- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2011

By James N. Carder
Harvard University Press, $65, 177 pages, illustrated

By James N. Carder
Harvard University Press, $20.95, 127 pages, illustrated

The handsomely produced “A Home of the Humanities,” timed to coincide with the reopening of Dumbarton Oaks after a major architectural renovation, reminds us that the place is a continuing, living memorial to its “onlie begetters.” As its director writes in his foreword:

“This volume honors Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss by investigating their contributions to Dumbarton Oaks as collectors and patrons. It explores their avocations, not only in Byzantine and pre-Columbian art but also in garden design and history, architecture and music. As such, it presents a cross section of the larger area that motivated the Blisses as they sought to transform, under the aegis of Harvard University, their personal home into a ‘home of the Humanities.’ “

You only have to look at the picture in this volume of the large but by no means splendid house called simply “The Oaks” when the Blisses bought it in 1920 to see what they wrought from relatively little. Famed architects, including Philip Johnson, have transformed the complex into something really splendid in the decades since then, and equally talented garden planners have created around it a true “locus amoenus,” surroundings worthy of what is within them. For it’s those collections, personally amassed by the Blisses, that are very much the point of the whole place, its heart and soul, profoundly reflective of theirs.

They were truly kindred spirits, stepsiblings in what now would be called a blended family, who, in their more than half century of marriage, used the gifts fortune had bestowed on them to amass a remarkable collection, first for their own pleasure and ultimately for the benefit of others.

The money that made all that possible was largely hers, based on the ubiquitous children’s laxative Fletcher’s Castoria, although it must be said that his father managed it so well that even the crash of 1929 hardly put a dent in it. But it was their shared taste that enabled them to transform such dross into artistic gold and also his career as a diplomat, which took them all over the world. (He eventually was to serve as ambassador to Argentina for five years.)

It was fortunate that immediately after their marriage, they were en poste in Belgium, for its superb museums, among the best in Europe despite the country’s small size, seized her attention, educating her and igniting her passion for collecting.

Later, Paris would become the focus for her artistic enterprises, but no matter where she admired and collected worldwide, it was her own country that would benefit. Also, as the companion volume devoted to Dumbarton Oaks’ American collection shows, she was not the kind of artistic snob who turned up her nose at what her native land had produced, but valued accomplishment whatever its provenance.

Henry James complained, in a characteristic sourly wistful expatriate moment, that the trouble with America was that there were no castles there, but the Blisses were content to transform their home into a repository for a multitude of splendors such as few European castles could equal. And, like Washington’s other and grander collections, the Chester Dale at the National Gallery and the Phillips Collection, theirs bore the unmistakable hallmark of exquisite personal taste.

“A Home for the Humanities” is lavishly illustrated and includes a variety of images, from evocative ones that capture the gardens’ many lovely spots to others that show off the splendor of Dumbarton Oaks’ interior and exterior design. There are some nice ones of the Blisses too, and they manage to convey some of the couple’s plainness, modest demeanor and gravitas.

But even the best-edited and -produced books can slip. It is quite believable that Robert Bliss was presented to the czar and czarina of Russia when he was en poste in St. Petersburg, but the illustration supposedly showing him with them is no such thing, as anyone familiar with their much-reproduced physiognomies or indeed their age (they were still in their 30s that year) surely would know. The elderly couple pictured with Bliss is probably the czar’s uncle and aunt, the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich and the Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, leaders of St. Petersburg society.

The relative informality of the photograph also should have been a giveaway: Bliss would have been presented to their imperial majesties at a levee or audience, quite likely as part of the U.S. Embassy suite as a whole, and would not have been favored with a portrait like this.

That chronicler par excellence of the American merchant-prince class, Louis Auchincloss, knew the Blisses quite well, and in the memoir he wrote shortly before his death last year, he left this memorable description of what they created:

“I call it a collection because every item in it, including the very pebbles in the garden stream, were imported under the scrutiny of Mrs. Bliss. She was a realist and faced the fact that the world was full of ugliness. Her own fortune had its origin in a vulgar patent medicine for children. All the more reason, she believed, for keeping the nonbeautiful outside the gates of Dumbarton Oaks. The daily emphasis on beauty is favorable to a certain formality, sometimes suggestive of the past, and this was true of Mr. and Mrs. Bliss. … She spoke of her own part as if she had been a princess. … And she ran a kind of court at Dumbarton Oaks.”

It has been nearly half a century since the Blisses died, but these splendid books remind us of those days when they reigned over their court so close to the heart of democratic power. And of how they traveled the world to bring its splendors home to their nation’s capital to create there a truly world-class site dedicated to beauty and scholarly enterprise.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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