Bernard Beren­son: A Life in the Pic­ture Trade

Rachel Cohen
  • Review
By – January 8, 2014

I want­ed to become and be a work of art myself,” Bernard Beren­son wrote in the last decade of his long life. And so he was. As much as Beren­son was respect­ed for intro­duc­ing the art of the Ital­ian Renais­sance to the world and help­ing build the great Amer­i­can muse­ums, he was also a cre­ator of him­self and the life of cul­tured lux­u­ry that was his ideal.

Born Bern­hard Valvro­jen­skis in Lithua­nia in 1865, ten years lat­er he arrived in Boston, a city not over­ly hos­pitable to Jews, where his feck­less father strug­gled. Beren­son res­cued him­self from the pover­ty and dis­ap­point­ment around him through read­ing, vis­it­ing the Boston Pub­lic Library sev­er­al times a week. While still in high school he read mythol­o­gy and his­to­ry, the Roman­tics and the clas­sics, and above all Wal­ter Pater, his life­long inspi­ra­tion. While a stu­dent at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty, he met the first of his many patrons, who paid his Har­vard fees. Beren­son dec­o­rat­ed his col­lege rooms with Ital­ian prints, hav­ing already fall­en under the spell of Bot­ti­cel­li — in repro­duc­tion — at the Boston Muse­um of Fine Arts, which he vis­it­ed with the girl of wealth and cul­ture” he was see­ing at the time. Thus before he had grad­u­at­ed from col­lege, the pat­tern of Berenson’s life was tak­ing shape — his ardent desire for a life of art and cul­ture that required sub­stan­tial assets and his need to finance it through work and patron­age, as well as the almost con­stant com­pa­ny of women. 

In this high­ly read­able and metic­u­lous­ly researched biog­ra­phy, Rachel Cohen, an award-win­ning author and teacher, relates Berenson’s achieve­ment as the author­i­ta­tive crit­ic and con­nois­seur — a pro­fes­sion he prac­ti­cal­ly cre­at­ed — of his time and the pain and self-con­tempt his back­ground and need for mon­ey caused him. Cohen con­trasts his life at I Tat­ti, his vil­la and library out­side Flo­rence, where he lived in lux­u­ry as a schol­ar and col­lec­tor, with his some­times devi­ous deal­ings and his long-term secret con­tract with Sir Joseph Duveen, the pre­em­i­nent art deal­er. Few knew of Berenson’s child­hood pover­ty; his youth­ful con­ver­sion to Protes­tantism and lat­er con­ver­sion to Catholi­cism did not spare him the anti-Semi­tism of his wealthy cus­tomers — the busi­ness­men for whom he bought cul­ture and refine­ment — and the estab­lish­ment world he lived in. 

A man of sparkling con­ver­sa­tion and seduc­tive charm, Beren­son craved intel­lec­tu­al com­pa­ny and the com­pan­ion­ship of women — his moth­er, his sis­ter Sen­da; his wife and col­lab­o­ra­tor, Mary Costel­loe Beren­son; his great love, Belle da Cos­ta Greene, J.P. Morgan’s librar­i­an; Isabel­la Stew­art Gard­ner, whose muse­um he helped build; Edith Whar­ton, his dear friend; Nicky Mar­i­ano, his librar­i­an and clos­est com­pan­ion in the last four decades of his life. In a life span­ning almost a cen­tu­ry, he met the intel­lec­tu­al lead­ers of his times — to name only a few, Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hem­ing­way, John Stein­beck and Wal­ter Lipp­mann, Ray Brad­bury and Hen­ry Adams, Kather­ine Dun­ham and Ken­neth Clark. Bertrand Rus­sell was his broth­er-in-law; Judge Learned Hand, a life­long cor­re­spon­dent. Dur­ing World War I, Beren­son worked for U.S. Army Intel­li­gence; dur­ing World War II he was pro­tect­ed by var­i­ous Ital­ian offi­cials despite his well-known anti-Fascism.

Cohen brings Berenson’s com­plex­i­ties, extra­or­di­nary achieve­ments, and self-doubts togeth­er in this vivid and well-paced biog­ra­phy. Beren­son saw paint­ings with a love and depth of under­stand­ing that few have matched, and he gave that gift to the world in his defin­i­tive work on Ital­ian Renais­sance art, the paint­ings he urged on wealthy buy­ers, and the knowl­edge he brought to a grow­ing pub­lic. In grat­i­tude to Boston and to encour­age and pre­serve his ideals of schol­ar­ship and high cul­ture, he left I Tat­ti to Har­vard, a last­ing mon­u­ment to the man who helped the world see art in a new and mean­ing­ful way. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, illus­tra­tions, index, notes.

Relat­ed Con­tent: Jew­ish Lives series


Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions