

In 1937, Weitzmann met Robert Woods Bliss for the first time at the Worcester Art Museum exhibition The Dark Ages: Loan Exhibition of Pagan and Christian Art in the Latin West and Byzantine East. The Blisses had lent twenty-five pieces from their Byzantine collection, a remarkable number of objects that Weitzmann later stated had been collected due to Mildred Bliss’s passion for Byzantine art along with that of her close friend and adviser, Royall Tyler. This first encounter with Bliss turned out to be memorable. After Bliss and Weitzmann exchanged introductions, Bliss took an ivory out of his pocket for Weitzmann to examine. Weitzmann was bewildered: he had once seen the exact same piece in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, and he was certain that Bliss’s piece was authentic. He expressed this sentiment, and the reasoning behind it, to Bliss, who smiled and informed him: “This is the piece from Nuremberg.” The ivory of the Incredulity of Thomas (BZ.1937.7) had, indeed, been in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum (No. K. P. 2267), which had sold it, probably for reasons that it was non-Aryan and to raise money for Hitler’s government, to the New York dealer M. & R. Stora, from whom the Blisses acquired it in March 1937.

Having demonstrated his competence to Bliss, Weitzmann was thereafter often asked to consult on ivories that the Blisses were considering to purchase. At one notable consultation, Mildred Bliss showed him the Virgin Hodegetria ivory (BZ.1939.8), the authenticity of which had been questioned. Quickly and enthusiastically, he declared the unknown ivory to be “as good as gold.” Taken aback by his rather abrupt declaration of the piece’s authenticity, Mildred Bliss replied: “I think, Mr. Weitzmann, it would have taken Dr. Goldschmidt a little longer to make up his mind.”

In 1938, the Blisses invited Weitzmann to give a lecture on “The Principles of Byzantine Book Illumination” as part of a series dedicated to fostering public interest in their Byzantine collection, then in preparation for its official transfer to Harvard University. The Blisses asked Weitzmann to stay as a guest at Dumbarton Oaks when he came to give his lecture. Arriving at the house, Weitzmann was astounded by its splendor and the beauty of the gardens, and called the room in which he stayed “the largest and most elegant guest room I have ever spent the night.” His estimation of the house was not even diminished when he was warned by Robert Bliss not to leave his room until after eight o’clock in the morning due to the large, ferocious guard dogs that roamed the house during the night. “Even I am not allowed to touch them,” Bliss remarked. While at Dumbarton Oaks and in the years after, Weitzmann worked with Barbara Sessions, who had been hired as librarian in 1936, to recommend acquisitions for the institution’s planned research library.

At the opening of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in 1940, Elizabeth Sgalitzer Ettinghausen remembered the esteem in which Mildred Barnes Bliss held Weitzmann:

For the opening of Dumbarton Oaks, Mrs. Bliss had a special invitation. And my husband, Richard Ettinghausen, and others were invited, among them Kurt Weitzmann. And the question was: who would sit to the right of Mrs. Bliss? At first she wanted Richard Ettinghausen to be to her right and then she realized or was told that Kurt Weitzmann was older and therefore he should be to her right. And Richard Ettinghausen was to her left.

Weitzmann frequently visited Dumbarton Oaks, where his Princeton University friend and colleague Albert Mathias Friend Jr. held a number of positions, including director of studies between 1943 and 1954. He joined the Board of Scholars in 1949–50 and participated in a number of symposia organized by the Byzantine Studies program: “Byzantine and Mediaeval Art and Literature” (1943), “The Decorations in the Synagogues of Dura-Europos” (1945), “The Cultural Era of Constantine Porphyrogenitus” (1953, symposiarch), “Palestine in the Byzantine Period” (1955), “The Byzantine Contribution to Western Art of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries” (1965, symposiarch with Ernst Kitzinger), and “Art, Letters, and Society in Byzantine Provinces” (1973). In 1966–67, he prepared a catalogue raisonné of the Byzantine ivories at Dumbarton Oaks, which was published in 1972. During this time he lived with his wife in the Fellows Building, where he would befriend the young Byzantine scholars and where he felt “completely at home.” In October 1972, Weitzmann began two half-year appointments as Visiting Scholar at Dumbarton Oaks.

For the next twelve years, Weitzmann continued to spend time at Dumbarton Oaks, giving lectures and offering Herbert Kessler guidance on the Cotton Genesis project. The 1990 Byzantine symposium on “The Holy Image” was dedicated to him. He devoted his final years to the publication of his work and the work of his students. His health steadily declined as he aged, his eyesight suffering perhaps the worst blow. Shortly before his death on June 7, 1993, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters at Princeton.