Skip to content Skip to navigation

William Root Bliss, 1869, Red-tan shell cameo relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

William Root Bliss, 1869.  Red-tan shell cameo relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907). William Root Bliss, 1869. Red-tan shell cameo relief (miniature). 1  7/16  x 1 3/16 in. (3.6 x 3 cm.) (oval). Inscribed on frame: WM R BLISS 1869 / BY ST.GAUDENS. Gift of Mrs. Calvin Austin, niece of the sitter, 1927.

William Root Bliss was born in Jewett City, Connecticut, in about 1825, the eldest son of Reverend Seth Bliss and Jeanette Frances Root. When he was still a child, his family moved to Boston where his father served as secretary for the American Tract Society.[1] The younger man graduated from Yale College in 1850 and, three years later, married Elizabeth Fearing, daughter of Andrew C. Fearing, of Boston. They moved to New York City where William was a merchant and pursed his life-long literary interest. He was an inveterate traveler, visiting the West Indies in 1868, Europe in 1869-70, and Central America and the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands in 1871-72. Some of these travels and his love for the history of his native New England were the basis for his writings.

It was on his Grand Tour of Europe in 1869 that Bliss met the young American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who was just at the beginning of his own career, and it was in Paris that Saint-Gaudens modeled Bliss’s cameo portrait, a very transportable but highly personal and aesthetic souvenir of Bliss’s travels.[2] The cameo is also an example of the refinement to which the skills of the twenty-one-year-old Saint-Gaudens had already been honed and a promise of the great career that he was to have as a sculptor in New York and Boston.

Saint-Gaudens’s family had immigrated to New York from Ireland when the future sculptor was six years old.[3] Beginning in 1861, he was apprenticed to New York cameo cutters Louis Avet and Jules Le Brethon and then studied drawing at the National Academy of Design. In 1867, Saint-Gaudens went to Paris where he took classes at the Ecole Gratuite de Dessin (the Petite Ecole), studied with the French sculptor François Jouffroy, and, in 1868, matriculated at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 forced Saint-Gaudens to leave Paris for Rome, where he remained for five years, just as it truncated his client, William Bliss’s, own tour of the continent. Back in the United States, Saint-Gaudens went on to create some of the most important monuments in the history of American sculpture, including his ground-breaking Admiral David Farragut Memorial for Madison Square Park (1881) and the great equestrian statue of William Tecumseh Sherman at the edge of Central Park (1892-1903), both in New York City, the Shaw Memorial in Boston (1884-97), and the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Park Cemetery, Washington, D.C. (1886-91).

Meanwhile, William Root Bliss continued his travels, extending them westward. In 1871, he south sailed from New York, crossed the isthmus of Panama by train, and took a ship to San Francisco and Honolulu. He recorded his adventures in his first book Paradise in the Pacific, which was published in New York in 1873. (Bliss wrote that Hawaii was a paradise where “men and women are unadorned, skies and seas are charming, the daily newspaper is unknown, and it is folly to be wise.”)[4] He then wrote a series of books on New England, for which he became regionally famous, including Colonial Times on Buzzard’s Bay (published in 1888), Old Colony Town, and Other Sketches (1893), Side Glimpses from the Colonial Meeting-House (1894), Quaint Nantucket (1896), and September Days on Nantucket (1902).


David B. Dearinger (from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum [2006], 290-291. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.)

[1]US Federal Census, 1850, Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts. For the Bliss family, see Benjamin W. Dwight, The History of the Descendants of Elder John Strong of Northampton, Massachusetts 2 vols.(Albany, New York: Joel Munsell, 1871).
[2]John H. Dryfhout, The Work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1982), 51, no. 16.
[3]For Saint-Gaudens, see Kathryn Greenthal, Augustus Saint-Gaudens: Master Sculptor (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985); and Thayer Tolles and Lauretta Dimmick, “Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907),” in Tolles, ed., American Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2 vols. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999), 1: 243–44.
[4]William R. Bliss, Paradise of the Pacific; A Book of Travel, Adventure, and Facts in the Sandwich Islands (New York: Sheldon and Company, 1873), 6.