Cornelius Bliss was a prominent merchant with ties to Massachusetts and New York. Although he was nationally connected and energetically involved in civic affairs, he consistently refused to accept appointments for public office. He twice declined nominations for Governor of New York and rejected President McKinley's offer to become secretary of the Treasury. Bliss relented, however, and did serve a brief term as McKinley's secretary of the Interior. He was a proponent of forests and also took an interest in improving schools and public services for Indians. After nearly two years, Bliss resigned to return to business. He turned down the offer to be McKinley's vice presidential running mate in 1900 but after McKinley's assassination did continue to support Theodore Roosevelt.
Artist Eastman Johnson—known in his day as "the American Rembrandt"—helped found the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. At the time he created this piece, Johnson had mostly given up genre painting and was working almost exclusively in portraiture.