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A California Sojourn and the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 13:05 pm | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss conveyed the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection to Harvard University in November 1940. Almost immediately thereafter, in January 1941, they left Washington, first for Florida and then for southern California, where they intended to spend the remainder of the winter at their home, Casa Dorinda. Although their plan was to return to Washington that spring, Robert Bliss’s deteriorating health due to a gall bladder infection kept them in Santa Barbara until May 1942. On August 3, 1941, Bliss underwent a successful gall bladder removal operation and spent the rest of the year in recuperation.

Earl L. Stendahl (1887-1966)
Earl L. Stendahl (1887-1966)

During this year in California, Robert Bliss became acquainted with Earl L. Stendahl (1887–1966), a Los Angeles–based dealer of modern paintings and ancient American art. From their first meeting, Bliss and Stendahl established a strong rapport, and Bliss would acquire a significant portion of his Pre-Columbian collection from Stendahl’s gallery. In 1941, he purchased sixteen Pre-Columbian objects from Stendahl, including a Teotihuacan “Net-Jaguar” fresco, an Aztec travertine jar in the form of a monkey, and an Olmec jadeite mask. From 1941 until his death in 1962, Bliss purchased an astonishing 225 Pre-Columbian objects from Stendahl, as well as several modern paintings, including a Henri Matisse still life, Nature Morte: Buffet et Table (1899), which Dumbarton Oaks later sold in order to acquire a Byzantine icon.

[1] Net-Jaguar Mural, Teotihuacan, Early Classic, 400-600 CE
Net-Jaguar Mural, Teotihuacan, Early Classic, 400–600 CE, PC.B.062, Pre-Columbian Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Museum.

[2] Jar in the Shape of a Monkey, Aztec, Late Postclassic, 1300-1520 CE
Jar in the Shape of a Monkey, Aztec, Late Postclassic, 1300–1520 CE, PC.B.111, Pre-Columbian Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Museum.
[3] Mask, Olmec, Middle Preclassic, 900-300 BCE
Mask, Olmec, Middle Preclassic, 900–300 BCE, PC.B.127, Pre-Columbian Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Museum.

Ex.Coll.HC.P.1969.21.(O), Nature Morte: Buffet et Table
Henri Matisse, Nature Morte: Buffet et Table, 1899, Ex.Coll.HC.P.1969.21.(O), Ex-House Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Museum.
Icon of St. Peter
Icon of St. Peter, early fourteenth century, BZ.1982.2, Byzantine Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Museum.

Earl Stendahl, who had come to southern California from Wisconsin, was unschooled in either art or business. Nevertheless, he began exhibiting artists of the California Impressionist School and eventually, in 1921, opened a gallery in the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard. Later he would move the gallery to Hillsdale Avenue in fashionable Hollywood. His success eventually led him to represent masters of European, American, and Latin American modern art, including Matisse, Klee, Kandinsky, Chagall, Brancusi, Siqueiros, and Rivera. In 1939, Stendahl hosted one of only two non-museum exhibitions of Pablo Picasso's Guernica to benefit Spanish war orphans. Beginning in 1935, Stendahl also began exhibiting ancient objects from Mexico and Central America, and the Stendahl Art Galleries soon came to be synonymous with Pre-Columbian art. Reportedly, it was the artist Diego Rivera's growing Pre-Columbian art collection in Mexico that inspired Stendahl to offer Pre-Columbian art in his galleries.

Robert Bliss was partly responsible for Stendahl’s success. Bliss lent him money on several occasions, beginning as early as April 1941, so that Stendahl could make purchases when objects came on the market. Through diplomatic channels, Bliss also helped Stendahl obtain a passport during the Second World War. In return, Stendahl was relentless in his search for quality Pre-Columbian objects, which he frequently offered first to Bliss and then to other collectors, such as Walter Arensberg and Nelson Rockefeller. Although Bliss would eventually acquire 225 objects from Stendahl, Bliss was famously exacting in the quality of the Pre-Columbian art that he acquired. A letter from Bliss to Stendahl dated May 6, 1946, is typical:

This morning’s mail brought me your letter of May 3rd, with the accompanying photographs, which I have examined with much interest as I always do anything that you send me. This time there is nothing that tempts me!

The bas relief (No. 2728) is a stone of much interest archaeologically, I should think, although it is much worn and the human figure is incomplete. Some day I shall hope to see it in a museum.

You have never yet shown me a dog which I want, and so the photograph goes back to you!

The Palma is not, I fear, up to my standard, nor does No. 2168 [“an important piece—Human head in mouth of frog—Toltec”] appeal to me for my purposes.