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The Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art

James N. Carder
“They do make a magnificent effect.”

Beginning in 1920, Robert Woods Bliss (1875–1962) and his wife Mildred Barnes Bliss (1879–1969) See James N. Carder, “Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, A Brief Biography,” in Home of the Humanities, the Collecting and Patronage of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, ed. James N. Carder (Washington, D.C., 2010), 1-25. set about to enhance their recently-acquired home, Dumbarton Oaks, with various additions, acres of gardens designed by Beatrix Farrand (1872–1959), and an impressive array of interior appointments, antique furnishings, and important works of art. See James N. Carder, “The Architectural History of Dumbarton Oaks and the Contribution of Armand Albert Rateau,” Home of the Humanities, 93-115. In 1940, they gave this property and its contents to Harvard University to establish the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, which, at the time, was focused on the study of Byzantine culture. See James N. Carder, “Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss and the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection,” 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, Ga., 2005), 22-37. It was largely after the transfer of Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard that Robert Bliss concentrated on building his pre-Columbian art collection, which he would carefully edit and refine over the next two decades. See Pillsbury et al., Ancient Maya Art, 1-21 Between 1947 and 1962, Bliss arranged with the newly-opened National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. to display his pre-Columbian collection in an exhibition that promoted his objects as art works rather than as anthropological or archaeological artifacts (fig. 2). The exhibition of Indigenous Art of the Americas opened during Washington’s “Pan-American Week” on April 25, 1947, and was augmented by loans from the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. Bliss’s frequent acquisitions in this period, which increased the number of works on display from 250 in 1947 to 547 in 1962, required the Gallery periodically to rearrange and re-install the objects. Even as early as 1949, the Gallery temporarily closed the exhibition in order to install new vitrines to accommodate the growing collection. 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, folder 1. In a memorandum of February 25, 1949, Charles Seymour, Jr., Acting Chief Curator, wrote to the director David E. Finley: Mr. Bliss is eager to rearrange the installation of his Collection. He is very glad to follow our suggestion of making cases on the East walls of the Room with Two Piers, thus making it possible to remove the textiles and free-standing sculpture on these walls. In a memorandum of July 12, 1949, Charles Seymour again wrote: “Work on the new installation of the Bliss Collection of Pre-Colombian [sic] Art has reached a point where it will be necessary to close the present exhibition space completely to the public as of July 13th until further notice.” This would occur several times, as in 1954 when Perry B. Cott, Acting Chief Curator at the Gallery, wrote to Robert Bliss: “You will be glad to know that your vitrines of gold are now completely re-installed, including the new pieces. They do make a magnificent effect. We have also put the new jades in with the others, and have made new labels for all the vitrines.” Ibid., folder 2. Cott to Bliss, August 13, 1954.

Philip Johnson at Dumbarton Oaks: Figure 2
Figure 2. “Indigenous Art of the Americas” Exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1947–1962. (PC.B.NG.040)

After the 1940 transfer of Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard, Mildred Bliss also embarked on a new collecting initiative: the acquisition of rare botanical and landscape architecture books, a collection that would become the nucleus of her Garden Library and, eventually, the Dumbarton Oaks program in Garden and Landscape Studies. See Therese O’Malley, “Mildred Barnes Bliss‘s Garden Library at Dumbarton Oaks,” Home of the Humanities, 139-165. The Blisses intended that their augmented holdings of pre-Columbian art works and garden rare books be future gifts to the research institute. The sheer size of these collections, however, along with the institute’s ever-increasing library and Byzantine Collection holdings, especially the collection of coins and seals, In 1947, Dumbarton Oaks received by gift some 150 Byzantine coins and some 2,000 Byzantine lead seals from G. Howland Shaw (1893–1965), a friend of the Blisses who had been in the diplomatic service in the Middle East. In 1948, the institute acquired, with the Blisses’ financial support, the coin collection of Hayford Peirce (1883–1946) which numbered over 4,300 coins, including some 3,000 Byzantine specimens. These holdings were increased in 1956 with the acquisition of 530 coins from the collection of numismatist Philip Grierson (1910–2006), some 10,000 coins from the collection of the Italian diplomat and scholar Tommaso Bertelè (1892–1971), acquired in two lots in 1956 and 1960, and some 2,500 coins from the Austrian collection of Leo Schindler (1885–1957), acquired from his widow in 1960. Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coinage 2nd edition (Washington, D.C., 1999), 62-63. obliged the Blisses to consider the possibility of expanded exhibition and storage spaces. As early as 1947, Mildred Bliss envisioned what she termed a Garden Centre (she would later prefer the term Garden Library Mildred Barnes Bliss to John S. Thacher, July 20, 1950: “If there is any plumbing left over from former installations at D.O., could it be used in the Garden Centre? And by the way, I think a far better term would be Garden Library. It avoids several undesirable connotations and keeps it within the general orbit of thought expressed by the name of Dumbarton Oaks itself.” Dumbarton Oaks Archives, administration files, Thacher, John S.  correspondence, 1949-1953.) at Dumbarton Oaks to house her book collection and, in 1949, asked the landscape architect Robert W. Patterson (1905–1988), then advisor to the gardens, to submit plans to retrofit a small greenhouse, known as the cool house, for this purpose. “Mrs. Farrand writes that she feels the cool house is too small, even for a start of what the Dumbarton Oaks Garden Centre ought to become. However, as I see no other suitable place, and as building is out of the question for a few years, and as for every reason—Harvard psychology, founders’ age, economic conditions, etc.—I think it would be better to start, get the centre running and able to prove its usefulness. Later a more spacious and suitable centre can be constructed.” Mildred Barnes Bliss to Robert Patterson, August 16, 1949. Dumbarton Oaks, Rare Book Collection, M. Bliss’s office files, R. Patterson. Patterson periodically submitted plans for this center over a period of two and a half years, beginning in 1949 (fig. 3). Robert W. Patterson, “Preliminary Study of the Cool House Changes, Dumbarton Oaks,” July 25, 1949. In 1950, Patterson submitted the following drawings: “Preliminary Sketch, Alterations of Cool House, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.,” January 1950, which showed a rare book room for ca. 2,500 volumes, a reading room for ca. 4,000 volumes, and an office; “Preliminary Plan, Proposed Garden Center, Dumbarton Oaks,” July 1, 1950, a revised plan of greater detail with demarcations for bookshelves, files, and work stations; and “Sketch — Cool House Alterations — Dumbarton Oaks,” July 9, 1950, which detailed the north and west elevations. Dumbarton Oaks, Rare Book Collection, LA.GD.E.2.09-10.a-c. In 1951, he submitted a set of three drawings for what was now called the “Garden Library, Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard Univ., Washington, D.C.” August 1951, which offered even greater detail, including an electrical plan, a detailed design for the bookcases, and a demarcation for architectural drawing flat files. Dumbarton Oaks, Archives, architectural plans, Johnson, Philip, AR.AP.MW.GL.001.a-c. The Blisses made a gift of $250,000 to Harvard University in July 1951 and a second gift of $100,000 in December 1951 to establish the Dumbarton Oaks Garden Endowment Fund. The purpose of this fund was to: maintain and operate the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, establish fellowships in garden design and ornament, maintain and enlarge the Garden Research Library (housed at the time in the Founders’ Room), and fund other related purposes. Harvard Provost, Paul H. Buck, informed the Dumbarton Oaks Administrative Committee in 1952 that the Blisses proposed to build at Dumbarton Oaks a “Garden Center Library. Minutes of the Meeting of the Administrative Committee, April 27, 1952. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, administration files, administrative committee, 1950-1959. And in 1952, Robert Patterson produced three ink and colored pencil drawings that sited the Garden Library in three possible new locations: at the northern end of the then tennis court (now Pebble Garden) (fig. 4); to the north of the Byzantine Gallery on 32nd Street (a plan that included public toilets and what appears to be an outdoor sculpture exhibition); and to the south of the entrance to the institution on 32nd Street. Robert W. Patterson, “Garden Library, Dumbarton Oaks, Sketches A, B, and C,” January 1952. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, AR. AP.MW.GL.003-005.

Philip Johnson at Dumbarton Oaks: Figure 3
Figure 3. Robert W. Patterson, Plan, Preliminary Sketch, Alterations of Cool House, Dumbarton Oaks, January 1950. (LA.GD.E.2.10.a)

Philip Johnson at Dumbarton Oaks: Figure 4
Figure 4. Robert W. Patterson, Sketch A – Garden Library, Dumbarton Oaks, January 1952. (AR.AP.MW.GL.003)

Although it was the two 32nd Street sites that eventually would become the locations of the Blisses’ museum additions, Mildred Bliss apparently was attracted to Patterson’s rendering of the tennis court site. To this end, she discussed the project with Frederic Rhinelander King (1887–1972), an architect with the New York City firm of Wyeth & King Architects. King was the cousin of Edith Wharton (1862–1937), the American author and friend of the Blisses, and Wharton’s niece, Beatrix Farrand (1872–1959), the Blisses’ landscape architect at Dumbarton Oaks. Moreover, he was himself a social acquaintance of the Blisses. In August 1952, he wrote to John S. Thacher, Director of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection:

Shortly before Mrs. Bliss went abroad she asked me to come down to Dumbarton Oaks to discuss a possible Library pavillion [sic] to be placed at the north end of the Tennis Court to house a collection of books on gardens and landscape work, and gave me an outline of the requirements. She suggested that I make a “sketch” during her absence to show her on her return from Europe, and I have therefore drawn up a tentative plan and made a sketch of an elevation, all very preliminary, for further discussion. Frederic R. King to John S. Thacher, August 22, 1952. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection files, Wyeth & King correspondence. If preserved, the whereabouts of the sketch and plan is unknown.

King was hopeful that Thacher would be able to offer comments and criticism as the “programme of requirements was not too definite.” Unfortunately, the preserved correspondence does not document the outcome of this scheme or Mildred Bliss’s reaction to it. If preserved, the present location of King’s tentative plan and elevation is not known. It may well be that, for unknown reasons, either he dropped out of the project or the Blisses decided to postpone the new building. In any event, nothing further was to come of either the Patterson or the King plans until 1960, when Frederic Rhinelander King was again commissioned to design and build the Garden Library (see below). Mildred Bliss and her landscape architect, Ruth Havey (1899–1980), eventually would redesign the tennis court between 1959 and 1964 as the Pebble Garden, a pebble mosaic with a water and fountain feature.