Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss As Collectors

Sketch of Mildred Bliss
Robert and Mildred Woods Bliss in the music room at Dumbarton Oaks

In Mystic Chords of Memory, Michael Kammen talks about the collectors of the Gilded Age and how their wealth became something that was "more than wealth."

We have long associated overtly acquisitive instincts with Gilded Age America, so it is scarcely surprising that men (and a few women) who acquired railroads and steamships, mines and manufacturing enterprises, would eventually turn their hands 9and their bankrolls) to the acquisition of objects that simultaneously could show them to be cultured, patriotic, and, in the most literal sense, patronizing: that is, patrons of their nation, class, interest group, and perhaps even community. Names like Morgan, Frick, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Huntington are now identified with great libraries, museums, universities, and, most broadly, with incredible collections of civilization's treasures. Once upon a time those men were mainly known as malefactors of great wealth. To the extent that they are now known as benefactors, their money brought respectablity."

The validity of the points in this quote vary in relation to Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss. Certainly, they had incredible collections of civilation's treasures, but whether or not their aim in collecting was to bring them "respectablity" is unclear.

In creating Dumbarton Oaks, the Bliss' did display their wealth. But it was more than simply an ostentatious show of money. Through the priveleges of travel and education, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss did have cultivated tastes in art. In any case, the Bliss' collection and gift of Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University was a way of turning wealth into both community service and philanthropy.

Robert Woods Bliss (1875-1962) attended Harvard and entered public service in 1900. Robert's first job was in the office of the Civil Governor of Puerto Rico. Later, Bliss worked in Venice, Brussels, St. Petersburg, the Hague, and Paris. He was the American Ambassador to Sweden at one point and Argentina at another. Robert's father, William, was the United States Attorney in St. Louis and also had railway interests. William's first wife, Robert's mother, died and William then married Anna Blaksley. Mildred Barnes was Anna Blaksley's daughter from her first marriage to Demus Barnes. Demus Barnes had interests in Fletcher's Castoria and left Anna a very wealthy woman. Mildred Barnes and Robert Bliss were stepbrother and stepsister to each other when William Bliss married Anna Blaksley after both had been bereaved of their first spouses.
Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss