Commentary Magazine

Not-Such-a-Saint Bernard

Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade
By Rachel Cohen
Yale University Press, 328 pages

Among the rich and powerful, it is common knowledge that if you have amassed a vast fortune, using perhaps not the daintiest of methods, a hefty dose of art will work wonders for your image. American tycoons in the Gilded Age were quick to realize the benefits of Picture Power. Initially, the taste favored portraits of bewigged British aristocrats, discreetly suggesting some illustrious connection to the Old Country, then shifted to soothing 19th-century French landscapes of the Barbizon school. The third, more sophisticated craze was for Renaissance paintings, with emissaries criss-crossing Italy in search of delicate artworks to bolster their employers’ claim to be men of taste and refinement. 

In the fierce competition to secure old masters, Bernard Berenson was a key figure. As the acknowledged oracle on Italian paintings, Berenson helped build Isabella Stuart Gardner’s collection in Boston, and for 25 years he worked for the dealer Joseph Duween, art supplier in chief to moguls such as Morgan, Mellon, Rockefeller, and Frick. But with its inherent risk of a conflict of interest, scholarship and trade made for an uneasy combination. In her new biography, Rachel Cohen portrays Bernard Berenson as a tragic figure, “his reputation among collectors always trembling between light and shadow.”

The son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania—his father was a tin peddler—Berenson possessed an intellect prodigious enough to get him into Harvard. But as being Jewish at this point was not a clever career move, he reinvented himself, becoming first an Episcopalian, later a Catholic. He became fascinated by Italian Renaissance art, examples of which were almost non-existent in America. For Isabella Stewart Gardner, who financed his first trip to Europe, he secured Titian’s The Rape of Europa and the first Botticelli in America, The Tragedy of Lucretia.

Attributing Renaissance paintings is tricky: As Cohen notes, they are often unsigned, and can involve several hands with apprentices doing the groundwork and the master adding the final touches. Due to their age, they tend to be heavily restored and, of course, the Italians are expert forgers. With aids such as infrared photography far in the future, the pre-high-tech connoisseur depended almost exclusively on his eye.

Berenson brought to the task an acute feel for the artist’s personality—he described the work of Giorgione as “the perfect reflex of the Renaissance at its height,” with “the lovely landscape…the effects of light and color, and…the sweetness of human relations”—and a technical knowledge of the artist’s “fingerprint,” revealed in lesser details such as drapery, hands, and feet, details artists frequently had their own shortcuts for rendering.

The innocent delight in the authentication process was captured by Berenson’s wife, Mary: “We used to wonder if Adam had half as much pleasure from naming the animals as we from naming the ancient paintings.” Berenson was stringent: While other scholars surmised Titian had painted 1,000 works, Cohen notes, Berenson slashed the figure to 133. His scholarship resulted in four books on Italian painters and one on Florentine drawings.

But Berenson also had a craving for luxury. While working for Gardner, he had engaged in dubious practices, pretending to have bought directly from private sellers when in reality he had obtained works though Italian dealers from whom he also pocketed a commission. Posing as a gentleman scholar of independent means, Berenson held court at I Tatti, his Tuscan villa, where the intrigue and sexual shenanigans led to comparisons with the court of the Medici.

The connection to Joseph Duween made it all possible, but theirs was an uneasy partnership. Duween was “court jester to millionaires” and a great salesman, and Cohen quotes Mellon’s quip that paintings never looked as beguiling as when Duween was standing in front of them. Worse, Duween would tart up paintings: If an aristocratic lady in a British portrait looked a tad old, he was perfectly capable of ordering his restorers to make her look younger.   

Berenson’s cut was 25 percent of the profit on sales he had certified. The arrangement was kept secret for mutual benefit: Berenson had no wish to be seen as Duween’s creature, while Duween would tell his clients that his paintings had been independently verified by the leading expert in the field. Now on the seller’s side of the fence, Berenson was relentlessly being pressured by Duween to upgrade paintings.

Another Berenson biographer, Meryle Secrest, has described how he promoted Portrait of a Man from being an early Polidori Lanzani to a Giorgione, the rarest of the lot, and how, having previously described the painting as being in “deplorably bad preservation,” he suddenly hailed it as being in “a miraculously fine state.” Kenneth Clark, who worked with Berenson at I Tatti as a young art scholar, famously described him as sitting “on the pinnacle of a mountain of corruption,” which was, perhaps, payback for Berenson’s calling some of Clark’s acquisitions for the National Gallery “four pretty nothings made by a talented furniture painter.”

Cohen strikes a careful balance in judging her man. By focusing too narrowly on the financial side one is apt to forget that for all their faults, Berenson and Duween were behind the acquisition of most of the great Italian Renaissance paintings found in America. And while Berenson did make some dubious upgrades, and while he certainly would praise extravagantly (he once characterized a miserable Mellon acquisition as the hottest thing “since the builders of the Pyramids and the sculptors of the Chefrens”), the Duween archives prove that he mostly held firm against Duween’s relentless demands for upgrades, as in this two-word telegram: “NOT VERONESE.”

Berenson’s greatest achievements were his lists of attributions, which, in the words of art historian Roberto Longhi, provided “the railroad timetable of Italian art.” Here Cohen quotes Robert Hughes: “No student of Renaissance art today can do more than imagine the obstacles that lay in Berenson’s path of connoisseurship. In the age of art history, they have vanished, but their disappearance was very largely Berenson’s doing.” Eighty percent of his attributions still hold, a record that speaks for itself.

About the Author

Henrik Bering is a journalist and critic. 

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