Albert Sterner began making chalk portraits about 1900 and was quickly recognized for both the expressive fluidity of his draftsmanship as well as the grace and sensitivity of his rendering of his subjects. In 1908, the year of his portrait of Mildred Barnes Bliss, a reviewer of Old Master drawings on exhibition in New York City also recommended to his readers an exhibition of Sterner’s “charming sanguine portraits drawn in red chalk in the manner of Holbein and other old masters….” The critic noted that “these drawings reveal somewhat the same easy, delightful touch that gave a new interest to his notable series of illustrations for the novels of Mrs. Ward. They show Mr. Sterner to be a born draughtsman, whose line always adequately renders the outward aspects of a subject, and not infrequently hints in a fluent, expressive manner, somewhat of the sitter’s private history.” In some portraits the critic found a “pent-up, concentrated, mental energy that causes one to forget that this is mere chalk-and-paper mummery,” and in others “great warmth and softness of flesh and a proud yet withal sympathetic disposition, … [a] captivating femininity he exploits…with a brilliancy of touch, a lightness, a grace that are altogether alluring.” (1)
Mildred Barnes Bliss sat for many portraits during her lifetime, although surprisingly she chose to retain very few of them. While Albert Sterner was working on this drawing, another artist was also doing an oil portrait of her. However, neither the other artist’s name nor the whereabouts of this second work are known. Sterner amusingly alluded to the oil painting in two letters he wrote Mildred Barnes, and in these letters he also makes interesting observations on the drawing’s conception. He wrote: “Unkind as you are for making me wait so long to see you—you are forgiven. What else should I do when it is a brother artist who claims some moments for the purpose of fastening your elusiveness on canvas. There will exist then another presentation which I must surpass or forever hold my peace! Will you please bring with you tomorrow morning some diaphanous scarf which might serve as a head dress. I have some idea that something interesting might be arranged with it, and I have some idea of cutting the drawing down and leaving out the hands and lower part of the body which after all are not infinitely expressive.” “I sat long this morning looking at you and I feel that in the closely finished little head there is that world of things which in our too short acquaintance I have à peine effectué [scarcely achieved]. How I wish time and conditions might be made to make me to do a great portrait of you.” (2)
Fitzroy Carrington, a friend of Mildred Bliss who had sold her Sterner’s drawing of Lady Kitty (HC.D.1907.30.[Ch])), chronicled the inception of the Sterner portrait of Mildred Bliss is a letter of 1907: “Miss Perrin must have ‘fired a train,’ making the artist ambitions for a portrait drawing. I so trust that it may come to pass: I know you would inspire him – you do all who know you – to do his best; and Sterner’s ‘really truly; best is a sympathetic portrait drawing, to my thinking, is the best America has to show.” (3) The portrait was delivered unfinished—and it is so marked on the drawing—on April 14th, 1908, the date that Mildred Barnes married Robert Bliss. (4)
(1) “Early Engravings at Grolier Club,” New York Times (Feburary 9, 1908), 10.
(2) Undated letters, ca. 1907-1908, from Albert Sterner on The National Arts Club, Gramercy Park stationary to Mildred Barnes. Harvard University Archives, HUG (FP) 76.8 Box 38.
(3) Fitzroy Carrington, Mallowfield, Mamaroneck, New York, to Mildred Barnes, August 29, 1907. Harvard University Archives, HUG (FP) 76.8 Box 11.
(4) A receipt for the framed drawing from Frederick Keppel & Co. indicates that the portrait was to be ready exactly on April 14th, the date of the wedding. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, House Collection dossiers.
Dumbarton Oaks, The Collections. Gudrun Bühl, editor. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection (distributed by Harvard University Press), 2008, 370f, ill.
Carder, James. American Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010, 108-111, no. 17.
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. 17.
Purchased from the artist through Frederick Keppel & Co., New York, NY, by Mildred Barnes, April 14, 1908.
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.