Bernard Berenson by Rachel Cohen, review

Superficially, it might seem strange to draw a comparison between the contemporary artists Gilbert & George and the great critic and art historian Bernard Berenson. In one respect, however, there is a parallel. G&G famously transformed themselves into living sculptures; Berenson, or as he was known by his intimates, “BB”, revealed at the age of 92 that his ambition had been “to become a work of art myself”.

In this, as in his literary work, Berenson probably counted himself a failure. He was, however, an astonishingly successful flop: world famous, regarded as the ultimate authority on Italian Renaissance painting, and enjoying riches that few critics or art historians attain. Rachel Cohen, the author of this elegantly written biography, calculates that in the Twenties he was living in a style that today would require a fortune of £27 million. In some moods at least, Berenson regarded this wealth – and the way he got it – as just another way in which he had been diverted from the true path.

His was an existence of many incarnations – and many dissatisfactions. As Cohen nicely puts it, Berenson (1865-1959) was “a person whose capacity for metamorphosis approached that of a moth”. He was born Bernhard Valvrojenski to a Jewish family in Lithuania. When he was 10 they emigrated to Boston, where they took the name Berenson.

The family was poor. His father Albert, though a man of intellectual ambitions, was a pedlar. Somehow, however, by his late teens Berenson had turned himself into a spellbinding conversationalist on matters cultural and artistic. One day his father called, pack on back, at a house where his son was holding forth, but on hearing that BB was in the drawing room, he discreetly slipped away.

Throughout Berenson’s life his talk and his physical presence made a tremendous impact. Lee Radziwill, visiting with her sister, the future Jackie Kennedy, in 1951, found the octogenarian BB “one of the most fascinating men I ever knew”. She compared him to the Indian leader, Nehru, both being, “seductive mentally rather than physically”. Others, less completely convinced, compared him to Svengali or – in the case of his pupil Kenneth Clark – an “exquisite little conjurer”.

Berenson was minute but handsome, with – in youth – the flowing locks associated with Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement. Wisely, Cohen lists only the major affairs in BB’s immensely long and complex love life. He was still writing a stream of passionate love letters into high old age. For decades he lived at I Tatti, his villa outside Florence, in a fairly harmonious ménage à trois with his wife, Mary, and his librarian and mistress Nicky Mariano, while carrying on other liaisons.

His mesmerising powers seem to have worked more reliably on women than men. At Harvard, he attracted many admirers, but Charles Eliot Norton, the professor of Art History, was not among them (Norton’s judgment, that Berenson had “more ambition than ability”, rankled for the rest of BB’s life). As a result, when he graduated he did not receive the travelling fellowship he craved, but went to Europe with funds raised by rich supporters.

Soon he acquired a vast knowledge of art, particularly that of 15th- and 16th-century Italy. In the 1890s Berenson began to publish books. In these, he tried to attribute pictures more accurately to particular artists, but also to transmit the intense experiences that he got from looking at art.

Berenson was one of the most eloquent exponents of a widespread view in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: that the arts were the route to a special, exalted range of feelings. Berenson first converted from Judaism to Protestantism; after he settled in Italy he became a Catholic. His true religion, though, was art.

Gifted with great visual sensitivity and powers of concentration, he rapidly became a leader in the attribution of old master pictures. His Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1903) remains a classic in its field. But his renown as an expert led him to make a distinctly Faustian pact with the art trade.

First he advised Isabella Stewart Gardner on forming her superb collection in Boston (now a museum). But dubiously he also took a cut from the dealer who was selling to her. Later, and yet more murkily, he signed a secret contract with Joseph Duveen that gave him a generous percentage of every picture he found and authenticated for this international art dealer.

The deal with Duveen funded I Tatti, with its gardens, splendid library and constant stream of celebrated guests. Yet Cohen argues there is no clear evidence that BB actually altered his opinions for money. On the contrary, he seems to have infuriated Duveen by refusing to do so, on one occasion sending a terse telegram: “NOT VERONESE. BERENSON”.

BB himself regretted his involvement in the art business as much because it diverted him from writing as for the damage it caused to his reputation. His work on drawings is a monument in art history, and though his terminology – “life-enhancing”, “tactile values” – seems quaint, his art criticism is still worth reading. In the end however, it is the unresolved dilemma between art as commerce and as a spiritual vocation that makes Berenson’s life so intriguing.

First published in the Daily Telegraph

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