The subtitle of Rachel Cohen's luminous biography of legendary art critic and historian Bernard Berenson is "A Life in the Picture Trade." This is an apt characterization given Berenson's role in building some of the greatest private Renaissance art collections of America's Gilded Age (most notably Isabel Stewart Gardner's). But it's also one that Berenson would have looked upon with more than a little horror, since admitting he engaged in any kind of "trade" would conflict with his carefully constructed self-image, worked out over a lifetime of secrecy and reinvention.
Today, Berenson is perhaps known more for his reputation as an art adviser than as an art writer. However, he made his name with a series of four art books, published by Putnam between 1894 and 1907, which were acclaimed by the public and also attracted the attention of the collecting class. This series, with each volume focusing a different regional school (Venice, Florence, Central Italy, and Northern Italy), introduced a range of Italian Renaissance artists to an American audience that was generally familiar only with Michelangelo and Leonardo. During this remarkably productive period, Berenson also devoted an enormous amount of time to the first ever comprehensive catalogue of old master drawings, The Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1903), a two-volume work that is still used today by curators and art historians.
Less well known are Berenson's complicated personal affairs and professional contradictions. He maintained a pretense of pure scholarship while taking commissions to authenticate works of art—often duplicitously charging both the buyer and seller. A 1922 letter reveals the extent of his denial about his business: "I do not earn money by trade. I earn it by enjoying such authority & prestige that people will not buy expensive Italian pictures without my approval." Despite his self-delusion, Berenson took pains to uphold the integrity of his attributions, resisting enormous pressure to upgrade his assessments, which would greatly increase the price of an artwork.
His allegiance to authenticity, however, fell short when it came to his own personal history. Born Bernhard Valvrojenski in Butrymancy, Lithuania, in 1865, he became Bernhard Berenson when his family immigrated to Boston in 1875. (He later dropped the Germanic "h" in Bernhard as a response to Germany's aggression in World War I.) A convert two times over—first to the Episcopalian Church, then to Roman Catholicism—Berenson's background as the son of a Jewish tin peddler was a source of deep embarrassment and lifelong anxiety.
Cohen writes that Berenson viewed his father, Albert, as "a frustrated intellectual and a man who got his livelihood in a demeaning trade"—precisely the things Berenson least wanted for himself. Although Berenson was ultimately able to live a life of the mind—his complaints and disillusionment notwithstanding—he routinely relied on subterfuge to hide his means of support.
With the secret commissions Berenson earned from scouting and authenticating artworks, he built a fašade of financial independence, going so far as to mask his impoverished early years in Lithuania with fabricated tales of an idyllic Russian childhood. His psychological need to appear as if he were born into high society paralleled the aspirations of his clients among America's nouveau riche, who were eager to obfuscate their own humble origins—as well as the sources of their wealth in hellish mines and factories—with the trappings of Europe's landed gentry.
Berenson's perilous navigation of America's class structure started early. Of his college years, Cohen writes that Berenson, "first matriculated at Boston University, perhaps because it was not very expensive, perhaps because he could not envision himself at Harvard, where there were so few Jewish students." When he did transfer to Harvard thanks to the financial assistance of a wealthy friend and future client, Berenson was continually reminded of how limited social mobility was for Jews in light of the entrenched, casual anti-Semitism of America's moneyed classes.
After taking two semesters of courses with Charles Eliot Norton, Harvard's first professor of art history, Berenson developed a passion for art that led him away from his studies in philology. As he finished college, it became apparent that his career prospects within academia were grim. Cohen tells us that, in the 1880s, "to teach art history in the university was, even for a converted Jew, next to impossible." Denied a much-coveted traveling fellowship, Berenson was given the opportunity to study in Europe for a year by a group of wealthy Bostonians, who envisioned a bright future for him in literature. That year abroad turned into seven, by which time Berenson had abandoned literature for an irrevocable plunge into Italian art.
It was during these years that Berenson developed a style of connoisseurship based on the writings of Walter Pater and Giovanni Morelli, combining an encyclopedic knowledge of art with an acute sensitivity to the work itself. Unlike curators and professors who treated connoisseurship as one of many tools in their professional kit, Berenson saw it as his prime vocation, and in many ways the discernment he developed in its practice was prescient. Cohen writes that as early as 1895, Berenson was anticipating the ideas that led to the modernist breakthroughs of the following century, such as his description of the linear quality of Sandro Botticelli's work as "pure values of movement abstracted."
The independent academic pursuits available to his colleagues from the English aristocracy were beyond Berenson's reach. Virtually penniless, he had to find a way to make a living; nevertheless, he initially rejected the idea of writing about art for the general public (a practice he ridiculed as "newspaperology"), both because it represented a significant lowering of his sights, and because he believed that a painting's essence can't be communicated in words. When circumstances finally forced his hand, the popular success of his four general interest books on regional Italian painting, abetted by extensive lecture tours of the United States, established him as an expert—a term he disdained—whose opinion was increasingly sought by American collectors.
Although Berenson's Harvard education and subsequent European career swept him into a vortex of boldface names, Cohen concentrates on the significance of the women in his life: his doting, suffocating mother and devoted sisters; his wife and collaborator, Mary Costelloe; the eccentric collector Isabel Stewart Gardner; and his great platonic friend Edith Wharton, to name a few. Cohen frames these women as portals into the multifarious aspects of Berenson's personality—his ambition, resentment, duplicity, pettiness, wisdom, and, above all, his conflicted attitude toward success. Emotionally invested in the purity of his connoisseurship, Berenson was filled with self-loathing whenever he allowed his "expertise" to be enlisted by dealers such as the buffoonish Joseph Duveen, who sold Andrew Mellon the paintings that would become the foundation of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Though Berenson would become, in today's dollars, a millionaire many times over as well as a host to an endless parade of celebrities and scholars at his Florentine villa, I Tatti (whose grounds and library he eventually left to Harvard), his life "from the age of ten, had been a scramble to maintain a surface impression of belonging, with all the while a sense of incoherent and alien depths roiling underneath." His compromised solution was "to work in a trade that, though more luxurious and outwardly significant [than his father's], still seemed to him sordid." Up until the end of his life, Berenson's self-worth remained as fragile as the veneer of old-world sophistication put forth by his clients in the newly wealthy classes.
Berenson died on October 6, 1959, at the age of 94. Two years earlier, he wrote, "I wanted to become and be a work of art myself, and not an artist." In her remarkable biography, Cohen approaches Berenson's life as a panorama full of artifice and profundity, whose brilliant flashes of color are inextricable from its substrates of shadow. The book leaves an indelible impression, not merely in the way it catalogues Berenson's accomplishments and failings, but also in its dissection of the struggle between desire and alienation that characterizes American art—and life—to this day.
Thomas Micchelli is an artist, writer and co-editor of Hyperallergic Weekend.