Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade

Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade

by Rachel Cohen

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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

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Brenda Wineapple

"A highly sympathetic and graceful portrait of Bernard Berenson, the art connoisseur and dealer who remade himself into a work of art, priced and priceless, which he protected, cultivated, and even at times bartered: Rachel Cohen's Bernard Berenson is an illuminating tale of this self-transformation, its successes and pitfalls, told with stalwart compassion."--Brenda Wineapple, author of Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877
Cynthia Saltzman

"An insightful, richly detailed account of Bernard Berenson’s brilliant transformation from an immigrant Jew and son of a tin peddler into a connoisseur of Italian Renaissance painting and a dealer in secret partnership with Joseph Duveen. With the keen gaze that Berenson brought to a picture, Rachel Cohen analyzes his high-wire act of self-invention against the glittering, aristocratic, anti-Semitic world of art collecting."--Cynthia Saltzman
Wall Street Journal - Hugh Eakin
"Cohen draws a psychological portrait of a man guided by passionate aesthetic ideals and tortured by the compromises in the world of commerce that he felt compelled to make. . . . If you live in an American city, there's a good chance that you can go to a museum today and see an exquisite Sienese Madonna, or a Venetian Holy Family, or a Florentine portrait. You have Berenson—and his collector-acolytes—to thank."—Hugh Eakin, Wall Street Journal
Starred Review Booklist

"The most dynamic biography yet of the groundbreaking art historian Bernard Berenson...Cohen investigates Berenson’s contradictions, metamorphoses, and dramatically unconventional life with vivacious authority. . . . Cohen deftly channels the sweeping intensity of Berenson’s aesthetic ecstasy, hard-won expertise, surprising adventures, and vital legacy.”—Booklist, Starred Review
Bookforum - Thomas Micchelli

"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, Bookforum
The Sunday Telegraph - Martin Gayford
Book of the Week

“[As] Rachel Cohen, the author of this elegantly written biography. . . .nicely puts it, Berenson was ‘a person whose capacity for metamorphosis approached that of a moth.’”—Martin Gayford, The Sunday Telegraph

The Spectator - Sam Leith
“Rachel Cohen’s unobtrusively and thoroughly well written short volume skilfully negotiates the contradictory sides of Berenson’s character – the aesthete and the huckster; the man who lived only for art and the man who very much liked to surround himself with the appurtenances of wealth.”—Sam Leith, The Spectator
Literary Review - James Stourton

“Rachel Cohen has written an admirable short life...[and] a touching portrait”—James Stourton, Literary Review
Wall Street Journal - Claire Messud

"Berenson's extraordinary and colorful life—from his humble birth in Lithuania, to Harvard and thence to his august and influential position as a critic and art historian, to the renowned splendor of his Florentine villa I Tatti—makes a rich and compelling subject. Ms. Cohen's remarkable book affords the occasion also for rumination upon self-invention and authenticity, upon the making of the man, and of taste, too."—Claire Messud, Wall Street Journal
Apollo Magazine - Charles Saumarez-Smith
“Rachel Cohen who has written an extremely thoughtful and readable biography of Berenson”—Charles Saumarez-Smith, Apollo Magazine
Boston Authors Club - Honorable Mention

Chosen as a highly recommended book by the Boston Authors Club in 2014.
Jewish Daily Forward
"An absorbing new biography."—Jewish Daily Forward
Burlington Magazine - Robert Simon
‘This book proves to be a remarkably balanced treatment of a profoundly complicated and compelling life.’—Robert Simon, Burlington Magazine
ARTnews - Ann Landl
"An irresistibly readable and accessible account of this complicated character, who could be by turns brilliant and petty, generous toward others and scornful of himself, an inveterate philanderer and a staunch husband."—Ann Landl, ARTnews
Jewish Quarterly - Wingate Prize

Shortlisted for the 2015 Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize 2014

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Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Jewish Lives Series
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Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)

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Bernard Berenson

A Life in the Picture Trade



Copyright © 2013 Rachel Cohen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-14942-5


Jews of Boston

Sometimes now as I walk ... I see again the world as it was to me when I was five years of age. There is the same mystery to everything, the same feeling of standing in the presence of things that I see, but have not yet thought of, the same feeling of saturating coolness that I used to throb with when I was a child of five years old, in the orchard of a spring morning, listening to the call of the cuckoo at the end of the garden by the brookside.

—Bernhard Berenson, early journal

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." In conversation, Berenson's allusions to his childhood were often more in the realm of legend than of fact, and this added to the feeling people had, listening to him, that his wisdom and insight had distant sources, accessible to him alone.

At the time that he wrote in his diary about his first experiences of "standing in the presence of things that I see," Berenson was struggling to stake out a place for himself in teeming Boston. He had discovered that one of the things which distinguished him was his phenomenal capacity for talk. Berenson could hold the attention of an audience for hours with what later auditors remembered as his "whiplash epigrams" and "the vast layers of learning that seemed to rise up behind him." He seemed a sorcerer with words, his incantatory power associated in the minds of many with his Jewishness. In 1887, when Berenson was nineteen, he encountered the future justice Louis Brandeis, then thirty-one, and a man who knew only too well how Boston responded to Jews. The impression Brandeis took gives a sense of how Berenson, talking, seemed against the backdrop of Boston society: "Saturday at the Salon met an extraordinary man—Berenson, I think, is the name, a student at Harvard of great talents—particularly literary talent. A Russian Jew I surmise, a character about whom I must know more. He seemed as much of an exotic lure as the palm or cinnamon tree."

In the young Berenson's crowded household his talk, already of poetry, painting, and the wide world of culture, was a way to draw the attention of his mother and sisters. In his adult life, although he sometimes wished for solitude, he kept his home thronging with interlocutors. One of his most frequent commendations was to say approvingly of this or that person that he "did everything to draw me out." His stature as an interpreter of paintings was in part founded on his talk. When he guided people through the long cool galleries of the Uffizi and the Louvre, and spoke of the particularities of the paintings, their colors and forms, the qualities of figure, space, and light, his listeners saw as never before.

In the full strength of his maturity, Berenson, like one of the fifteenth-century humanists who were his constant reference, could speak with knowledge and sensitivity of the literary tradition in seven languages. He had a lively curiosity and an astonishing range of reference. He was familiar with, and wry about, the habits of medieval French princes and modern-day Greek shepherds. And his talk, he felt, brought him close to the spirit of the great creators whose work he loved. Kenneth Clark said of Berenson that "through talk he made himself into a work of art."

It was part of Berenson's aesthetic creed, articulated in his late work Aesthetics and History, that the artist, when creating, did not plot his way through already-worked-out ideas but was spontaneous. The brilliant talker, Berenson wrote, is "almost unconscious and even surprised to hear what comes out of his own mouth," but while his "winged word" amuses many, it also "stings others, and deeply offends a few." The born talker had a helpless need to talk, and even if he sometimes became a "verbal clown," his talk went on: "No amount of whippings cured the mediaeval court jester." In Berenson's colloquies ran the conflict between being a Renaissance humanist and being a medieval court jester, between the power of secular knowledge and the experience of struggling at the margins of a religious society, and both of these were facets of his family's experience from the beginning.

Berenson's father, Albert Berenson, had an apprentice, and the two used to go peddling in the towns around Boston together. It was from the apprentice, Louis Aron Lebowich, that Berenson's first biographer, Sylvia Sprigge, learned a story that gives a glimpse of the young Berenson talking. In this story, Albert Berenson, peddling pack on his back, arrived at the door of a Concord house only to be told: "Guess who is in the drawing-room! A young man called Bernhard Berenson." The host or hostess apparently had no idea that Bernhard Berenson's father was a peddler or that this peddler might be he; it was simply good fortune to be able to hear a young talker of such prowess hold forth. But Albert Berenson hurriedly gathered his things and rushed away. The father was, Louis Lebowich said, "shy of disturbing his children's progress in the New World." Bernhard Berenson never went peddling with his father: "Even sixty-five years after these events, Mr. Lebowich remembered that Albert and his eldest son did not get on well, certainly not well enough to go on these journeyings together."

Elements of Albert Berenson's life can be seen, redrawn, in the life of his son. Albert Berenson, too, was a great talker. Louis Lebowich remembered his holding forth brilliantly on Voltaire. But unlike his son, Albert Berenson did not generally find delighted audiences. "Lebowich still, in old age, maintained that Albert Berenson was unappreciated at home, unlistened to, so that often he would just go on talking to himself in a kind of sotto voce." The young Berenson did not want to be the two things he saw his father as: a frustrated intellectual and a man who got his livelihood in a demeaning trade. But Berenson would grow up to be an intellectual who frequently encountered great frustrations and to work in a trade that, though much more luxurious and outwardly significant, still seemed to him sordid. Part of what differentiated them was that the son was the darling of salons where his father felt embarrassed. Berenson's uncomfortable stronghold lay in being the center of his mother's world.

"My mother was born tidy and so was I," Berenson used to say, and this was not the only affinity between the mother and the son. Both were small, precise, elegant, and had what a friend described as "natural chic" and "enormous dignity." The mother was "very charming, but with a whim of iron." Bernhard was her first and favorite child, and all his growing up took place in the atmosphere of her constant and doting attention. He said that his earliest memory was of "the sensation of rapture with which he stretched out his baby-hands, while he was still in his mother's arms, towards a picture of a bunch of grapes on a wine bottle." The image suggests that his passion for painting began as soon as he could see, and the memory seems almost to be a painting: the adored son on his mother's lap reaches toward the icons of his future. As he grew, Bernhard found his mother's complete attention both necessary and intolerable. Eventually, one of the world's most sought-after talkers could hardly bear to speak before the mother who hung on his every syllable.

The children who followed were not seen by their mother with the same halo of glorifying attention, but they all shared in the same family culture and played important roles in one another's lives. Bernhard was born in 1865, and his sister Senda in 1868. A brother, Abie, was the last of the children born in the old world, in 1873. Two more daughters, Bessie and Rachel, were born in Boston. Abie was a sullen child, whom Louis Lebowich described as "a rough lad whom no one could get on with," and whom the family found it convenient to blame and disparage. The father was feckless and did not succeed in the new world as some of his relatives did. The life of the household revolved around the women, and the women hovered anxiously over one another and over Bernhard.

"Above all things be careful this summer mother dear," Rachel wrote. "It is generally in the summer that your little Tummy goes wrong—so be extra careful what you eat." Rachel teased that she was expecting from her mother "a telegram to say that you lie awake nights wondering whether I have tuberculosis or Bright's disease or a stomachache." Family life was humid. At the bottom of a letter from Rachel to another sibling, Rachel added, "Mother wants to write one word of reassurance," after which came, in Judith Berenson's scrawl: "My dearest love to you my precious child and to your beloved friends God bless you all your always loving and devoted mother I feel fine."

They were a family that suffered and surveyed illness, but they were long-lived. The father lived to eighty-three, the mother ninety-one, and three of the children lived into their late eighties and even well into their nineties. The mother's "little Tummy" was a central feature of life. Bernhard Berenson, too, had endless stomach complaints and became a fussier and fussier eater as time went on. (Berenson's great-niece, Rachel Berenson Perry, would remember that her father, Bernard Perry, complainingly referred to "his 'Berenson' or 'Jewish' stomach.") Senda Berenson suffered an almost crushing fatigue and muscular atrophy until she seized the matter firmly in hand in her early twenties and began the gymnastic training that she would later be responsible for teaching at Smith College. She told Abie that he wouldn't feel so low if he would "take exercise every day" and "eat a luncheon." "I hope and pray," she said (it was his birthday), "that this may be a happy year for you full of health and contentment and my great wish is that you should make up your mind to live this coming year as hygienically as possible." Bessie Berenson had chronic depression and exhaustion. Rachel Berenson had cluster headaches and debilitating migraines. When Rachel's son Bart brought home the small and delicate Harriet who was to become his wife, Harriet remembered Rachel saying that "she hoped I was not so healthy that I couldn't sympathize with someone who wasn't."

Along with his mother, Berenson's sisters—Senda, Rachel, Bessie—played roles in his life that would subsequently be taken over by other women; glints of these originary personalities reappeared in Isabella Stewart Gardner, Mary Berenson, Belle da Costa Greene, Nicky Mariano, and many of Berenson's mistresses and friends.

Berenson's most formative relationship with a sibling was with Senda Berenson. Forceful in her work and convictions, insightful, genuinely self-sacrificing, a worrier and a keeper-together of the family, Senda was Bernhard's great confidante in youth and remained the person to whom he was closest in the family. She was, he said late in life, "the nearest to me in age, in looks, in bringing up, of all relations." She was a person of large accomplishment in her own right—not only did she hold the first documented game of women's basketball at Smith, but she chaired what became the national women's basketball association and played a significant part in a national movement that encouraged physical activity in women as part of their education. In photographs, her face is a mixture of loveliness and concern.

For many years alone and lonely, Senda, at forty-three, married Herbert Abbott, like her a professor at Smith. As was true of all the other Berenson spouses, Abbott was not Jewish, and like all the other Berenson spouses, he was an ambitious intellectual. Writing to Bernhard of the new marriage and its happinesses and difficulties, Senda referred to the family's shared institutional passion as the solution to all problems for her husband: "If he could only get a professorship at Harvard —I feel that is the only place where he would be encouraged to do his best and where he could be appreciated." Not too long after the marriage, Abbott became seriously ill, and he died relatively young.

The youngest child, Rachel, had good luck where Senda did not. Rachel was extremely funny, the most vivacious member of the family, and the most selfish, according to her siblings; she seems to have been the one besides Bernhard to see what she wanted and to seize it. She took a master's in classics from Oxford, and her letters home from frequent travels are always full of charming, and expensive, sights and sounds, rendered with a verve that is sibling to Berenson's own descriptions. Rachel maneuvered around Senda to marry Ralph Barton Perry, who had been interested in Senda when both were teaching at Smith. By the time he declared his intentions to Rachel, Perry had a credential much prized in the Berenson household: he was a professor of philosophy at Harvard. Rachel wrote to Bessie pleading with her to take her side, "Everything I know would have been different if these former relations between Ralph and Senda had never existed. That's all the more reason why I long to feel that you are with me—thinking with me & for me—and about it." Senda, writing home around the same time, commented drily of Rachel, "She has not lost all her selfish tendencies with me." Rachel was the youngest, but the first of the siblings to marry and the only one to have children. It was, apparently, not easy to be a Berenson child and to grow up and leave home.

Bessie—melancholic, self-diminishing, often exhausted, and never married—was, among the sisters, the most solitary and the most dissatisfied. Languishing at home for decades, she at last came into her own when, over the course of many European visits to Bernhard, she discovered her talent for sculpture. By the time Nicky Mariano met her, Bessie had "lovely silver white hair" and was "cultivated, well read, subtle in her appreciation of literature and art, gifted as a sculptor," and "in artistic sensibility ... nearest to B.B." Like all the others, Bessie looked down on Abie, to whom she wrote letters that chastised and pitied him. Abraham—morose, ineffectual, using in his letters only the most rudimentary language, and that shot through with a kind of bleary resentment—was the child least favored by fortune and his parents. He never once made the European voyage that became common for the others; he lived at home or in a rooming house not far away. Bessie, writing to Senda after Abie had been briefly away and returned, gave vent to the family criticism of Abie, "To tell you the honest truth, I don't care to have Abie live in Boston. His friends here are all among the 'sheeney tribe' & I suppose he will go back to them."

The family's quickness to criticize on the grounds of seeming too Jewish might be one of many manifestations of their perfectionism. Berenson periodically quoted Heinrich Heine's assertion, which could be a kind of family motto, "A Jew, to be taken for silver, must be of gold." Meryle Secrest, another of Berenson's biographers, noticed Berenson's ardent effort: "Every aspect of his life and thought must be flawless, a work of art, even if he might be dimly aware that he could never learn enough, master enough, or accomplish enough to appease the inner tyrant." Things always ought to have been done better or turned out better than they had. Each Berenson was self-critical, and each was critical of the others. Probably because of both their collective temperament and the chaotic injuries of emigration, they fought to maintain some sense of control of their lives. In the new land of business, secularism, and what felt to them like a chaos of opportunities and pitfalls, the Berensons tried to enter the world each day immaculately turned out and accomplished. Tidiness was not merely a healthy and sensible way to live, it was a compulsion among many compulsions, to have everything exactly in place, to present a perfect facade to the world.

In all the brilliant conversation that his friends and mistresses recorded, and in all the hundreds of pages of autobiographical musings that Berenson later published, there is hardly any mention of his family. His sisters came fairly often to visit him in Italy, and he sent large sums of money home, but he didn't tell stories from his childhood, and those he told were masked in layers of romantic invention. In his late autobiographical work, Sketch for a Self-Portrait, he said that his childhood was "spent in an aristocratic republic.... There my family was among the first if not the first. But the realities of their life in the Pale of Settlement must have been far from the aristocracy of Berenson's aspirations.

Excerpted from Bernard Berenson by RACHEL COHEN. Copyright © 2013 Rachel Cohen. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Rachel Cohen is the author of A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, winner of the PEN/Jerard Fund Award. Her essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Believer, Best American Essays, and many other publications. She teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She keeps a notebook on looking at paintings at

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