Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade (Jewish Lives)
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.
1865–1959. 2. Art historians— United States—Biography. I. Title. N7483.B47C64 2013 709.2—dc23 [B] 2013022541 A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Frontispiece: Bernard and Mary Berenson, Friday’s Hill, 1901. Biblioteca Berenson, Villa I Tatti—The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, courtesy of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48–1992 (Permanence of Paper). 10 9 8 7 6
constantly questioning my own pulse, and of making believe that I can comprehend the Universe.”63 Berenson went up to a remote monastery at Mount Oliveto, where the devout abbot had previously made a great impression on him. In a peculiar gesture of ambivalence, he took, as a sort of double, his college friend Charles Loeser. He and Loeser had been living in adjacent lodgings in Florence and traveling together in pursuit of paintings, and Loeser was beginning to assemble what would be a famous
spirit of a work of art when you reached the stage of concentration upon it where nothing else, scarcely even you yourself, existed.”2 Mary Berenson wrote that, looking at paintings, he would lose track of all else. “He would hang for hours onto the railings in front of pictures when he was literally trembling with nervous exhaustion,” and she would sometimes have to pry him away and persuade him to rest and eat.3 Berenson’s ideas for attribution came from a combination of quick instinctual
his books in this crisis with the same insatiable curiosity, the same confidence in a personal revelation that he has always brought to his study of the visual arts.” Berenson didn’t write autobiographically to render incident; rather, faced with a book or a painting, he sought the “IT” of personal revelation, and in conveying this to a reader, he conveyed himself. As Walker noticed, in One Year’s Reading for Fun, “there gradually emerges a remarkable portrait of B.B. . . . like a painting by
ought not to neglect: “Will you listen to my advice, Jews of America?” His recommendations were an odd combination, some of them things he had done and some he decidedly hadn’t: do not be ostentatious, do not excite envy, try to buy land and live close to it, “take to sports,” do not make a lot of money, “intermarry to the utmost feasible extent,” and above all remember not to be arrogant. The lament of exile merges into the plea for assimilation: “You whom Hitler for years to come has reduced to