Bliss, Mildred Barnes (1879–1969)

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Bliss, Mildred Barnes (1879–1969)

American art collector, philanthropist and patron of the arts who, with her husband, commissioned and collected works of art for their home, Dumbarton Oaks. Name variations: Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss. Born Mildred Barnes in New York City in 1879; died in Washington, D.C., on January 17, 1969; daughter of Demas Barnes and Anna Dorinda Blaksley; married Robert Woods Bliss (1875–1962, a diplomat).

Born to great wealth as heir to a patent-medicine fortune, Mildred Barnes married diplomat Robert Woods Bliss and traveled with him to various postings, including Brussels, Leningrad, Paris, Stockholm and Buenos Aires. Following his retirement from the Foreign Service in 1933, Robert and Mildred Barnes concentrated on transforming their home in the Georgetown section of northwestern Washington D.C., Dumbarton Oaks, into a center of beauty and culture. The land, with a history that traced back to a 1702 grant, was a working farm well into the 19th century. The mansion was a part of American history, having belonged to John C. Calhoun when he was U.S. vice-president in the 1820s. By the time the Blisses purchased the home in 1920, the property had seen better days, but Mildred Bliss immediately set out to transform it. In 1922, she hired landscape gardener Beatrix Jones Farrand (1872–1959) to oversee the task of bringing the grounds and gardens to a state of perfection. A follower of British landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll , Farrand had earned a reputation designing landscapes at Princeton and Yale and, in 1899, had been among the founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Together, Bliss and Farrand worked for 25 years to bring the most appropriate shrubs and trees to the garden of Dumbarton Oaks, agonizing over the correct sites, proportions and colors for every detail.

Enthusiastic, discriminating collectors of art, Mildred Bliss and her husband amassed a collection of pre-Columbian artifacts that has been termed nothing short of dazzling. Their collection of Byzantine objects, particularly coins and jewelry, is a treasure-trove of beauty and history. To make these superb collections useful to scholars, a library was assembled over the decades. In 1940, the Blisses gave Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University so that the academic world could benefit from the history they had collected. Moving to a smaller house a few blocks away, they nonetheless arrived at the mansion virtually every day to meet with the world's most eminent scholars, who were invited to work at the Byzantine research center that Dumbarton Oaks had become. The collection is particularly strong in coins (with over 11,700 catalogued) and lead seals (13,000), objects of great importance for history and chronology. The greatest library in the world related to Byzantium—over 90,000 volumes—is housed in the mansion. A fellowship program enables scholars to spend extended periods of time engaging in research at the center.

Functioning as patrons of the arts on a scale worthy of the Medicis, the Blisses made it possible for academic endeavors to thrive in breathtaking surroundings. Neither were other arts neglected. To celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary on April 14, 1938, they commissioned Igor Stravinsky to compose a work for the occasion. The result, his Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, had its premiere in the home's Florentine-style music salon. The conductor on this occasion was renowned music pedagogue Nadia Boulanger . During World War II, Dumbarton Oaks achieved a place in world history when it was chosen by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the site for a conference that led to the formation of the United Nations.

Bliss worked to the end of her long life to add treasures to Dumbarton Oaks. In 1963, after her husband's death, she built a graceful garden library to house what had evolved into a major book collection on landscape architecture. Until her last days, she could be seen there every Wednesday afternoon, entertaining rare book dealers as they displayed their latest discoveries before her discerning eyes. Mildred Barnes Bliss died in her Washington home, several blocks from her beloved Dumbarton Oaks, on January 17, 1969.


"Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, 89, Ambassador's Widow, Is Dead," in The New York Times. January 19, 1969, p. 73.

Olmert, Michael. "Dumbarton Oaks: stately link from past to the present," Smithsonian. Vol. 12, no. 2. May 1981, pp. 92–101.

Whitehill, Walter Muir. Dumbarton Oaks: The History of a Georgetown House and Garden, 1800–1966. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia