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Mildred Bliss Commissions a Sculpture

Posted On July 02, 2015 | 10:09 am | by jamesc | Permalink
James N. Carder (July 2015)


Daniel G. Olney, Lady with a Unicorn, Dumbarton Oaks House Collection (HC.GO.1935.05.[L]).

Mildred Bliss’s correspondence and other ephemera, preserved both in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives and in the Bliss Papers at the Harvard University Archives, reveal that she was intimately involved in most of the commissions and projects that were initiated at Dumbarton Oaks. For example, she instructed the composer Igor Stravinsky to write a concerto “in the manner of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos,” a commission that resulted in the seminal Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. She had full-scale mock-ups, or dummies as she called them, constructed and erected so she could judge the effect of a proposed sculpture or an addition to one of the buildings. Famously, the architect Philip Johnson created in the Dumbarton Oaks Music Room a full-scale mock-up of one of the circular units of his proposed pavilion for the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, so that Mildred Bliss could “see” it.

In 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, Bliss commissioned the sculptor Daniel G. Olney, of Washington, D.C., to create Lady with a Unicorn for the Dumbarton Oaks Garden. An exchange of two letters, preserved in the Bliss Papers at the Harvard University Archives (HUGFP 76.8, Series I, Box 32, Folder O), details the degree of control that she exerted in the commissioning process.

September 29th, 1934

My dear Dan,

Enclosed is the cheque against the initial expenses for the making of the unicorn.

I have been thinking over this sculpture, and feel that you have hit upon an unusually pleasing composition, and that if you realize it technically and achieve the spirit I hope for, you will have made a really lovely thing. I think yesterday you understood my approach to the problem, and despite its not leaving the Sculptor’s hands as free as is usually the case, I felt it was not altogether unsympathetic to you. So let us definitely agree as follows:

Make a rough profile drawing to the scale we thought right yesterday, which Mr. Davis will convert into a dummy. This you and I must study this week before I go to New York on Wednesday or when I return on Saturday, and once we are sure that we have the right size for the ultimate statue, you will make a half-size model. This we will study in detail, and when all the elements of its charm are “au point,” we will see to its being cast in lead.

Now, if in the making of the lady and her unicorn I find you are not interpreting the picture as my inner eye sees it, I will remunerate you for material and time spent, and we will call it off. This seems to me fair to you and to us; but I feel very encouraged by the little model and by our talk about Kolbe, and if you create the lovely unit I am visualizing it will be a lasting pleasure to have a work by a young American artist in the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks.

Let me know when the drawing will be ready, as Davis has a great deal of work pushing him this week, and I want to be sure that he has the dummy for us as soon as we want to see it.

Yours very sincerely,

Mildred Bliss

Georg Kolbe (1877–1947) was a German figural sculptor who worked in a vigorous, modern, simplified classical style similar to that of the French sculptor Aristide Maillol. Olney wrote Bliss back on that same day:

1812 Jefferson Place

29th Sept, 34

Dear Mrs. Bliss

Thank you very much for your very definite letter. Before, not knowing just where we both stood, made it hard to work.

Naturally, if, as you say, in the making of the lady and her unicorn, I do not interpret the picture as you see it we will call it off. This seems fair to each of us and is the way I should like it.

As you say in your letter, you do not leave the sculptor’s hands as free as is usually the case. This is of course a somewhat unusual arrangement and one which ordinarily I would not like to undertake as I feel that now it is better for me to be doing my own work.

However, after our talk on Kolbe and our association so far there seems to be little difference in the way each of us will visualize this conception. If you will have patience with me in my attempts to see through your eyes, together I think we will be able to work this thing out.

Another thing that to me makes doing this work a pleasure will be the inherited and personal association with you and the fact that a figure of mine will go into helping to make Dumbarton Oaks beautiful.

Monday I shall deliver the silhouette in the scale we decided upon to Mr. Davis.

Very sincerely

David G. Olney