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Wall Street JournalA pointed account of the relationship between the famous connoisseur and the railroad magnate.
— Robert Messenger
Collecting Italian Renaissance paintings during America’s Gilded Age was fraught with risk because of the uncertain identities of the artists and the conflicting interests of the dealers. Stanley Mazaroff’s fascinating account of the close relationship between Henry Walters, founder of the legendary Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and Bernard Berenson, the era’s preeminent connoisseur of Italian paintings, richly illustrates this important chapter of America’s cultural history....
Collecting Italian Renaissance paintings during America’s Gilded Age was fraught with risk because of the uncertain identities of the artists and the conflicting interests of the dealers. Stanley Mazaroff’s fascinating account of the close relationship between Henry Walters, founder of the legendary Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and Bernard Berenson, the era’s preeminent connoisseur of Italian paintings, richly illustrates this important chapter of America’s cultural history.
When Walters opened his Italianate museum in 1909, it was labeled as America’s "Great Temple of Art." With more than 500 Italian paintings, including self-portraits purportedly by Raphael and Michelangelo, Walters’s collection was compared favorably with the great collections in London, Paris, and Berlin. In the midst of this fanfare, Berenson contacted Walters and offered to analyze his collection, sell him additional paintings, and write a scholarly catalogue that would trumpet the collection on both sides of the Atlantic. What Berenson offered was what Walters desperately needed—a badge of scholarship that Berenson’s invaluable imprimatur would undoubtedly bring.
By 1912, Walters had become Berenson’s most active client, their business alliance wrapped in a warm and personal friendship. But this relationship soon became strained and was finally severed by a confluence of broken promises, inattention, deceit, and ethical conflict. To Walters’s chagrin, Berenson swept away the self-portraits allegedly by Raphael and Michelangelo and publicly scorned paintings that he was supposed to praise. Though painful to Walters, Berenson’s guidance ultimately led to a panoramic collection that beautifully told the great history of Italian Renaissance painting.
Based primarily on correspondence and other archival documents recently discovered at the Walters Art Museum and the Villa I Tatti in Florence, the intriguing story of Walters and Berenson offers unusual insight into the pleasures and perils of collecting Italian Renaissance paintings, the ethics in the marketplace, and the founding of American art museums.
Johns Hopkins University Press
— Robert Messenger
Surprisingly, this is the only book ever to focus on just one of Berenson’s client relationships. For this and other reasons, every collector—especially the temple-building grandees at work today—should read Mazaroff ’s compelling investigation
A pointed account of the relationship between the famous connoisseur and the railroad magnate.
Posted June 13, 2010
The renowned art expert Bernard Berenson became associated with the Baltimore Gilded Age magnate Henry Walters--president of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad--by offering to analyze a collection of 1700 works of Classical and Renaissance art Walters had recently purchased from an Italian collector for a museum he was establishing in his home town of Baltimore. With the Renaissance practice of copying originals by masters such as Raphael and Michaelangelo, Walters could not be sure certain paintings he had purchased were originals by the masters. Verification of originals by Berenson along with a catalog he would do would give greater credence and interest to Walter's incomparable collection which the New York Times had already declared rivaled the best in the world. Berenson offered his expertise for no fee with the aim of increasing his reputation among world-class dealers, collectors, and museums.
As Mazaroff shows by the more than 60 or so letters between Berenson and Walters making up the main of his research for this book on this relatively limited yet illuminating topic, the two developed a cordial and mutually respectful relationship. But eventually Berenson's outsized, almost superhuman ambitions and involvement in the high-level, high-stakes European art market supplying prized works to the upper crust of America's museums and collectors got the better of him. Berenson entered into a secret arrangement with a major, controversial dealer named Joseph Duveen whereby Berenson would make available to him the top art works he gained control over for Duveen to offer first to his clients.
Although Walters was not aware of the specifics of Berenson's relationship with Duveen, its effects took a toll on his relationship with Berenson in Berenson's attentions to other art projects and collectors, his slowness in follow-up work on the Walter's collection after an initial general appraisal, and procrastination and eventual foregoing of the catalog toward the end of their four-year relationship. From Walter's side, he was not always attentive to the collection, did not do much to get it on display and build upon it, and seemed indifferent to outstanding works Berenson did get for him.
The relationship was not in vain for either partner, but eventually for complex reasons having to do with finances, changes in the art market, and divergence of interests, it ended with Walters formally reporting to Berenson that "our money obligations to each other are nil" (Walter's letter) and he did not "envision the resumption of their commercial relationship" (Mazaroff's words). The planned museum became more of a storehouse for Walter's art work than a public showcase for them.
Mazaroff's book is more than a tale of this ultimately disappointing, yet nonetheless fruitful relationship between the two exceptional and influential figures in the Gilded Age art market. For their relationship and dealings with each other casts a light into the heady, high-stakes international art commerce of the latter 1800s/early 1900s when the foundations of the great cultural institutions of the major art museums were being laid down.