Between May 1883 and March 1884, Elihu Vedder completed a series of fifty-four drawings in pencil, ink, chalk, and watercolor which became the illustrations for Edward FitzGerald's translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as published by Houghton Mifflin in 1884. One of these was an illustration of the Pleiades, the constellation of “the Seven Sisters,” which served as the page surround for verses 34-36. The sisters swirl above clouds and vine tendrils, almost as if in a dance, and “string” the sky with their seven stars. Below, emerging from the clouds, are medallion-like profiles of either Zeus or their father Atlas and their half-siblings, the Hyades. Versions of the ancient Pleiades myth narrate that the sisters committed suicide either because they were saddened by the fate of their father, Atlas, or over the loss of the Hyades. Zeus, the ruler of the Greek gods, immortalized the sisters by placing them in the sky.
Almost immediately after completing the Rubaiyat illustrations, Vedder began to make chalk studies and oil paintings from the preparatory drawings, and an oil of The Pleiades was completed in 1885. (1) The Dumbarton Oaks version is a signed photoprint with gouache additions of an otherwise unknown study of The Pleiades, dated 1885, and which appears to have been in white chalk or crayon on dark paper, similar in concept to the book illustration. Like many artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Vedder employed photoprints of his works in order to market them at affordable prices. Vedder is known to have employed Copley Prints of Boston to make authorized reproductions of his art, and according to a company brochure, Vedder stated that Copley prints were “all that an artist could ask in the reproduction of his work." (2) However, the Dumbarton Oaks version is not a Copley Print. In his 1910 autobiography, Vedder wrote that beginning about 1872, he “commenced selling photographs of my work, singly or in sets. Afterwards I also resold many retouched with colour and gold…,” which describes the Dumbarton Oaks print exactly. (3)
The Dumbarton Oaks version of The Pleiades differs from all other known versions, including an authorized engraving, The Dance of the Pleiades, by F. E. Fillebrown, in several ways. The most noticeable difference is the almost full-face view of the second sister from the right, whose face is more obscured by the neighboring sister’s arm in other versions. Daubs of gouache have been added to the Dumbarton Oaks print to enlarge and make more prominent the seven stars that the sisters “string” in the sky.
Mildred Bliss’s mother, Anna Barnes Bliss, is know to have been in Italy in 1898, where in Rome she also purchased a cast of a Vedder relief sculpture (HC.S.1935.063.[P]), a Vedder crayon drawing, Birth of the Pearl (also known as Sleep and, possibly, Heart of the Rose), and, in Venice, a watercolor, The Vegetable Seller by Giacomo Favretto. (4) Although the provenance of the Dumbarton Oaks Pleiades is not recorded, it is presumed to have been in the collection of Anna Bliss and to have been gifted or bequeathed to Mildred Bliss.
(1) Oil on canvas, 61.3 cm x 95.6 cm (24 1/8 in. x 37 5/8 in.), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 10.64.13. An undated charcoal study (52.7 cm x 85.7 cm [20 ? in. x 33 3/4 in.]) for this painting, signed by Vedder, was auctioned at Christie’s, New York, on March 2, 2006, lot 43.
(2) Curtis & Cameron Publishers, The Copley Prints (Boston, 1907), 8.
(3) Elihu Vedder, The Digressions of V: written for his own fun and that of his friends (New York, 1910), 472. These reproductions were occasionally exhibited, as, for example, the “Reproductions, Colored and Signed by Mr. Vedder” section of the Exhibition of the Works of Elihu Vedder, Art Institute of Chicago, March 28 to April 15, 1901, where The Pleiades was no. 30.
(4) Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, D.C. (HC.P.1898.30.[WC]). In Digressions, Vedder noted that in 1898 he sold “to Mrs. W.S. Bliss (Miss Barney): Heart of the Rose (drawing).” This is likely a misspelled reference to the sale of a Vedder drawing, formerly in the Bliss collection, which was acquired in 1898 by Mrs. W.H. Bliss accompanied by, apparently, either Mildred Barnes or Cora Barnes. Dated 1891, this charcoal and pastel drawing on paper is more commonly titled Sleep or The Birth of the Pearl and measures 22.9 cm x 22.9 cm (9 in. x 9 in.).
[Presumed] purchase from the artist in 1898 by Anna Barnes Bliss, New York, N.Y.
Collection of Anna and William H. Bliss, New York, N.Y., and Montecito, California, probably until February 22, 1935.
Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., until January 17, 1969.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, D.C.