Bernard Berenson

Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 344
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    Bernard Berenson
    Book Description:

    When Gilded Age millionaires wanted to buy Italian Renaissance paintings, the expert whose opinion they sought was Bernard Berenson, with his vast erudition, incredible eye, and uncanny skill at attributing paintings. They visited Berenson at his beautiful Villa I Tatti, in the hills outside Florence, and walked with him through the immense private library-which he would eventually bequeath to Harvard-without ever suspecting that he had grown up in a poor Lithuanian Jewish immigrant family that had struggled to survive in Boston on the wages of the father's work as a tin peddler. Berenson's extraordinary self-transformation, financed by the explosion of the Gilded Age art market and his secret partnership with the great art dealer Joseph Duveen, came with painful costs: he hid his origins and felt that he had betrayed his gifts as an interpreter of paintings. Nevertheless his way of seeing, presented in his books, codified in his attributions, and institutionalized in the many important American collections he helped to build, goes on shaping the American understanding of art today.This finely drawn portrait of Berenson, the first biography devoted to him in a quarter century, draws on new archival materials that bring out the significance of his secret business dealings and the way his family and companions-including his patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, his lover Belle da Costa Greene, and his dear friend Edith Wharton-helped to form his ideas and his legacy. Rachel Cohen explores Berenson's inner world and exceptional visual capacity while also illuminating the historical forces-new capital, the developing art market, persistent anti-Semitism, and the two world wars-that profoundly affected his life.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19914-7
    Subjects: History, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    In the summer of 1895, Bernard Berenson, who turned thirty that June, was laboring over a follow-up volume to his successful first book,The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance. He wanted the projected book on the Florentine painters to convey to his readers not dry details of biography or composition but what he thought of as the “artistic personalities” of the painters. He disdained experts who simply pronounced paintings genuine or not; he wanted to formulate an aesthetic philosophy that would give his readers an understanding of a deep personal experience of art. That summer, he and his companion, Mary...

  4. 1 Jews of Boston
    (pp. 10-35)

    When he wrote these lines, Bernhard Berenson was only twenty, but already when he spoke of the Lithuanian landscape of his childhood, it seemed to him, and to those who heard him, a mysterious place, poignantly far away. Berenson’s place of origin, to which he would never return, was almost always present in how he was understood, though it was taken in quite different ways by different people. The art dealer René Gimpel referred to Berenson as a “feline Pole,” while Edith Wharton wrote tenderly of his “little Russian childhood.”¹ In conversation, Berenson’s allusions to his childhood were often more...

  5. 2 First Conversions
    (pp. 36-52)

    In the autumn of 1884, Bernard Berenson entered the gates of Harvard Yard, a boyish, serious student, in a worn suit. Still closely tied to his family, he began by pursuing a course of study that had at least something in common with the yeshiva training he and his father had both broken off. He immediately enrolled in courses involving the comparative study of languages and of ancient civilizations, including advanced Hebrew. His professors of Arabic and Sanskrit were enthusiastic about their new pupil, with his fantastic memory, great precision in careful comparison, and gift for acquiring, and using, languages....

  6. 3 Isabella, Mary, Italy
    (pp. 53-83)

    Some of the young Bernhard Berenson’s most treasured intimations of the world of culture beyond Boston came to him through Mrs. Jack Gardner, who was, as Boston would be quick to tell you, from New York. Isabella Gardner liked demonstrations—of both wealth and intelligence. She was showy, and Boston enjoyed being scandalized by the cost of her fashionable Charles Worth gowns, her round-the-world trips to Egypt and China, her diamond tiara shaped like giant antennae, the lion cub she drove about with in her carriage, and the large parties she regularly threw for her young favorites. She had always...

  7. 4 Looking at Pictures with Bernhard Berenson
    (pp. 84-114)

    Looking at a painting was, for Berenson, an experience both sensual and spiritual. In looking at paintings, his divided and contentious soul became resolved, complete, expansive. As a great writer lives fully in language or a great general in battle, so Berenson was alive in every aspect of himself face to face with a painted canvas.

    Berenson’s talent had a number of dimensions, the first of which was an extraordinary visual memory, in particular for faces. He wrote to Mary, in 1890, from Berlin, that he had recently seen, in a gallery, “two English women who sat opposite to me...

  8. 5 Selling and Building: The Gardner Museum and the Villa I Tatti
    (pp. 115-156)

    The sale of an old master painting is an ethical quagmire. The seller, the authenticator, the dealer, and the purchaser are all constantly being implicated in uneasy compromises and having to fend off worries about forgery, misattribution, gaps in provenance, contested wills, the transfer of works out of their countries of origin, import tax evasion, hasty and destructive restoration, and the wildly fluctuating value of paintings. Everyone involved in the transaction stands to gain the most if the painting is considered to be a great work by the hand of a master, but no one wants to be caught holding...

  9. 6 The Picture Trade: Joseph Duveen, Belle Greene, Edith Wharton
    (pp. 157-197)

    In March 1904, the Berensons returned from their American expedition and immediately flung themselves into hurried and passionate distractions. Mary Berenson was in and out of England, while Berenson dashed off to Paris and began an affair with Lady Aline Sassoon. Sassoon was a Rothschild, a salonière, and the person who would eventually introduce Berenson to Joseph Duveen. The fourth book in Berenson’s series,North Italian Painters of the Renaissance, was long overdue—seven years had elapsed since the last volume—but he couldn’t settle down to work. His friends among the European elite were hurtling around at the new...

  10. 7 Nicky Mariano and the Library
    (pp. 198-242)

    Nicky Mariano began by organizing the enormous number of books acquired for the library. She and Mary Berenson together worked on the interminable lists that gave Berenson such rages. And Mariano dealt with the rages with a combination of sympathy and humor that seemed to right things almost before they’d gone wrong. She had a gift for seeing where help was needed and offering it. After four years or so, recognizing that Mary was “getting increasingly tired of the household, the receiving of guests, the kitchen, the planning of meals,” Mariano stepped in there, too.¹ In the mornings, and again...

  11. 8 The Retrospective View
    (pp. 243-274)

    After meeting Marcel Proust in 1918, Berenson reported to Mary, “We exchanged compliments and he assured me that my books had been bread and meat to him…. I confess I often wondered while readingDu Côté de Chez Swanwhether my books had not influenced him.”¹ Proust’s approbation was welcome, as Berenson read Proust fervently. But Proust’s interest in Berenson extended beyond their shared attention to Ruskin and their attachment to the early Italian painters; with his unerring eye, Proust seems to have immediately discerned the interesting fissure in Berenson’s character. Many years before their meeting, Proust wrote to a...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 275-302)
    (pp. 303-314)
    (pp. 315-318)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 319-329)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 330-332)