Combining collections of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, historic gardens, and a research library, Dumbarton Oaks reflects the wide-ranging interests of the Blisses and their mission to establish a “home of the Humanities.”
A research collection to illustrate the books—a library to interpret the objects.Robert Woods Bliss
Mildred and Robert Bliss were impassioned lifelong art collectors. They sought out and acquired objects that were beautiful and unusual, promoted them as artworks, and brought them to greater public attention through exhibition and research. Their legacy as collectors and humanists was their creation of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, which they endowed and gave to Harvard University in 1940.
The founders of Dumbarton Oaks, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, collected art in both a specialized and a wide-ranging manner. They are famously remembered, on the one hand, for assembling important in-depth collections of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art. On the other hand, they also acquired artworks of high quality that ranged widely in date and culture, spanning the ancient worlds of Asia and Europe, the western medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods, and the early modern—or what was, for the Blisses at the time, the contemporary.
Several constants in the Blisses’ collecting philosophy reconcile this seeming paradox of both specialized and wide-range collecting. The Blisses collected only what they liked and only when they found an artwork to be among the best of its type. And clearly what they liked was art that was well-crafted, that was fashioned from luxurious materials, and that employed an abstracting rather than a realistic representational vocabulary. They similarly were interested in the abstract artistic vocabulary of contemporary painting and sculpture. Moreover, they enjoyed the art of cultures and periods little-known or heretofore under-appreciated: cultures and periods whose artworks often were relatively new to the marketplace and decidedly not part of the then-established collecting “canon.” In discussing his acquisition of Pre-Columbian artworks, for example, Robert Bliss explained:
I have collected . . . objects that gave me pleasure:—a sculpture boldly conceived; a gold object delicately wrought; a fabric of good design, well woven; ceramics with interesting iconography; metal work of quality:—a rhythm here, a form there.Robert Woods Bliss, Indigenous Art of the Americas, Collection of Robert Woods Bliss (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1947), 5.
Similarly, in categorizing the Blisses’ Byzantine Collection, Asen Kirin has observed:
The artistic excellence that [these objects] represent was of essential importance to the Blisses. The Blisses were highly sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and distinctly secular-minded, [and they] collected Byzantine art not for its religious and spiritual content but, instead, for its artistic qualities.Asen Kirin, “Sacred Art, Secular Context,” in Sacred Art, Secular Context: Objects of Art from the Byzantine Collection of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., Accompanied by American Paintings from the Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, ed. Asen Kirin (Athens: Georgia Museum of Art, 2005): 17.
The Blisses first met one another in 1893, the year before Mildred’s mother, Anna Dorinda Blaksley Barnes, married Robert’s father, William Henry Bliss. This second marriage brought the two teenagers into the same household, and Mildred and Robert themselves fell in love and married fourteen years later, in 1908.For biographies of the Blisses, see Susan Tamulevich, Dumbarton Oaks: Garden into Art (New York: Monacelli Press, 2001); James N. Carder, “Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss and the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection,” in Sacred Art, Secular Context, 23–37; and idem, “Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss: A Brief Biography,” in A Home of the Humanities: The Collecting and Patronage of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, ed. James N. Carder (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010), 1–23.
Mildred was born in New York City on September 9, 1879. Her father, Demas Barnes, before his death in 1888, had made a fortune by investing in patent medicine companies, especially in the Centaur Company, the maker of the children’s laxative Fletcher’s Castoria. Mildred was educated at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, and, reportedly, with private tutors in France. She played both the piano and violin and was fluent in French and proficient in Spanish, German, and Italian.
Robert Woods Bliss was born in Saint Louis, Missouri, on August 5, 1875. He attended J. P. Hopkinson’s Private School in Boston and graduated from Harvard College with a bachelor of arts in 1900. In 1903, he entered the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Service as a career officer, and after their marriage in 1908, Mildred accompanied Robert to foreign postings in Brussels, Paris, Stockholm, and Buenos Aires.
In the early 1920s, when Robert worked at the State Department, the Blisses resided in Washington, D.C. In late 1920, they acquired the Georgetown property that they would later name Dumbarton Oaks. Its renovation and the formation of its famous gardens would occur, however, mostly while the Blisses were posted abroad, and they would not take up full-time residency at Dumbarton Oaks until 1933, when Robert retired as U.S. ambassador to Argentina. The Blisses died childless, Robert at the age of eighty-six on April 19, 1962, and Mildred at the age of eighty-nine on January 17, 1969.
Throughout their married life, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss were passionate art collectors. Mildred Bliss, however, had begun collecting art already during her teenage years in the 1890s. At that time, she built a sizable print collection, which included important etchings by Rembrandt, Whistler, and others. She acquired rare books, often with fine bindings, and, notably, she purchased an opus Anglicanum textile, which remains in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection.
This early acquisition perhaps is informative about Mildred’s collecting interests—interests that would come to be shared by her husband Robert. Firstly, the textile is medieval in period, and its purchase was made at a time when few collectors took an interest in or appreciated medieval art.It was only in the years between 1900 and 1920 that large collections of medieval and related artworks were assembled in the United States, and these collections were not immediately available to the public. In 1914, part of John Pierpont Morgan’s medieval art collection went on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; it was transferred to the museum in 1917. Also in 1914, George Grey Barnard’s Cloisters of medieval architectural fragments and sculptures opened in New York City. In 1925, the collections of Charles L. Freer were made accessible to the public as part of the Smithsonian Institution. And in 1931, Henry Walters bequeathed his collections to his native city of Baltimore, forming the Walters Art Gallery. See Elizabeth Bradford Smith, Medieval Art in America: Patterns of Collecting, 1800–1940 (University Park, Pa.: Palmer Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania State University, 1996). Secondly, it is well-made of sumptuous materials: red silk velvet and silver-gilt-wrapped silk threads. Thirdly and, perhaps, most importantly, the representation of the two saints, Lawrence and Margaret of Antioch, is done in a stylized manner that at the time was often referred to—sometimes with and sometimes without a pejorative connotation—as “primitive” or “naïve.”See H. Gene Blocker, The Aesthetics of Primitive Art (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994). In his analysis of the aesthetics of primitive art (including the art of tribal Africa, Mesoamerica, ancient Egypt, and Neolithic New Guinea), Blocker established eight conditions that justify understanding these cultures’ objects as true art: (1) the object can be appreciated aesthetically, (2) it is made by a skilled professional or semiprofessional, (3) it can be judged by established critical and aesthetic criteria, (4) it can be set apart from everyday life, (5) it often involves a representation of some feature or experience of the world, (6) it can be regarded as having been intended to be aesthetically enjoyable or as a symbolic representation, (7) it was created in a genre or tradition and may show innovation and novelty when viewed against its cultural background, and (8) its maker can be considered a creative innovator, sometimes eccentric or socially alienated. These qualities of the noncanonical, the luxurious, and the “naïve” would inform the Blisses’ collecting choices for their lifetimes. They would care little, for example, for the classical as embodied in the art of fifth-century Greece and the Italian High Renaissance.The Blisses’ contemporary and fellow Byzantine-enthusiast, Matthew Stewart Pritchard, shared this prejudice. He described the Byzantine mosaics of the Capella Palatina in Palermo to his friend, Isabella Stewart Gardner: “It is a locus-classicus of justification of the Byzantine-Matisse attitude over the Greek-Renaissance-Academic position.” Matthew Stewart Pritchard to Isabella Stewart Gardner, April 24, 1913. Matthew Stewart Pritchard Papers, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. I am indebted to Robert S. Nelson for bringing this reference to my attention. Mildred Bliss’s 1909 recounting to her diary of a “heavenly hour” spent in the Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels illustrates this preference. There she wondered which cultural tradition lent itself best to good pictorial expression: the “emotional” of the Italians or the “intellectual” of the Flemish. She concluded:
One would say off hand the latter, but the Italian primitives had a naïf sense of correlative and appropriate detail which gave great beauty. . . . Of course, XVI century Realism cost them their aesthetic charm— and in this respect the north suffered as well.Papers of Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss, Harvard University Archives, HUGFP 76.8, series I, Personal Papers, box 45, Mildred Bliss’s diary, entry for March 3, 1909.
The Influence of Royall Tyler
As collectors, the Blisses’ interests and taste were decidedly influenced by their good friend, Royall Tyler (1884–1953),Royall (“Peter”) Tyler (1884–1953) was an historian, diplomat, economist, and art connoisseur. See Robert S. Nelson, “Royall Tyler and the Bliss Collection of Byzantine Art,” in A Home of the Humanities, 27–50, and Robert S. Nelson, “Private Passions Made Public: The Beginnings of the Bliss Collection,” in Sacred Art, Secular Context, 39–51. an American who resided in France, Hungary, and Switzerland throughout his adult life. Tyler’s connoisseurship and approbation were very important to the Blisses as he advised them on possible additions to their art collection. Tyler had fashioned himself into a knowledgeable, amateur art connoisseur who frequented the small Parisian art dealers to see artworks new to the market from such far-flung areas as China, the Middle East, and Mexico and South America, among others.
If you want to learn some very useful and fundamental facts about art, see as much of Royall as you can. His learning is thorough and uncommonly wide, and as he follows all the sales of interest, and has a standard of measurement from his unusual familiarity with all the museums and most of the private collections of Europe, he is by way of having much to contribute.Mildred Barnes Bliss to Geoffrey Dodge, August 23, 1929. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, Blissiana files, Dodge, Geoffrey, correspondence.
The Paris Years
The Blisses moved to Paris in 1912 and would remain there through 1919 while Robert served as secretary and then counselor of the U.S. Embassy in France. Royall Tyler, who was also a resident of Paris at the time, immediately began to take the Blisses on the rounds of the Parisian dealers, although many dealers would have to close their shops temporarily at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Tyler introduced the Blisses to artworks that they had only infrequently, if ever, seen before. These included Persian, Islamic, and Chinese ceramics and textiles, Caucasian and Sasanian metalwork, African sculptures, contemporary paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Rouault, and others, Gothic sculptures, and especially Byzantine and Pre-Columbian objects. Indeed, Robert Bliss later credited his passion for Pre-Columbian art to the day in 1912 that the Parisian dealer Joseph Brummer first showed him Andean objects. Bliss recalled,
Soon after arriving in Paris in the spring of 1912, my friend Royall Tyler took me to a small shop in the Boulevard Raspail to see a group of Pre-Columbian objects from Peru. I had just come from the Argentine Republic, where I had never seen anything like these objects, the temptations offered there having been in the form of colonial silver. Within a year, the antiquaire of the Boulevard Raspail, Joseph Brummer, showed me an Olmec jadeite figure. That day the collector’s microbe took root in—it must be confessed—very fertile soil. Thus, in 1912 were sown the seeds of an incurable malady!Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks, 60. In Indigenous Art of the Americas, 5, Robert Bliss recollected his early introduction to Pre-Columbian art: “In the Edwardian world of spacious living when the accumulating of possessions was regarded in Europe as an innocuous but ‘distinguished’ pastime, I became aware of Pre-Columbian stone and gold work. The first few objects acquired in Paris thirty-five years ago were an antidote to the insidious charm of the XVIII Century and opened vistas I soon became eager to explore.”
The Blisses would purchase their first significant Byzantine object, a sixth-century silver paten showing Christ giving communion to the Apostles, only in 1924, after the conclusion of the First World War.This was also the decade in which Royall Tyler began to champion, research, and publish Byzantine art. With Hayford Piece, he authored Byzantine Art in 1926 and L’art byzantin, volume 1 (1932) and volume 2 (1934). However, this high-value acquisition appreciably heightened their collecting excitement, in large part due to the fact that the paten was from the same silver hoard as a sixth-century silver chalice that Royall Tyler himself had acquired in 1913. The purchase of the paten would propel the Blisses decidedly forward as collectors of Byzantine art. Thereafter, they steadily increased their holdings of Byzantine artworks, acquiring important textiles, jewelry, bronzes, ivories, and sculptures—a nuclear collection that quickly established them as specialized collectors.
At the same time, however, the larger humanistic tradition that they admired and valued continued to command their collecting attention. They acquired, for example, a Degas painting in 1918, a seventeenth-century Chinese painting in 1919, a Rembrandt portrait in 1920, and an ancient Egyptian bronze cat in 1921.
The Blisses’ early introduction to Joseph Brummer’s shop on the Boulevard Raspail was most certainly a providential initiation to the art market scene in Paris. The Blisses would eventually acquire 160 objects from Joseph Brummer and his brother Ernest Brummer at both their Paris and New York showrooms. Joseph Brummer was an artist by training who had studied in the ateliers of Auguste Rodin and Henri Matisse. However, he became famous as a “pioneer dealer” who introduced exceptional artworks to avant-garde collectors. He was lauded for having an unfailing eye and an instinct for the unusual, the exotic, and the beautiful. By 1910 or so, he was dealing in Japanese prints, African art, Pre-Columbian objects from Mexico and Peru, as well as the paintings of Henri Rousseau. William H. Forsyth, curator of medieval art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, described how Brummer invited select visitors to his shop into his inner sanctum for the privilege of seeing an important work of art. There, Joseph Brummer, according to Forsyth,
would sit brooding over the piece, fondling it as if he were the wizard who had created the treasure. The enthusiasm of this strong-willed, hypnotic little man was contagious, making one yearn to glimpse the other treasures he might have hidden.William H. Forsyth, “The Brummer Brothers: An Instinct for the Beautiful,” Art News 73, no. 8 (October 1974): 106.
Similarly, the New York collector, Alastair B. Martin, remembered meeting Joseph Brummer shortly after the Second World War. He wrote:
I met Joseph Brummer, a New York dealer active in various exotic fields. Brummer had a store filled with European objects of every age, from Cycladic to Renaissance, as well as early art from Mexico, Egypt, and the Near East. He showed me sculpture that was exciting, rare, attractive, somehow desirable, and it was he who would wind up the toy.Alastair B. Martin, Guennol: Reflections on Collecting, 2003 June. [s.l., 2003], 15 (unpublished; Watson Library Special Collections, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, N5220.M39 M37 2003), as cited in Yaëlle Biro, “African Arts between Curios, Antiquities, and Avant-garde at the Maison Brummer, Paris (1908–1914),” Journal of Art Historiography 12 (June 2015): 6.
Brummer’s wizardry, however, was more consequential than the mere provision of treasures. Brummer celebrated the objects that he offered for sale as true artworks, even though heretofore they had been, at best, only appreciated as colonial trophies and ethnographic specimens. Brummer exhibited these objects alongside modernist paintings and sculptures from the School of Paris, thereby elevating his exotic objects to the status of modernist icons worthy of aesthetic contemplation.Biro, “African Arts between Curios,” 1. See also Barbara Braun, Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World: Ancient American Sources of Modern Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993), 98. As Yaëlle Biro has pointed out,
Juxtaposing works from Africa with art of Medieval Europe, Ancient Greece and Rome, the Americas, Egypt, Ancient Near East, as well as creations by living artists, the Brummer Gallery blurred the boundaries that existed between these different fields of collecting, and was instrumental in awakening the interest of many collectors and museum professionals for these arts.Biro, “African Arts between Curios,” 1.
Thus, for the Blisses in Paris, the combination of Royall Tyler’s knowledge and enthusiasm, the availability of exotic art new to the marketplace, as offered by dealers such as Joseph Brummer, and the growing interest in contemporary art and its formal relationship with exotic art was a potent catalyst for the formation of their collection.
Framing the Research Library and Collection
With the Blisses’ decision in 1936 to give Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University during their lifetime—a gift that was realized in 1940—they embarked on a remarkable five-year period of acquiring more than 350 objects, nearly double the number of their then-existing collection. In this period, which culminated in the opening of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, the Blisses concentrated foremost on increasing and improving their Byzantine Collection. They were able to add some of its most notable pieces, for example, a cloisonné enamel reliquary cross, a silver-gilt flabellum, a gold marriage belt, and a Middle Byzantine ivory of the Virgin and Child with saints.
And yet, despite this concentration on the Byzantine Collection, the Blisses felt that as a “Home of the Humanities”—a phrase Mildred Bliss used to describe the Dumbarton Oaks ensemble—the research institute also should have additional great examples of non-Byzantine artworks. They therefore acquired a Romano-Arabian bronze horse and other impressive non-Byzantine artworks: an El Greco painting of the Visitation, a Riemenschneider sculpture of the Virgin and Childand a Degas study for his Bellelli Family masterwork.Dumbarton Oaks Museum, House Collection, HC.P.1937.12, Edgar Degas, Giulia Bellelli, French Impressionist, ca. 1858–59, http://museum.doaks.org/Obj198?sid=523&x=1594&port=2626 (accessed November 17, 2015). The Blisses purchased this study from the Parisian dealer Dikran G. Kelekian on April 9, 1937. All of these late acquisitions became part of their gift of Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University in 1940 when they made their private collection public and housed it in a new exhibition pavilion that they had added to the property.
After the Dumbarton Oaks Collection opened to the public in 1941, the eminent art historian, Hanns Swarzenski of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, published a review in the Art Bulletin. In lauding the high quality of the collection, he asserted its supremacy as art and not artifact, thereby validating the Blisses’ collecting attitude. He wrote:
[W]ith the single exception of the Cabinet des Médailles in Paris, this is the first museum in the history of collecting to emphasize in its presentation the purely artistic importance of material which the old historic museums arranged so unattractively in dusty, overcrowded cases that it would tend to frighten and bore any visitor except the scientific specialist. And it is material which our modern art museums . . . generally do not collect.Hanns Swarzenski, “The Dumbarton Oaks Collection,” The Art Bulletin 23, no. 1 (March 1941): 77. In his review, Swarzenski also states, p. 78: “Although every object in the Collection reveals the closest and most serious contact with contemporary scholarly interests, the Collection as a whole has the charm of an obvious personal passion and devotion.”
Continuing to Collect
After 1940, the Blisses continued to expand the Dumbarton Oaks Collection by financing the acquisition of additional Byzantine artworks. They also sold major non-Byzantine artworks, including most of their ancient Chinese art collection, in order to strengthen the financial resources of the research institute. In the later 1940s, Mildred Bliss began to engage in a new collecting passion and within a decade built an impressive library of rare books on garden architecture and landscape design, a collection which was transferred to Dumbarton Oaks in 1963.
At the same time, Robert Bliss returned to collecting Pre-Columbian artworks with renewed vigor. And, beginning in 1947 and for over a decade until 1962, Bliss publicly exhibited his Pre-Columbian Collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where it garnered, in his words, “the steadily increasing response of a large and interested public.”Samuel K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler, and William F. Foshag, The Robert Woods Bliss Collection, Pre-Columbian Art (New York: Phaidon Publishers, Inc., 1957), 7. The exhibition was titled Indigenous Art of the Americas, and the objects were installed and arranged specifically to heighten their aesthetic appeal rather than to demonstrate their cultural origins or chronological developments.Helmut de Terra, E. and A. Silberman Galleries, Inc. in New York, wrote to Perry B. Cott, Assistant Chief Curator, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., on November 1, 1952: “Permit me to say how happy I was to have made your acquaintance yesterday when I visited the National Gallery in the company of Mr. Bliss. I need not tell you how greatly impressed I was with the exquisite exhibition of the Bliss Collection. For somebody like myself, who has worked in Pre-Columbian archaeology and art, it was a supreme experience to have seen such choice objects shown to best advantage.” National Gallery of Art Archives, Record Group 2, Records of the Office of the Director, John Walker Office Files, Exhibition Records, Series 2B1, Box 1, Exhibitions: Pre-Columbian Art [Indigenous Art of the Americans from the Bliss Collection]: April 18, 1947, folders 1 and 2, Folder 1. The exhibition opened to the public on April 25, 1947, and four days before the opening, Robert Bliss wrote to his friend and adviser, Alfred Tozzer, saying:
The exhibition of my collection will result in awakening not only an interest in the objects of the pre-Columbian finds which have lain for many years on the shelves of museums of natural history, but also that the public will be awakened to the art values which so many of those objects embody.Robert Woods Bliss to Alfred Tozzer, April 21, 1947. Dumbarton Oaks, Pre-Columbian Collection files, Peabody correspondence.
In 1959, the Blisses decided to offer Dumbarton Oaks additional exhibition and library space to permanently house Bliss’s Pre-Columbian art collection and library. They also planned for additional space for Mildred Bliss’s rare book collection and library as well as space for the storage of Byzantine coins and seals. Philip Johnson was commissioned to design the pavilion for the Pre-Columbian Collection, and it is instructive that the building was purposefully conceived as a modernist artistic space. This was Robert Bliss’s final step in his mission to insure the appreciation of his Pre-Columbian objects as artworks with aesthetic merit. Johnson’s essentially postmodern building employed many of the same sensibilities that Robert Bliss appreciated in his Pre-Columbian art: beautiful materials, daring design, and an abstraction in conception that distanced the building from historical museum environments.For Philip Johnson’s discussion of the design of the Pre-Columbian Collection pavilion, see Tamulevich, Dumbarton Oaks: Garden into Art, 20, and James N. Carder, “Philip Johnson and Mildred Barnes Bliss,” http://www.doaks.org/museum/online-pubs/philip-johnson/philip-johnson-and-mildred-barnes-bliss (accessed November 18, 2015).
In these later years, the Blisses developed their new specialized collections with the same verve and discrimination that had characterized their collecting of Byzantine and other artworks in the early years. As Robert Bliss observed in 1947: “one advantage the private collector has . . . [is the] freedom to buy what he likes and not what is merely rare or necessary to a sequence.”Indigenous Art of the Americas, 5. Mildred Bliss echoed this sentiment in 1948 when she told Dumbarton Oaks’ first director, John Thacher: “My thesis is that an object representing a link in the long chain of evolution, but without inherent quality, can be studied from the books; but that an object which has intrinsic quality must be seen and felt to be known.”Mildred Barnes Bliss to John S. Thacher, July 27, 1948. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, Administrative files, Thacher, John S., correspondence, 1946–1948.
With hindsight, it is apparent that the Blisses spent their lives as cultural ambassadors for the art that they loved. In their focused collecting areas of Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and rare garden landscape books, their discriminating choices, their loans to important exhibitions, and the very creation of a research institute centered on these collections allowed the Blisses to elevate and perpetuate Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art and garden landscape design to positions of artistic autonomy. They created a heroic artistic status for the objects that they collected both by enshrining them within the walls of elegant public museum spaces and by endowing a research institute to insure a deeper intellectual understanding of this art. And the Blisses were most certainly aware of their accomplishments. In remembering the creation of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Robert Bliss succinctly summarized the Blisses’ achievement:
And, gradually from our enjoyment of mediaeval art and a strong sense of the value of continuity, the conception of a small and modest but specialized “cabinet des médailles” took form; a research collection to illustrate the books—a library to interpret the objects.Address by Robert Woods Bliss to the Harvard Club, Dumbarton Oaks, April 8, 1943. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, Administrative files, Thacher, John S., correspondence, 1943.