Biography and History

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy was a noted art historian and champion of Ceylonese and Indian culture. Born in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), in 1877, Coomaraswamy moved to England in 1879 and attended Wycliffe College, a preparatory school, from the age of 12. In 1900, he graduated from University College, London, with a degree in geology and botany, and in 1906, he received a doctor of science for his study of Ceylonese mineralogy. He served as director of the Mineralogical Survey of Ceylon from 1902 to 1907 before moving to the United States to serve as curator of Indian art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where he stayed for the remainder of his life. Coomaraswamy devoted himself to the study of traditional Ceylonese and Indian arts and crafts, the cataloging of Indian art collections, and research on Indian art, religion, metaphysics, and culture. He died in 1947.

Source: From the finding aid for C0038

Biography and History

Stella Bloch was born on December 18, 1897, in Tarnow, Poland; she arrived in New York City in March 1898. She lived on East 54 th Street with her mother Charlotte Bloch [“Binney”] above the woman's dressmaking business run by her mother, aunt Pauline Ehrlich, and uncle Bernard Offner. Within the busy workrooms of the family business, three-year-old Bloch was given permission to entertain herself by drawing with chalk on the walls. The skills that she developed as a result of this early practice became the foundation of her career in art.

Bloch's cousins, the art historian Richard Offner and his brother the photographer Mortimer Offner, played important roles in shaping her aesthetic and career. While Bloch was still a young girl, Richard Offner encouraged her to collect photos of ancient Greek sculpture, and later assisted her in entering art school. There the self-taught artist received instruction in the fundamentals of drawing, painting, color, and technique. Attending a 1914 performance by Isadora Duncan proved a prodigious experience for Bloch: it both sparked her interest in dance and provided a new subject for her art. A selection of Bloch's drawings of Duncan later came to the attention of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy was born on August 22, 1877, in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), to a Tamil father, Sir Mutu, who died when his son was two, and an English mother, Elizabeth Clay Beeby. Coomaraswamy was raised from an early age and educated in England, graduating from the University of London with a geology degree in 1901. On June 19, 1902, Coomaraswamy married Ethel Mary Partridge, an English photographer, who then traveled with him to Ceylon. Coomaraswamy's field work between 1902 and 1906 earned him a doctorate and prompted the formation of the Geological Survey of Ceylon which he initially directed. While in Ceylon, the couple collaborated on Mediaeval Sinhalese Art (Broad Campden: Essex House Press, 1908); Coomaraswamy wrote the text and Ethel Mary provided the photographs. His work in Ceylon fueled Coomaraswamy's anti-Westernization sentiment, a surprising position since his father had been a prominent supporter of English presence and reform in their native country.

By 1916 Coomaraswamy encountered problems in England as a result of his political position: he was a supporter of Indian nationalism and claimed that Indians should not have to fight with the British during World War I. In order to travel with Devī as part of her United States music tour, Coomaraswamy enlisted the help of an influential friend to secure the appropriate permissions. During the trip he made two important encounters, one professional and one personal. Coomaraswamy transformed his professional career through a meeting with Dr. Denman W. Ross, an influential patron of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, who purchased Coomaraswamy's collection of Indian art for the museum and helped appoint him curator of the new department. The personal meeting was between 39-year-old Coomaraswamy and 17-year-old Bloch at one of Devī's rehearsals in New York.

In 1917 Coomaraswamy left England definitively for Boston and began communicating frequently with Bloch. Although Devī joined her husband in the United States, their relationship quickly soured and ended in divorce only a few years later. For her part, Bloch remained in New York where she continued to dance and paint, and even exhibit her work. Her initial uneasiness about Coomaraswamy wore off and she slowly became captivated by her older mentor and admirer. When the Boston Museum of Fine Arts sent Coomaraswamy on a collecting trip to India and Asia from 1920 to1921, Bloch accompanied him. She was an adventurous young woman who followed her heart despite her mother's objections. During their travels Bloch's appreciation for Asian art, dance, culture, and philosophy blossomed. She studied dances from every country they visited and later performed them back in New York and Boston.

Coomaraswamy and Bloch eventually made their relationship official by marrying in November 1922. However, theirs would never be a conventional union, in part because they each maintained separate residences in their respective cities. Coomaraswamy's museum career kept him in Boston, while Bloch preferred the nightlife and dance community in New York. They often visited each other, and vacationed in Maine and Wyoming. Correspondence was their primary means of communication for both personal and professional matters; Coomaraswamy's letters to Bloch cover the spectrum from expressions of love to discussions of writing projects. Despite both the physical distance and age gap, Coomaraswamy and Bloch shared compatible interests in art and culture, and their marriage lasted eight years, until November 1930. Even after going their different ways, Coomaraswamy and Bloch maintained an amicable friendship.

Almost immediately after his divorce from Bloch, Coomaraswamy married Argentine-born Doña Luisa Runstein on November 18, 1930. Doña Luisa was only 25 at the time, while Coomaraswamy was 53, and worked as a society photographer under the pseudonym Xlata Llamas. This relationship produced a son, Coomaraswamy's third child, Rama Ronnambalam (b. 1932). In 1933 Coomaraswamy's responsibilities and title changed from curator to Fellow for Research in Indian, Persian, and Mohammedan Art. He now had more time to dedicate to his research and writing on philology, iconography, and other topics; his collected works are extensive. These intellectual pursuits engaged Coomaraswamy until his death of a heart attack at his home in Needham, Mass. on September 9, 1947.

Bloch had an equally fulfilling and successful life after the divorce. In 1931 she married Edward Eliscu, a lyricist, and had two sons, Peter and David. Eliscu and Bloch were married for 67 years until his death in June 1998. Also in 1931 the couple moved to Hollywood where Eliscu wrote songs and Bloch worked in the movie industry. In the 1950s they returned to New York and Bloch began using life in Harlem and the vibrant jazz scene as subjects of her art. Some of the performers that she drew and painted include Bessie Smith, Bo Jangles, Snake Hips Tucker, Josephine Baker, and Thelonious Monk. Eliscu supported his wife's artistic production and also promoted her work to be shown in galleries and exhibits. Bloch's works can be found in the following collections: New York City Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, Harvard Theatre Collection, Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York), Katherine Hepburn (private), and George Cukor (private). She enjoyed a long career as an artist and continued producing into her 90s. Bloch died of pneumonia one day shy of her 101 st birthday on January 10, 1999.

Source: From the finding aid for C0822

Occupations

  • Art historians -- United States -- 20th century..
  • Ananda K. Coomaraswamy Papers. 1917-1947 (bulk), 1827-1970 (inclusive).

    Call Number: C0038

    Ananda K. Coomaraswamy was a noted art historian and champion of Ceylonese and Indian culture. This collection covers a broad spectrum of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy's work in the fields of art history, philosophy, religion, and social criticism.

  • Ananda K. Coomaraswamy Papers. 1917-1947 (bulk), 1827-1970 (inclusive).

    Call Number: C0038

    Ananda K. Coomaraswamy was a noted art historian and champion of Ceylonese and Indian culture. This collection covers a broad spectrum of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy's work in the fields of art history, philosophy, religion, and social criticism.

  • Stella Bloch Papers Relating to Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. 1890-1985 (inclusive), 1917-1930 (bulk).

    Call Number: C0822

    The Stella Bloch Papers Relating to Ananda K. Coomaraswamy consists of manuscripts, correspondence, drawings, photographs, printed material, and postcards of the American dance critic, art historian, and artist Stella Bloch (1898-1999). This collection documents the relationship between Bloch and the Anglo-Indian art historian, philosopher, and author Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) who embodied the roles of mentor, husband, and friend. The papers primarily contain correspondence by Coomaraswamy to Bloch, as well as a small amount of other letters. Writing was a vital form of communication for Coomaraswamy and Bloch, especially during their marriage, since they always resided in different cities; he lived in Boston while she lived in New York. There are also drawings by Coomaraswamy and by Bloch, as well as photographs-some taken by Coomaraswamy-that include portraits and assorted images from their travels to India and Southeast Asia. The articles in both manuscript and printed form provide a sampling of Coomaraswamy and Bloch's writings on art, religion, and philosophy. Furthermore, there is a small selection of printed material about Coomaraswamy and Bloch, and a series of memento postcards.