Bernard Berenson

Bernard Berenson

Overview

Bernard Berenson was an American art historian specializing in the Renaissance. He was a major figure in pioneering art attribution and therefore establishing the market for paintings by the "Old Master
Old Master
"Old Master" is a term for a European painter of skill who worked before about 1800, or a painting by such an artist. An "old master print" is an original print made by an artist in the same period...

s".

Berenson was born Bernhard Valvrojenski in Butrimonys
Butrimonys
Butrimonys is a small town in Alytus County in southern Lithuania. As of 2001 it had a population of 1126. Its most famous son was Bernard Berenson, a famous and still influential American art historian.-Butrimonys massacre:...

 (now in Alytus district of Lithuania
Lithuania
Lithuania , officially the Republic of Lithuania is a country in Northern Europe, the biggest of the three Baltic states. It is situated along the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea, whereby to the west lie Sweden and Denmark...

) to a Jewish family. They emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts
Massachusetts
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States of America. It is bordered by Rhode Island and Connecticut to the south, New York to the west, and Vermont and New Hampshire to the north; at its east lies the Atlantic Ocean. As of the 2010...

 from the Vilna Governorate
Vilna Governorate
The Vilna Governorate or Government of Vilna was a governorate of the Russian Empire created after the Third Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795...

 of the Russian Empire
Russian Empire
The Russian Empire was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia and the predecessor of the Soviet Union...

 in 1875, whereupon the family name was changed to "Berenson." The family was thought to be related to Isaac Abrabanel
Isaac Abrabanel
Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel, , commonly referred to just as Abarbanel, was a Portuguese Jewish statesman, philosopher, Bible commentator, and financier.-Biography:...

.

He attended the Boston University
Boston University
Boston University is a private research university located in Boston, Massachusetts. With more than 4,000 faculty members and more than 31,000 students, Boston University is one of the largest private universities in the United States and one of Boston's largest employers...

 College of Liberal Arts as a freshman during 1883-84, but, unable to obtain instruction in Sanskrit
Sanskrit
Sanskrit , is a historical Indo-Aryan language and the primary liturgical language of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.Buddhism: besides Pali, see Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Today, it is listed as one of the 22 scheduled languages of India and is an official language of the state of Uttarakhand...

 from that institution, transferred to Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

 for his sophomore year.
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Quotations

Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago.

Notebook (1892)
Encyclopedia

Bernard Berenson was an American art historian specializing in the Renaissance. He was a major figure in pioneering art attribution and therefore establishing the market for paintings by the "Old Master
Old Master
"Old Master" is a term for a European painter of skill who worked before about 1800, or a painting by such an artist. An "old master print" is an original print made by an artist in the same period...

s".

Personal life


Berenson was born Bernhard Valvrojenski in Butrimonys
Butrimonys
Butrimonys is a small town in Alytus County in southern Lithuania. As of 2001 it had a population of 1126. Its most famous son was Bernard Berenson, a famous and still influential American art historian.-Butrimonys massacre:...

 (now in Alytus district of Lithuania
Lithuania
Lithuania , officially the Republic of Lithuania is a country in Northern Europe, the biggest of the three Baltic states. It is situated along the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea, whereby to the west lie Sweden and Denmark...

) to a Jewish family. They emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts
Massachusetts
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States of America. It is bordered by Rhode Island and Connecticut to the south, New York to the west, and Vermont and New Hampshire to the north; at its east lies the Atlantic Ocean. As of the 2010...

 from the Vilna Governorate
Vilna Governorate
The Vilna Governorate or Government of Vilna was a governorate of the Russian Empire created after the Third Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795...

 of the Russian Empire
Russian Empire
The Russian Empire was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia and the predecessor of the Soviet Union...

 in 1875, whereupon the family name was changed to "Berenson." The family was thought to be related to Isaac Abrabanel
Isaac Abrabanel
Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel, , commonly referred to just as Abarbanel, was a Portuguese Jewish statesman, philosopher, Bible commentator, and financier.-Biography:...

.

He attended the Boston University
Boston University
Boston University is a private research university located in Boston, Massachusetts. With more than 4,000 faculty members and more than 31,000 students, Boston University is one of the largest private universities in the United States and one of Boston's largest employers...

 College of Liberal Arts as a freshman during 1883-84, but, unable to obtain instruction in Sanskrit
Sanskrit
Sanskrit , is a historical Indo-Aryan language and the primary liturgical language of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.Buddhism: besides Pali, see Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Today, it is listed as one of the 22 scheduled languages of India and is an official language of the state of Uttarakhand...

 from that institution, transferred to Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

 for his sophomore year. He graduated from Harvard and married Mary Smith
Mary Berenson
Mary Berenson née Mary Smith, was an art historian, now thought to have had a large hand in some of the writings of her second husband, Bernard Berenson.Her father was Robert Pearsall Smith, her mother Hannah Whitall Smith...

, who became a notable art historian in her own right. Mary was the sister of Logan Pearsall Smith
Logan Pearsall Smith
Logan Pearsall Smith was an American-born essayist and critic.Smith was born in Millville, New Jersey the son of the prominent Quakers Robert Pearsall Smith and Hannah Whitall Smith. His father's family had become wealthy from its glass factories...

 and of Alys Pearsall Smith
Alys Pearsall Smith
Alyssa Whitall Pearsall Smith was the first wife of Bertrand Russell.Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she was the daughter of Robert Pearsall Smith and Hannah Whitall Smith, prominent figures in the Holiness movement in America and the Higher Life movement in Great Britain...

, the first wife of Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, and social critic. At various points in his life he considered himself a liberal, a socialist, and a pacifist, but he also admitted that he had never been any of these things...

. Mary had previously been married to barrister
Barrister
A barrister is a member of one of the two classes of lawyer found in many common law jurisdictions with split legal professions. Barristers specialise in courtroom advocacy, drafting legal pleadings and giving expert legal opinions...

 Frank Costelloe. Bernard Berenson was also involved in a long relationship with Belle da Costa Greene
Belle da Costa Greene
Belle da Costa Greene was the librarian to J. P. Morgan and after his death in 1913, Belle continued as librarian under his son, Jack Morgan...

. Samuels (1987) mentions Mary's "reluctant acceptance (at times)" of this relationship.

Among his more surprising friendships was a long one with the American writer Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury
Ray Douglas Bradbury is an American fantasy, horror, science fiction, and mystery writer. Best known for his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 and for the science fiction stories gathered together as The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man , Bradbury is one of the most celebrated among 20th...

, who wrote about their friendship in The Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal is an American English-language international daily newspaper. It is published in New York City by Dow Jones & Company, a division of News Corporation, along with the Asian and European editions of the Journal....

and in his book of essays, Yestermorrow. He was also a close friend and admirer of Natalie Barney
Natalie Clifford Barney
Natalie Clifford Barney was an American playwright, poet and novelist who lived as an expatriate in Paris....

.

His great-great-niece, Marisa Berenson
Marisa Berenson
Vittoria Marisa Schiaparelli Berenson is an American actress and model.-Early life:She is the elder daughter of Robert L. Berenson, an American diplomat turned shipping executive, who was of Lithuanian Jewish descent; his family's original surname was Valvrojenski...

, is an actress. Her sister, Berry Berenson
Berry Berenson
Berinthia "Berry" Berenson Perkins was an American photographer, actress, and model. Perkins was also known as the wife of actor Anthony Perkins and died in the September 11 attacks as a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11.-Early life and family:Berinthia Berenson was the younger daughter of...

, was an actress/photographer, and the wife of actor Anthony Perkins
Anthony Perkins
Anthony Perkins was an American actor, best known for his Oscar-nominated role in Friendly Persuasion and as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho , and its three sequels.-Early life:...

. Berry died in the September 11, 2001 attacks
September 11, 2001 attacks
The September 11 attacks The September 11 attacks The September 11 attacks (also referred to as September 11, September 11th or 9/119/11 is pronounced "nine eleven". The slash is not part of the pronunciation...

 in New York City.

Professional life


Among US collectors of the early 1900s, Berenson was regarded as the pre-eminent authority on Renaissance art. His verdict of authenticity
Authenticity in art
Authenticity in art has a variety of meanings related to different ways in which a work of art or an artistic performance may be considered authentic.Denis Dutton distinguishes between nominal authenticity and expressive authenticity....

 increased a painting's value. While his approach remained controversial among European art historians and connoisseurs, he played a pivotal role as an advisor to several important American art collectors, such as Isabella Stewart Gardner
Isabella Stewart Gardner
Isabella Stewart Gardner – founder of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston – was an American art collector, philanthropist, and one of the foremost female patrons of the arts....

, who needed help in navigating the complex and treacherous market of newly fashionable Renaissance art. In this respect Berenson's influence was enormous, while his 5% commission made him a wealthy man. Starting with his The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance with an Index to their Works (1894), his mix of connoisseurship and systematic approach proved immensely successful. In 1895 his Lorenzo Lotto
Lorenzo Lotto
Lorenzo Lotto was a Northern Italian painter draughtsman and illustrator, traditionally placed in the Venetian school. He painted mainly altarpieces, religious subjects and portraits...

, an Essay on Constructive Art Criticism
won wide critical acclaim, notably by Heinrich Wölfflin
Heinrich Wölfflin
Heinrich Wölfflin was a famous Swiss art critic, whose objective classifying principles were influential in the development of formal analysis in the history of art during the 20th century. He taught at Basel, Berlin and Munich in the generation that raised German art history to pre-eminence...

. It was quickly followed by The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance (1896), that was lauded by William James
William James
William James was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher who was trained as a physician. He wrote influential books on the young science of psychology, educational psychology, psychology of religious experience and mysticism, and on the philosophy of pragmatism...

 for its innovative application of "elementary psychological categories to the interpretation of higher art". In 1897 Berenson added another work to his series of scholarly yet handy guides publishing The Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance. After that he devoted six years of pioneering work to what is widely regarded as his deepest and most substantial book, The Drawings of the Florentine Painters, which was published in 1903. In 1907 he published his The North Italian Painters of the Renaissance, where he expressed a devastating and still controversial judgement of Mannerist art
Mannerism
Mannerism is a period of European art that emerged from the later years of the Italian High Renaissance around 1520. It lasted until about 1580 in Italy, when a more Baroque style began to replace it, but Northern Mannerism continued into the early 17th century throughout much of Europe...

, which may be related to his love for Classicism
Classicism
Classicism, in the arts, refers generally to a high regard for classical antiquity, as setting standards for taste which the classicists seek to emulate. The art of classicism typically seeks to be formal and restrained: of the Discobolus Sir Kenneth Clark observed, "if we object to his restraint...

 and his professed distaste for Modern Art
Modern art
Modern art includes artistic works produced during the period extending roughly from the 1860s to the 1970s, and denotes the style and philosophy of the art produced during that era. The term is usually associated with art in which the traditions of the past have been thrown aside in a spirit of...

. His early works were later integrated in his most famous book, The Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1930), which was widely translated and reprinted. He also published two volumes of journals, "Rumor and Reflection" and "Sunset and Twilight". He is also the author of Aesthetics
Aesthetics
Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty. It is more scientifically defined as the study of sensory or sensori-emotional values, sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste...

 and History
and Sketch for a Self-portrait. His beautiful residence in Settignano
Settignano
Settignano is a picturesque frazione ranged on a hillside northeast of Florence, Italy, with spectacular views that have attracted American expatriates for generations...

 near Florence, which has been called 'I Tatti' since at least the 17th century, is now the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies. It houses his art collection and his personal library of books on art history and humanism
Humanism
Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, world view or practice that focuses on human values and concerns. In philosophy and social science, humanism is a perspective which affirms some notion of human nature, and is contrasted with anti-humanism....

, which Berenson regarded as his most enduring legacy. A spirited portrait of daily life at the Berenson "court" at I Tatti during the 1920s may be found in Sir Kenneth Clark's 1974 memoir, Another Part of the Wood. 'During WW2, barely tolerated by the Fascist authorities and, later on, by their German masters, Berenson remained at "I Tatti". When the frontline reached it at the end of the summer of 1944 he wrote in his diary, "Our hillside happens to lie between the principal line of German
Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

 retreat along the Via Bolognese and a side road...We are at the heart of the German rearguard action, and seriously exposed.". Remarkably, under his supervision the villa remained unharmed. Also unharmed was the bulk of his collections, which had been moved to a villa at Careggi. However, Berenson's Florence apartment in the Borgo San Jacopo was destroyed with some of its precious contents during the German retreat from Florence
Florence
Florence is the capital city of the Italian region of Tuscany and of the province of Florence. It is the most populous city in Tuscany, with approximately 370,000 inhabitants, expanding to over 1.5 million in the metropolitan area....

. Another memoir with personal reminiscences and photographs of Berenson's life in Italy before and after the war is Kinta Beevor's "A Tuscan Childhood" [New York: Vintage Books, 2000; c.1993].

Through a secret agreement in 1912, Berenson enjoyed a close relationship with Joseph Duveen, the period's most influential art dealer, who often relied heavily on Berenson's opinion to complete sales of works to prominent collectors who lacked knowledge of the field. Berenson was quiet and deliberating by nature, which sometimes caused friction between him and the boisterous Duveen. Their relationship ended on bad terms in 1937 after a dispute over a painting, the Allendale Nativity (a.k.a. the Adoration of the Shepherds now at the National Gallery
National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art and its Sculpture Garden is a national art museum, located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW, in Washington, DC...

 in Washington
Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington, "the District", or simply D.C., is the capital of the United States. On July 16, 1790, the United States Congress approved the creation of a permanent national capital as permitted by the U.S. Constitution....

), intended for the collection of Samuel H. Kress
Samuel H. Kress
Samuel Henry Kress was a businessman and philanthropist, founder of the S. H. Kress & Co. five and ten cent store chain. With his fortune, Kress amassed one of the most significant collections of Italian Renaissance and European artwork assembled in the 20th century...

. Duveen was selling it as a Giorgione
Giorgione
Giorgione was a Venetian painter of the High Renaissance in Venice, whose career was cut off by his death at a little over thirty. Giorgione is known for the elusive poetic quality of his work, though only about six surviving paintings are acknowledged for certain to be his work...

, but Berenson believed it to be an early Titian
Titian
Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano Vecellio Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano Vecellio Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano Vecellio (c. 1488/1490 – 27 August 1576 better known as Titian was an Italian painter, the most important member of the 16th-century Venetian school. He was born in Pieve di Cadore, near...

. The painting is now widely considered to be a Giorgione
Giorgione
Giorgione was a Venetian painter of the High Renaissance in Venice, whose career was cut off by his death at a little over thirty. Giorgione is known for the elusive poetic quality of his work, though only about six surviving paintings are acknowledged for certain to be his work...

. Beside assisting Duveen, Berenson also consulted for other important art dealerships, such as London's Colnaghi and, after his breakup with Duveen, New York's Wildenstein
Daniel Wildenstein
Daniel Leopold Wildenstein was a French art dealer and scholar, as well as a leading thoroughbred race horse owner and breeder....

.

In 1923, Berenson was called to give expert witness
Expert witness
An expert witness, professional witness or judicial expert is a witness, who by virtue of education, training, skill, or experience, is believed to have expertise and specialised knowledge in a particular subject beyond that of the average person, sufficient that others may officially and legally...

 in a famous case brought by Andrée Hahn against Duveen. In 1920 Hahn wanted to sell a painting that she believed to be a version of Leonardo's
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance...

 La belle ferronnière and whose authorship is still debated. Duveen publicly rejected Hahn's Leonardo attribution of the painting, which he had never seen. Consequently, Hahn sued him. In 1923 Hahn's painting was brought to Paris
Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

 to be compared with the Louvre
Louvre
The Musée du Louvre – in English, the Louvre Museum or simply the Louvre – is one of the world's largest museums, the most visited art museum in the world and a historic monument. A central landmark of Paris, it is located on the Right Bank of the Seine in the 1st arrondissement...

 version. Duveen mustered Berenson's and other experts' support for his opinion, dismissing Hahn's painting as a copy. At the trial in New York in 1929, where the expert witnesses did not appear, the jury was not convinced by Berenson's Paris testimony, in part because, while under cross-examination there, he had been unable to recall the medium on which the picture was painted. It was also revealed that Berenson, as well as other experts who had testified in Paris
Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

, such as Roger Fry
Roger Fry
Roger Eliot Fry was an English artist and art critic, and a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Establishing his reputation as a scholar of the Old Masters, he became an advocate of more recent developments in French painting, to which he gave the name Post-Impressionism...

 and Sir Charles Holmes
Charles Holmes
Sir Charles John Holmes, KCVO was a British painter, art critic and museum director. His writing on art combined theory with practice and he was an expert on the painting techniques of the Old Masters, from whose example he had learned to draw and paint.Holmes was the son of a clergyman, Charles...

, had previously provided paid expertises to Duveen. While Duveen, after a split verdict, ended up settling out of court with Hahn, the whole story damaged Berenson's reputation. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is an independent policy research center that conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging problems. The Academy’s elected members are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business, and public affairs.James Bowdoin, John Adams, and...

 in 1958.

Berenson died at age 94 in Settignano, Italy
Italy
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

.

As Renaissance scholarship has evolved, a number of Berenson's attributions are now believed to be incorrect. There is also ongoing speculation as to whether some of these misattributions were deliberate, since Berenson often had a considerable financial stake in the matter. Due to the strong subjective element in connoisseurship, such accusations remain hard to either disprove or substantiate.

Correspondence


2006 saw the publication of the noted British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper
Hugh Trevor-Roper, Baron Dacre of Glanton
Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper was an English historian of early modern Britain and Nazi Germany. He was made a life peer by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, choosing the title Baron Dacre of Glanton.-Early life and education:...

's letters to Berenson in the period 1947-1960, in a book entitled Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines, published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Works

  • Venetian Painters of the Renaissance (1894)
  • Lorenzo Lotto
    Lorenzo Lotto
    Lorenzo Lotto was a Northern Italian painter draughtsman and illustrator, traditionally placed in the Venetian school. He painted mainly altarpieces, religious subjects and portraits...

    : An Essay in Constructive Art Criticism
    (1895)
  • Florentine Painters of the Renaissance (1896)
  • Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1897)
  • The Sense of Quality: Study and Criticism of Italian Art (1901; second series, 1902)
  • The Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1903), his masterpiece
    Masterpiece
    Masterpiece in modern usage refers to a creation that has been given much critical praise, especially one that is considered the greatest work of a person's career or to a work of outstanding creativity, skill or workmanship....

  • North Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1907)
  • A Sienese Painter of the Franciscan Legend (1910)
  • Venetian Painting in America: The Fifteenth Century (New York, 1916)
  • Essays in the Study of Sienese Painting (New York, 1918)
  • Aesthetics, ethics and history in the arts of visual representation (Estetica, Etica e Storia nelle Arti della Rappresentazione Visiva) (1948)
  • The Italian Painters Of The Renaissance (1952)
  • Rumor and Reflection (New York, 1952)
  • Seeing and Knowing New York Graphic Society, Ltd., (1953)
  • The Passionate Sightseer (New York, 1960)
  • Sunset and Twilight (New York, 1963)


Most of his books were published in the United States and went through many editions.

External links