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French Paintings at Dumbarton Oaks, 1850-1910: Collecting the Unexpected

November 25  –  March 28, 2009

My particular interest is in objects of Byzantine and mediaeval art, though of course I am very fond of the French 19th century well-known painters.”

Robert Woods Bliss to a Brussels dealer, 1945

Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss were not, per se, collectors of modern French art. However, as both Francophiles and art amateurs, they chose to make French paintings of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a significant part of their art collection. While building in depth their collections of Byzantine and pre-Columbian art, the Blisses simultaneously put together a small, but choice ensemble from the modern French school. This included paintings by Degas, Manet, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat,   Vuillard, Stevens, Daumier, Rouault, Matisse, and Picasso.

In acquiring French paintings, the Blisses often chose the unconventional or unexpected example from the artist’s oeuvre: a pre-pointillist Seurat or a Renoir landscape, for example. They also seem to have favored studies and unfinished works over more finished paintings, possibly because these offered an interesting insight into how the artists worked up their compositions. Half of the paintings in this exhibition are preparatory works or sketches for larger works, and they demonstrate the immediacy with which the artists captured their subjects. It is also apparent from the Blisses’ French painting collection that they were partial to figure studies. With the exception of the Renoir landscape and the Redon Vase of Flowers, the latter a gift from the landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, the paintings in this exhibition portray humans with a vivid array of expressions and postures.