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Robert Woods Bliss

Bliss, Robert Woods, 1875-1962

Robert Woods Bliss, ca. 1900. Bliss Papers, HUGFP 76.74p, box 18, Harvard University Archives.
Robert Woods Bliss, ca. 1900. Bliss Papers, HUGFP 76.74p, box 18, Harvard University Archives.
Robert Woods Bliss was born August 5, 1875 in St. Louis, Missouri where his father, William Henry Bliss (1844-1932), served as U.S. District Attorney. Robert attended Harvard College, where he graduated with a B.A. in 1900. Three years later, he joined the U.S. State Department as a Foreign Service Officer. This began a diplomatic career that spanned thirty years and took him from Italy to Russia, Belgium, Argentina, Sweden, and other far-flung destinations. When Robert retired in 1933, he was the first officer to retire with the rank of ambassador.

Robert Woods and Mildred Barnes Bliss first met as adults, when his widowed father married her mother, Anna Dorinda Blaksely Barnes (1851-1935). They married in 1908 and began their married life in Brussels, where Robert was stationed as Secretary of the Legation. However, in 1912, the U.S. government transferred Robert to the embassy in Paris. It was during their years in Paris that the Blisses fully developed a passion for collecting art. Guided by close friend Royall Tyler, the Blisses discovered the unique appeal of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art. Robert particularly identified with the tactile beauty of Pre-Columbian pieces. Forty-five years after a Parisian dealer introduced him to his first acquisition, Robert reflected on the experience: "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...Joseph Brummer, showed me an Olmec jadeite figure. That day the collector's microbe took root in--it must be confessed--very fertile soil."

In 1919 the Blisses left Paris for Washington, D.C. Robert's career had moved him around the world for almost twenty years, and he wanted a permanent place to call home. In October 1920 he purchased a Victorian mansion on several acres of rolling hills in Georgetown. With the help of landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand and architects McKim, Mead & White, the Blisses transformed the house and farmland into a Georgian Revival mansion surrounded by complex garden rooms and vistas. They called their home Dumbarton Oaks. After Robert's retirement in 1933, the Blisses moved into Dumbarton Oaks, finally fulfilling Robert's "dream during twenty years of professional nomad-ism of having a country house in the city."

After decades of world travel and keen-eyed collecting, the Blisses gifted their art, library, and Dumbarton Oaks property to Harvard University in 1940. The Blisses continued purchasing and generously donating objects to Dumbarton Oaks throughout the years. In 1961 they broke ground on a museum wing built to house Robert's prized Pre-Columbian collection. Unfortunately, Robert did not see the project completed. He died on April 19, 1962.



A Home of the Humanities: The Collecting and Patronage of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss. Edited by James N. Carder. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010.

"Bliss, Robert Woods, 1875-1962. Papers of Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss: an inventory." Last modified May 14 2013.

"Robert Woods Bliss." Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981. 

Special to the New York Times. "Robert Woods Bliss Dead at 86." New York Times (New York, NY), April 20, 1962.

Whitehill, Walter M. Dumbarton Oaks: The History of a Georgetown House and Garden, 1800-1966. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.