Handbook of The Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art

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Author: Dumbarton Oaks

Year: 1963-69

Publisher: Dumbarton Oaks

Place: Washington, DC


2 parts: xiv+78p with 426 plates; 8 unpaginated pages and 13 plates. Royal ctavo (9 14" x 6 1/8") issued in wrappers with black and gilt lettering. 1st edition.

Robert Woods Bliss was the earliest of the serious collectors of Pre-Columbian art. In 1945, he wrote to the secretary of his Harvard class:

About forty years ago [closer to thirty years, in fact] I became interested in the sculpture and artifacts in general of the various pre-Columbian cultures of Mexico, Central America, and the west coast of South America. At that time few, if any of our art museums had on display these objects, which were only made available to the public in museums of natural history as part of their archaeological finds. To me, many of the pieces I saw had artistic significance and also revealed remarkable craftsmanship. So I began to collect, buying only pieces which appealed to me as objects of art . . . I began to try to impress upon others the importance of the history of art, of the stylized and powerful sculpture of the early inhabitants of the western hemisphere. . . .

In an obituary of Mr. Bliss, Samuel Lothrop wrote that: "The primary effect of the Bliss Collection has been a wider acceptance of aboriginal American artifacts as art. Robert Woods Bliss acquired his first object at the beginning of developing appreciation of the aesthetic merits of ancient American art. In the spring of 1912, in Paris, he was taken to the shop of Joseph Brummer on the Boulevard Raspail by Royall Tyler. At [this] Paris shop, Robert Bliss apparently saw Pre-Columbian objects--certainly, ancient Mexican objects--for the first time. Within a year after the visit to Brummer, Mr. Bliss acquired from him a remarkable first piece, an Olmec figure, then labeled "Aztec."

[In] 1908, [Robert Bliss] married Mildred Barnes. In 1920 Mr. and Mrs. Bliss . . . acquired Dumbarton Oaks, which they restored and enlarged, and where they installed their collections. Robert Bliss' Pre-Columbian collecting was desultory until 1940, when the Blisses, apparently foreseeing changes the coming war would bring, gave Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard, along with the Byzantine Collection and Library that they had jointly acquired. Mrs. Bliss had also collected books on landscape architecture and developed the Dumbarton Oaks gardens. In the years from about 1940 until his death in 1962, Mr. Bliss concentrated on acquiring Pre-Columbian objects.

In 1947 the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art was lent for exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, where it remained and grew until 1962. As Lothrop later remarked, "No art museum in the United States maintained a comparable display at that time." The first catalogue of the Bliss Collection, Indigenous Art of the Americas, was published by the National Gallery. In it, Mr. Bliss wrote: "I have collected . . . objects which gave me pleasure-a sculpture boldly conceived; a gold object delicately wrought; a fabric of good design, well woven; ceramics with interesting iconography; metal work of quality-a rhythm here, a form there. . ." He was interested in "examples of fine workmanship or of an interesting concept."

Mr. Bliss acquired from Ernest Brummer, just after the death of Brummer's brother Joseph in 1947, a group of objects, including the Tlazoteotl figure the Aztec rabbit with Eagle Warrior, an elaborately carved Veracruz yoke, and a miniature Teotihuacan mask, which had belonged to President Porfirio Diaz, whose widow sold it in Paris. The provenience of the Tlazoteotl was also interesting. It was "rumored" to have been brought to France by an officer who had served under Maximilian in Mexico, and later bought in Paris for a collection of "hard, worked stones" and published in the Journal de la Societe des Americanistes, Paris.

[The Blisses] traveled to sites in Mexico and Guatemala. They went into Tikal . . . and Mr. Bliss advocated a program there. He supported Peabody Museum excavations at Venado Beach, in the Panama Canal Zone, and served as a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, visiting Carnegie projects at Chichen Itza and Uaxactun. He was on the board of the Museum of Primitive Art and was one of the two original sponsors of the Institute of Andean Research. He lent objects to exhibitions that were most often held in art museums. In 1957, he brought out what might be called the first coffee-table book on Pre-Columbian art, with large, color photographs by Nicholas Muray . . . a proper scholarly catalogue of the collection, with text by Lothrop and appendices by William Foshag and Joy Mahler. Over a hundred gift copies of this book were sent to friends and professionals. Mr. Bliss was, indeed, spreading the word. Matthew Stirling wrote [in 1957] "You have done a great favor to lovers of aboriginal American art, for this presentation of some of the finest existing examples will do much to consolidate the position of the precolumbian artists among the finest in the world."

[In 1960 Mr. Bliss] left the collection to Dumbarton Oaks. The Pre-Columbian wing at Dumbarton Oaks was under construction before Mr. Bliss' death. Mrs. Bliss had had the idea of enclosing the interstices between the galleries and the central fountain-courtyard in order to put plants there. In his address at the inauguration of the building, Philip Johnson said that it should be called the Bliss-Johnson Wing, because the Blisses had had so much input into its design. Mildred Bliss always objected strongly to the use of the term "museum" for Dumbarton Oaks; she had in mind an Eden of aesthetic and scholarly experience.

Mr. Bliss had bought the library of Francis B. Richardson, a Harvard Mayanist, and, with other acquisitions, his personal library totaled some 2,200 books and pamphlets at the time it came to Dumbarton Oaks. The Pre-Columbian library at Dumbarton Oaks now comprises some 18,000 volumes [now more than 24,000 volumes]. In the activities that grew up around the collection we tried to follow [Mr. Bliss'] viewpoint and interests, to think always primarily of the art, using whatever resources and approaches of study would aid in understanding that art. In an April 21, 1947, letter to Alfred Tozzer, who had seen the National Gallery exhibition, Mr. Bliss wrote:

It is my earnest hope that this little show will result in awakening not only an interest in the objects of pre-Columbian finds which have lain for many years on the shelves of museums of natural history, but that the public will be awakened to the art values which so many of those objects embody. I am not at all sure that simply exposing them in an art gallery will have that result. . . . I thought that if someone could be found who could be induced to work on the objects with a view to delivering a lecture or two, with slides to point out wherein those objects are of aesthetic interest and value, that a real advance might be made in awakening the public to the aesthetic quality that so much of the material presents

Elizabeth P. Benson, "The Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art: A MeArt: A Memoir" in Collecting the Pre-Columbian Past, ed. Elizabeth Hill Boone, 15-32. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, 1993.


A very good to fine copy.

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