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Kurt Weitzmann on the Beginning of Dumbarton Oaks

Posted On June 16, 2017 | 11:28 am | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

The Byzantinist art historian Kurt Weitzmann (1904–1993), a professor at Princeton University, had a long and informal relationship with Dumbarton Oaks, eventually becoming a visiting scholar in the 1970s and participating in symposia and publications at Dumbarton Oaks throughout his career. He also advised on acquisitions for the Byzantine Collection and eventually donated to Dumbarton Oaks his extensive collection of photographs of Byzantine manuscripts, which are now housed in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives. In his eighties, he wrote his memoirs, Sailing with Byzantium from Europe to America, The Memoirs of an Art Historian, which was published by Editio Maris in Munich in 1994, a year after his death. In this book he reminisced about Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss and the beginning of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

The Beginning of Dumbarton Oaks

I first met Mr. and Mrs. Bliss at the Dark Ages Exhibition in Worcester in 1937. Through Paul Sachs, they had learned that Adolph Goldschmidt was the foremost expert on ivories, and that I had worked with Goldschmidt on the Byzantine ivories. So Mrs. Bliss began to consult me on ivories. One day she came to Prince­ton to show me a Byzantine plaque she had just acquired, a most beautiful piece from the so-called Romanos group, with the Vir­gin between two saints. Though I had collected all the Byzantine ivories I could get hold of, this piece was unknown to me. I glanced at it and instantaneously said, “It is as good as gold.” Mrs. Bliss looked quizzically at me and said, “I think, Mr. Weitzmann, it would have taken Dr. Goldschmidt a little longer to make up his mind.” On another occasion Mr. Bliss brought a Greek Lectionary all the way from Washington to ask my advice, and he bought it.

The Blisses owned one of the most beautiful estates in Wash­ington, called Dumbarton Oaks, and they had made it one of the great cultural centers of Washington. It became known worldwide when the preliminary conference to the founding of the United Nations, the so-called “Dumbarton Oaks Conference,” was held there. Sometime in the thirties the Blisses conceived the idea of turning Dumbarton Oaks into a scholarly center for the study of Byzantine art and culture, and to give it to Harvard University. Mr. Bliss had developed a taste for pre-Columbian art during his stay as an ambassador in South America, while Mrs. Bliss had become interested in Byzantine art and decided to concen­trate primarily on it. Her inspiration had come from Mr. Royall Tyler, himself a collector in that field and a personal friend of the Blisses. Byzantine art was Tyler’s main interest and he acquired remarkable knowledge. When in 1931 the first international exhi­bition of Byzantine art was held in the Louvre, he was one of the chief advisors. It was a spectacular event, which to a considerable extent reflected Tyler’s taste: it was extraordinarily rich in the minor arts, goldsmiths’ work, ivories and such, while it neglected icons. His preferences determined the formation of the Dumbar­ton Oaks collection. The intent was to make it a “Cabinet des Médailles.” In his scholarly endeavors, Tyler joined forces with Hayford Peirce, who lived in the state of Maine. Peirce was, like­wise, not a professional art historian, but had also become a very good connoisseur of Byzantine art. Together they published two lavishly illustrated volumes on early Christian art which are a valuable collection of material. Objects from both the Tyler and the Peirce collections were later acquired by Dumbarton Oaks. I much regret that I never met Royall Tyler. Mr. Peirce visited me in Princeton and invited me to join him in visiting the shops of New York dealers to see objects which he was considering purchasing. Much later I met Royall Tyler’s son, William, who at one time had been the American ambassador in some European countries and after retiring from government service became the director of Dumbarton Oaks. He had been the Blisses’ godchild, and was closely attached to them.

To stimulate a wider public interest in the fast-growing col­lection, Mrs. Bliss invited scholars to lecture at Dumbarton Oaks in a most remarkable, spacious music hall with a Renaissance ceil­ing, a sixteenth-century French fireplace, and a few works of art of all kinds, an El Greco painting, a portrait by the Maître de Flémalle, an Egyptian cat, a Chinese bronze owl, a sculpture by Tilman Riemenschneider, some fifteenth-century tapestries from Tournai, and on and on. The lectures were arranged by Mrs. Bliss’s private secretary, Mrs. Barbara Sessions, the divorced wife of the composer Roger Sessions, who had joined the music depart­ment at Princeton. In February 1938, I was invited to give one of these lectures, and I spoke about “Principles of Byzantine Book Illumination.” It was a mixed audience: mink and gown, personal friends of the Blisses from the diplomatic corps, and academic people from Washington’s universities. After the lecture, Mr. Bliss called a footman to open one of the huge renaissance cupboards to show me some extraordinary objects of Mayan art, among them a huge green steatite figure, which he asked me to take into my hands to get a feeling for its smooth surface.

As a guest of the Blisses, I stayed in the largest and most elegant guest room I have ever spent the night in. Mr. Bliss him­self took me to the room, on the second floor in what is today the center of the library. “Please don’t leave your room before 8 o’clock in the morning,” he said, “because there will be two ferocious dogs roaming around in the house during the night.” At that moment the trainer came around with the two leashed dogs and Mr. Bliss remarked, “Even I am not allowed to touch them.” Before my lecture I had gone into the beautiful garden, laid out by Beatrix Farrand, one of America’s most outstanding garden architects, which had become quite famous. Mrs. Bliss had taken a very personal interest in everything concerning the garden, and at that time it was almost twice as large as it is today; half of it was given to the city of Washington when Dumbarton Oaks became a Harvard institution.

Mrs. Bliss had an ulterior motive in asking me to give the lec­ture. In her effort to turn Dumbarton Oaks into a scholarly place, devoted to the study of Byzantine art and culture, she was eager to build up a research library in this field. The task fell to Mrs. Sessions, who had no training in Byzantine art, and so I was asked whether I would be willing to be consulted on library acquisitions, and I agreed. Not long after my lecture I spent a couple of days in Washington studying the collection and discussing details of the building up of a library. After this Mrs. Sessions would come to Princeton regularly with book lists and catalogues, and we would go over them. Thus, I had a part in building the ground stock of the Dumbarton Oaks library which later, under the expert guid­ance of Mrs. Vaslev and with the assistance of the research fellows in residence, grew into the outstanding library it is today. Mrs. Sessions was a highly intelligent and very charming woman, and we became lifelong friends, remaining so even after she left Dum­barton Oaks.

In 1940 Dumbarton Oaks was given by the Blisses to Harvard University and officially turned into a research institution. The Blisses moved out of the big house and bought a smaller one in Georgetown, where every year, on the last day of a symposium, the guests would be entertained. Some of the living rooms at Dumbarton Oaks were turned into library rooms, and stacks were built on two floors. The main concern of the new institution was intended to be Byzantine art and culture, but it was not the sole concern. Some years later, Mr. Bliss left his pre-Columbian art collection to Dumbarton Oaks after it had been exhibited for several years in the National Gallery. A special building was erected by Philip Johnson, the well-known architect. The third unit is the garden library, which had always been Mrs. Bliss’s very special pride, second only to the Byzantine collection.

On October 1, 1940, the “Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection” held its grand opening. Igor Stravinsky had been commissioned by Mrs. Bliss to compose a concerto known today as the “Dumbarton Oaks Concerto.” Stravinsky came to Wash­ington to conduct the piece personally, and it was such a success that he had to play it twice. The next day, a series of four lec­tures were given by scholars who were not only considered the most outstanding representatives of their fields, but had been se­lected for rotating yearly appointments as “Director of Studies” at the new institution. Actually, two or three years earlier, when plans began to shape up, the first directorship had been offered to Adolph Goldschmidt. This was meant as an inducement to bring him to America and have him for two years as the first director, after which time he would retire under such conditions that he could live comfortably in the United States. But he declined be­cause of his advanced age, and since he was living in Switzerland in 1940, he was not even able to come to the opening.

The first of the four lectures at the opening was given by Henri Focillon, the Frenchman who had for years divided his time between Paris and Yale University. He had been a very successful teacher at Yale, and trained quite a group of American scholars there. Yet he was that type of Frenchman who, although he came every year to America, refused to the last to speak a word of English.

Focillon was the first Director of Studies, succeeded the next year by the second speaker, Charles Rufus Morey. Since Princeton was at that time the center of research in the field of Byzantine art, Mrs. Bliss had from the very beginning, when she first be­came interested in it, sought Morey’s advice, and became one of the supporters of the Antioch project. As a result, Dumbarton Oaks received some of the best Antioch mosaics and a few ob­jects. Moreover, Dumbarton Oaks acquired a copy of the Index of Christian Art from Princeton, an important research tool.

The third speaker was Wilhelm Koehler, who had been a professor at the University of Jena and at the same time director of the Museum of Weimar, but had left Germany before the Nazi regime to accept a professorship at Harvard. As I remember, he was Director of Studies for two years, and for a time it seemed that he would become the permanent director. He began some research projects, like the “Fontes,” but then was succeeded by Albert M. Friend from Princeton. Koehler took this replacement very personally, and broke off his old friendship with Friend. I personally stayed out of this deplorable situation and maintained my good relations with Koehler. I visited him regularly when I went to Cambridge twice a year for meetings of the Dumbarton Oaks advisory council, of which I was a member.

The fourth lecturer was Michael Rostovtzeff, the eminent Russian historian who had become a professor at Yale. I pre­sume it was for reasons of health that he never became Director of Studies for a year.

Dumbarton Oaks was run by two people. The Director of Studies was responsible for all scholarly activities and research projects, and another director was responsible for the adminis­tration and finances of the whole establishment, including the garden, and was at the same time the director of the museum. John Thacher held this position for more than thirty years, and was responsible for all the activities of the place, including or­ganizing a regular concert series. He was very qualified for this job on four counts: 1) He was himself a collector, quite wealthy, and in the same social class as the Blisses. This made him inde­pendent from the beginning, and this the Blisses understood. 2) Though not trained in the medieval field, he had a good eye and a sense for quality. 3) He was adept in handling dealers who came to Dumbarton Oaks to offer their best objects. 4) He realized that he was not a Byzantinist, and regularly consulted experts in the field and listened to their advice. He never bought an ivory without showing it first to me, and whenever I went to Dumbarton Oaks I would first go to the museum, and Thacher or his associates, Mrs. Elizabeth Bland, and later Sue Boyd, would show me every piece, no matter in what material, that they were considering for acquisition. In other fields, such as goldsmiths’ work or jewelry, he depended largely on the judgment of Marvin Ross. Thus it was logical that Marvin Ross was asked to write the catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks silver and that of its jewelry. For years Mr. Thacher urged me to write a catalogue of the ivories, which for a long time I declined to do because of too many other com­mitments, but I finally agreed, under the condition that some of the objects be sent to Princeton, since I could not regularly go to Washington. Thacher agreed, the pieces were sent to the safe at the Princeton University Museum, and from there brought one by one to my office. For the actual writing, Sue Boyd was assigned to me as an assistant. She was very cooperative and helpful, and we became good friends. When Mr. Thacher withdrew from the museum, she continued the tradition of showing me every object under consideration, or sent me photographs of them.

The year after the foundation of the Dumbarton Oaks Re­search Center the idea was conceived of having an annual symposium at the end of April or beginning of May. In the first two symposia, individual papers were given chiefly by pupils of some of the Harvard professors, like Edward Rand, George LaPiana, and Werner Jaeger. But in 1943 it was decided that each symposium should have a theme, and that one member of the then-constituted “Board of Scholars” should be put in charge of it. Prof. George LaPiana was asked to organize the first of these symposia, and it was his idea that the whole series of lectures should be given by only two persons, Friend and myself. We were asked to present in condensed form the essential ideas of the “Manuscript Course” we gave together every year in Princeton and which had become known beyond our university. LaPiana came to Princeton to dis­cuss this symposium. We had dinner together and over drinks LaPiana’s tongue was loosened and he talked not only about the symposium, but told us his life story—how he had been a monk and eloped. Friend and I agreed to give the symposium, but later Friend reneged and it fell upon my shoulders to give my half of the course in four lectures, while the rest of the symposium was composed of unconnected papers. My lectures outlined what was four years later, in 1947, published under the title, Illustrations in Roll and Codex. My main idea was that the copying of pictures took place according to certain rules, comparable to, but not identical with, those of textual criticism, so that we could talk of “picture criticism.” In the lively discussion that followed, old Vasiliev a permanent member of Dumbarton Oaks, got up and remarked, “What you said about textual criticism is all right [which relieved me greatly since I am not a trained textual critic and had to rely on secondhand information] but when it comes to art, the artist is free.” He, like many art historians, resisted the idea that an artist should be under any restrictions. I did not have to defend myself. Who should come to my rescue but Werner Jaeger, the renowned classicist from Harvard. While still in Berlin, he had edited the journal, Die Antike, which contained articles from both the fields of philology and archaeology, and he himself had a remarkable insight into the creative process of writ­ing and of the visual arts. Thus, he was in a position to recognize the similarity of the principles that operated in both fields. Jaeger supported me and defended my ideas to the hilt.

–K. Weitzmann, Sailing with Byzantium from Europe to America, The Memoirs of an Art Historian (Munich, 1994), 143–51.