Henry Golden Dearth shared many of the same interests of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, especially a love of Western medieval and Byzantine art as well as an appreciation for Persian textiles and early Chinese paintings and sculptures. (1) Beginning about 1912 and until his death in 1918, he painted still lifes that employed objects from these artistic traditions, including medieval polychrome sculptures, Chinese Buddhas, Byzantine icons, Gothic illuminated books, and medieval tapestries and Persian textiles. And although many of the objects that Dearth included in his paintings have a religious connotation—his compositions suggesting at times a devotional shrine, as in the case of the Dumbarton Oaks painting—Dearth’s interpretation is always decorative, and the still lifes are rendered in expressive bright colors and intricate patterns.
Madonna (Still Life) is typical of Dearth’s formula for this type of painting. The chosen objects—in this case a Gothic-style polychrome Madonna, a ceramic jug of roses, and a maiolica pitcher with a poinsettia blossom—are placed on a narrow fabric-covered ledge or table in a rigid formality and symmetry. Behind the three objects is what appears to be a panel of Persian textile, which itself seems to lie across a medieval-style millefleurs tapestry. The composition is closely cropped on all sides so that the physical setting remains ambiguous and, perhaps, timeless. The arabesques in the design of the Persian textile suggest a halo around the Virgin’s head, and this implied relationship between the two-dimensional background and the three-dimensional objects was one that Dearth often exploited. For example, in The Lady of the Iris, Dearth represents a Japanese matron and her two children embroidered on yellow silk in the background of the still life composition. Before the embroidery, on a pink textile-covered table, are two arrangements of purple and white irises, which the three figures appear to admire as if they were walking through a garden. Similarly, in A XIIth Century Virgin, a polychrome Virgin, similar to the one in the Dumbarton Oaks painting, is placed before an embroidery of the Crucifixion so that she appears to be at the foot of the cross. She is balanced on the other side by a vase of flowers, reinforcing the fact that the painting is a still life and not a religious tableau.
The Blisses formerly owned a second painting by Henry Golden Dearth, Maine Coast, which had been given to them in 1920 by Robert Bliss’s father, William H. Bliss. The Blisses are known to have displayed this brightly colored painting of unmixed impasto pigments at their residence in Stockholm, where Robert Bliss served as United States Minister (1923-1927). They then hung it in their Paris apartment before removing it to Dumbarton Oaks in 1933. Mildred Bliss inherited Madonna (Still Life) from her mother in 1935. Both paintings remained part of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection until Maine Coast was sold in 1975 through Parke-Bernet, New York, to increase acquisition endowment.
(1) See Arthur Edwin Bye, Pots and Pans or Studies in Still-Life Painting (Princeton/London, 1921), 210-212.
Sacred Art, Secular Context, Objects of Art from the Byzantine Collection of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., Accompanied by American Paintings from the Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss. Asen Kirin, editor. Athens, GA: Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, 2005, 174-175, no. 81.
Carder, James. American Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010, 116-119, no. 18.
The Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, Georgia, Sacred Art, Secular Context, May 15-November 6, 2005, no. 81.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., American Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Selections from the House Collection, October 26, 2010-February 13, 2011, no. 18.
Purchased from M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York, NY, by Anna Barnes Bliss, New York, NY, April 15, 1912, as “The Shrine.”
Collection of Anna and William H. Bliss, New York, NY, and Montecito, CA, until February 22, 1935, when it was inherited by Mildred Bliss, Washington, DC.
Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, DC, until November 29, 1940.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, DC.