Only in America

Being Bernard Berenson

by Meryle Secrest
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 473 pp., $15.95

If small, lithe tigers could speak, they would have the voice and intelligence of this feline Pole. He has velvet paws and killer talons of steel. He’s let his beard grow to cover up the fact that he is only half a man. His eyes are blue, the better to deceive…. His ambition, which is consuming, is to be recognized as the world’s greatest expert on the Italian primitives; and he achieved his goal about three years ago. He is a dying man, but he’ll go on for a long, long time. He doesn’t do business or accept commissions, but he shares in the profits. ‘Here are 25,000 francs, M. Berenson.’ ‘Merci, Gimpel.”’

This entry from the 1918 diary of the art dealer René Gimpel is the best thumbnail sketch of Bernard Berenson yet written. It was a curious fact of cultural life, and perhaps a tribute to the old serpent’s powers of intimidation, that nobody else could deal with him in such terms, catching his epicene grace, deviousness, hypochondria, greed, relentless ambition, and ophidian charm in a few lines. It is now twenty years since Berenson died in 1959, and it seems longer, partly because of the fuzziness and piety of his memorialists, and partly because of his own remoteness from modernist culture. And yet he is still an extraordinarily interesting, even a legendary, creature. Berenson’s success story was one of the most spectacular in the history of art—the poor Jewish boy from a Lithuanian shtetl who became a millionaire dictator of taste; the Harvard scholar who rose, by the end of his life, to be regarded as a latter-day Goethe; the neurasthenic youth who outlived nearly all his contemporaries, dying at the patriarchal age of ninety-four in the elaborately plain Tuscan villa where, for fifty years, dealers, collectors, historians, minor nobility, princes, kings, and politicians had paid assiduous and often slavish court to him. Berenson was one of the wiliest and yet most self-deluded men that ever lived, a great connoisseur, but also a master of opportunism who came to believe in his own fictions. He was, to put it mildly, a hard nut to crack, and is a harder one to write about.

Of the many pieces written on the Sage of I Tatti, as Berenson was routinely called in his old age, few have biographical value and most are silly. One need not count the articles which had become, by 1950, a subgenre of American journalism all on their own, written by the hordes of Luce staffers and CIA spooks on holiday who made the trek up the hill to Settignano and were rewarded by the sight of Berenson, trundled out like a reliquary by his companion Nicky Mariano, with some rich young man being groomed for a future in the art world—Carter Brown, William Mostyn-Owen—in attendance. It was one of the sights of Florence and, unlike the view of the Duomo from San Miniato, not everyone saw it, so that those who did felt both humble and privileged. Berenson’s unsereiner felt duty-bound to sustain the legend and treat him as a secular saint, as though he had actually become the modern Goethe he once aspired to be.

Occasionally, as the years went by, a chink would appear in the curtain, as when Kenneth Clark in his unrevealing first volume of autobiography (Another Part of the Wood, 1974) described him as sitting “on the pinnacle of a mountain of corruption.” The memoirs of Nicky Mariano (Forty Years with Berenson, 1966) are wholly uncritical, as one might expect from a devoted protector who spent the last years of her life trying to make sure no biographer would get access to any document that shed anything but luster on Berenson’s memory. And the only previous attempt at a full-dress biography, Sylvia Sprigge’s Berenson (1960), was less written than poked into shape by an author who had few responses to art or art history, and a naïve view of relationships within the I Tatti circle.

But the twentieth anniversary of Berenson’s death has brought two new works on him, both immeasurably superior to earlier biographical attempts. They should be read together, since they approach their subject from different angles. The more elaborate and scholarly of the two, Ernest Samuels’s Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur, is a lucid and exhaustively researched account of less than half of Berenson’s life, taking him through the years of his Lithuanian childhood, his emigration to America, his intellectual blossoming at Harvard, his return to Europe and self-discovery in connoisseurship. It leaves him in 1905 when, in his fortieth year, having blitzed the American museums and collectors on a tour of the eastern states and set up his reputation in the US as the world’s top eye on Italian Renaissance art, he made his final departure for Italy.

The second book, Meryle Secrest’s Being Bernard Berenson, covers the whole life, so that we see the transubstantiation of Berenson the scholar into B.B. the culture hero. Its texture of detail is necessarily sparser. Samuels’s book, from the point of view of I Tatti and its jealous ghosts, is the official biography: in 1966, two years before she died, Nicky Mariano gave Samuels access to the Berenson archive, whereas her nephew—no relation to Berenson, but, by some testamentary quirk, the inheritor of his personal papers—refused the same courtesy to Secrest. Neither of them could read the all-important correspondence between Berenson and the dealer Lord Duveen, in which many bodies presumably lie buried. Berenson was Duveen’s chief adviser for thirty years, and only their letters can finally resolve the highly vexed questions of Berenson’s business morality and the disinterestedness of his attributions. Unfortunately, they are under seal in the Metropolitan Museum until the year 2002, by which time anyone who ever did business with either man will be unable to sue.

Faced with this problem, Samuels took the conservative decision to leave Berenson a year before he started working for Duveen. Secrest, on the other hand, has tried to reconstruct Berenson’s relation to the art market during those thirty years from other sources—and she appears to have interviewed almost everyone who knew Berenson and is still neither dead nor gaga. Nevertheless, until the Duveen archive is unsealed, this job cannot properly be done; which means, in turn, that there can be no truly definitive biography of Berenson until the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, Secrest’s narrative is the liveliest evocation of this strangely conflict-ridden man that has yet been written, a portrait with the unmistakable ring of psychological truth.

Berenson was not, as Gimpel thought, a Pole; nor was he, as others at one time or another took him to be, English, French, Austrian, German, or American. He was careful to veil his origins, because he was ashamed of them. He was a Jew, a child of the shtetl. He was born Bernhard Valvrojenski, the child of a well-read but poor lumber merchant in a now extinct village named Butrimants, in the northern part of the Pale of Settlement, in 1865. He was an adored eldest boy, “the infant prince of a neolithic Lithuanian ghetto,” as he noted eighty-five years later. When he was ten his family took him to America and they settled in a small row house in Boston. From the beginning, his parents hoped that Bernhard would bring distinction to the family, transcend their poverty, or perhaps become a great Talmudic scholar. What happened exceeded their hopes; but it could hardly have been predicted.

Berenson, as the family name became—perhaps at his prompting, though that is unclear—lived in Boston for a dozen years, first at school and then at Harvard, from 1875 to 1887. In that time, pressed on by his father—a freethinker whose friends, according to Samuels, were given to publicly eating ham sandwiches outside the synagogue on Yom Kippur—he remade himself. The pallid, bookish Litvak became, as Secrest puts it, “the very model of a proper Bostonian, circa 1885: polished, impeccably mannered, exquisitely educated, and fastidiously aesthetical.” In the process, he had to submit to the judgments of his social superiors, most of whom were quietly anti-Semitic. Berenson missed the high tide of proper Bostonian Jew-hating, which came after the great exodus of Jews to America in the late 1880s. Nevertheless the prejudices he met in the society he aspired to join were of an almost Prussian nastiness, and they skewed his life.

He set out to cover his traces. Berenson had an almost pathological need to dissemble his own Jewishness, and Secrest quotes a remarkable passage from an essay that he sent to the Andover Review when he was twenty-three:

It is only by a study of Jewish institutions and literature that we shall begin to understand the puzzling character of the Jews. Begin to understand, I say, for comprehend them we never shall. Their character and interests are too vitally opposed to our own to permit the existence of that intelligent sympathy between us and them which is necessary for comprehension….

This drive to become a Gentile at almost any cost was the fruit of real desperation: young Berenson experienced his race and origins as a Medusa’s head which could petrify his career at one glance. His social climbing, which looks so repellent and calculated, was inspired by the conviction that there was no way back. Proper Boston possessed the first culture he wanted to have; Jewishness was not a culture, only a point of origin, something to transcend by means of any available fiction. In his old age, Berenson would make peace with his childhood, becoming almost rabbinical. But for the first fifty years of his life he fought to overcome and repress it, so that the gifted shtetl boy was displaced by a more literary specter—the pale exile of conjectural but high origins, bestowing his allegiance only on Culture: a Childe Harold of the salons and museums. His pedigree could not impress Boston, but his credentials of feeling could.

Berenson went to Harvard at a time when the cult of sensibility had swollen to unheard-of proportions, dominating all cultural discourse. As Samuels rightly observes, one of William James’s effects on undergraduates in the Eighties was to make them as narcissistically busy with the flutterings of their conscious minds as their great-grandchildren would be with the promptings of their unconscious minds, so that “for young Americans of the fin de siècle imbibing the catechism of art for art’s sake…the great world of politics and social strife was a world well lost.”

Berenson aspired to cultural refinement with an ardor that verged on religious ecstasy, and for the rest of his life it saved him from having to think seriously about social organization. Beyond routine fulminations against fascism, which he opposed, and socialism, which he identified with mob rule or, as he put it, “ochlocracy,” Berenson never had much to say about the political affairs of the world. What he did say would have made sense only to a Boston brahmin of the late 1880s who had forgotten the ambitions of making an ideal society that, up to the end of the 1840s, had given the intellectual life of Boston its unusual tone and vigor. For Berenson, as for George Santayana and Henry Adams, the sphere of culture was a refuge from such matters—a kind of New Jerusalem, a distant, golden, minutely organized refuge and reward for the Elect. In this heavenly city there could be no conflicts of class, only discussions about revealed truth; and the keepers of its keys lived at the top of the sublunary pyramid, on Beacon Hill.

Berenson’s growing sense of membership in the ultimate club enabled him to move more confidently through a Harvard atmosphere which was, in the delicate phrase of his future brother-in-law, Logan Pearsall Smith, “richly colored by the sense of social differences.” He fortified himself against the snubs of Charles Eliot Norton, who brushed him off as an intellectual arriviste with “more ambition than ability.” Nevertheless, Norton’s art lectures were of significance to Berenson, largely because they consolidated for him—as for polite Bostonian society in general, to which they had the same kind of appeal as Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation—the vision of the Renaissance as a heroic cultural saga, an art-historical Camelot fairly swarming with geniuses in silk doublets, who all began to vanish like fairies after 1600 and, in passing, plunged Europe into the dark prelude to modernist chaos. The reinvention of the Renaissance by Burckhardt and his followers had an immense effect on American cultural life in the 1880s, and when the millionaires and their wives began to identify with the condottieri and doges to the point of wanting to own the art they had commissioned four centuries earlier, Berenson’s fortune would be made.

He did not set out to become a connoisseur-dealer. Berenson wanted to be a writer, but he imagined the act of writing as a means to a further end—not the mere extrusion of thought onto a page, but the demonstration of exemplary character, the writer as his final work of art. He wanted, as Samuels makes clear, to become a literary presence, a model of pure cultivation. His hero was Walter Pater, with whom Berenson, as a student, identified to the point of obsession. The more flowery moments in Pater’s writings have made him difficult to read today. The famous Gioconda passage, which moved a whole generation of undergraduates in Cambridge and Boston to tears and secret fantasies, now rings of period fustian: “She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants….”

Nobody who read Pater’s essays on the Italian Renaissance in the 1880s could approach the Mona Lisa without these sinuous cadences ringing in his head. Pater furnished his readers with a model of young revolt. Against the materialism of the Victorian bourgeois father, and the arrogance of the landed “hearties,” Pater’s writings set forth the dandyist ideal of life lived as a procession of exquisitely shaped moments. This fantasy had been the common change of café society in France for twenty years or more, but it was alarming in Oxbridge and quite shocking in New England. “To burn always with this hard gem-like flame,” Pater announced, “to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”

The manifesto of Pater’s cult, which was to have deep effects on Wilde, Yeats, and Roger Fry, as well as on Berenson himself, was Marius the Epicurean (1885). This tract became Berenson’s gospel. Marius was a self-made child of feeling who had arranged his life so that the structures and values of a florid, power-laden, parental Rome (for which read late Victorian England, or Eighties’ Boston) could not touch it at any point; and its highest morality—the highest morality, Pater insisted—was art for art’s sake, a disinterested precision of feeling, a sense of minute discrimination elevated to the order of religion or science. Every moment contained something worthwhile hidden in superfluity, and success was to have “disengaged that virtue and noted it as a chemist notes some natural element.” Here lay one root of the “scientific” ideal of connoisseurship which Berenson pursued throughout his life: a system of discrimination based not on any special power of argument, still less on the iconographical or social meanings of art, but on meticulous observation of detail, sensitivity to style, and exhaustive comparison based on a retentive visual memory. Berenson deserved the compliment Cézanne paid to Monet: “Il n’est qu’un oeil, mais, mon Dieu, quel oeil!”

The physical symbol of Pater’s thought working on Berenson’s life was to be I Tatti itself. As both Samuels and Secrest demonstrate, I Tatti was the realization of a fantasy which Berenson and Logan Pearsall Smith had shared in the 1890s—the dream of a contemplative order of men dedicated, like monks, to cultural perfection, and living together in a high-walled castle named Altamura. The plans for Altamura were drawn up at some length in The Golden Urn, a pretentious little magazine they brought out in 1897. The place was to be a rentier’s lamasery, ineffably stylized, open to the sons of “wealth and disillusion” who would meditate on a different subject each month: pastoral beauty in August, decay in November, and so on.

For Pearsall Smith this was partly a sexual fantasy—a convent full of rich sensitive boys—but for Berenson, who always rigorously sublimated his homosexual streak, rejecting the advances of Oscar Wilde and failing to notice when he met him that there was anything odd about Robert de Montesquiou, the idea of Marius reborn as Altamuran monasticism had a different appeal. As a pseudo religion it reinforced his idea of an alternative society, an elect of sensibility—unsereiner, in his word: Our Gang. I Tatti would be the proof that he had not only escaped his origins among the “Jews and other indecencies,” as he called them, but transcended the narrow social laws of Boston as well. It would be his court, and there the great world would come to him. “With horror I think what I might have become if I had lived the life of an illpaid professor, or struggling writer,” he wrote at the end of his life, “how rebellious, if I had not lived a life devoted to great art and the aristocratically pyramidal structure of society it serves, or worse still, if I had remained in the all but proletarian condition I lived in as a Jewish immigrant lad in Boston…. I keep hearing the Furies, and never forget them….” And the only defense against them, the one missing component of the young Berenson’s Altamuran hopes, was money.

It was therefore lucky for Berenson that on his first trip to Europe, in 1887, underwritten by a group of Boston sponsors that included Isabella Stewart Gardner, he became quickly disillusioned with the prospects of a literary career and moved toward that of the connoisseur and picture-attributor. “Conosching,” as he and his wife Mary Costelloe (whom he met in 1890 on that first Wanderjahre, which actually extended into seven years) jocularly called it, was a relatively new discipline. Its paragon, the man whose work gave Berenson the tools for constructing a method from the refined appetites Pater had stimulated in him, was Giovanni Morelli. Morelli’s pioneering book, a brief study of Italian Renaissance paintings in the museums of Berlin, Dresden, and Munich published in 1880, not only made brilliant arguments for changes in attribution but changed the course of art history partly by insisting on one fundamental law of evidence: that no matter what the documents said, the primary evidence on which one judged the authorship and date of a work of art was the work itself. Against this, no family tradition—“grandfather always told us it was a Lotto”—or applied signature or letter could avail.

But what form, exactly, did the primary evidence take? Anyone knows that the recognizable traits of a master’s style are the easiest to do and thus the most often copied by students, shop hands, or posthumous forgers. If every image with a Gioconda smile in it were a Leonardo, the walls of northern Italy would be papered with his autograph works—as, in the Nineties, they were thought to be: one luckless German named Eugene Muntz, in 1898, published a study of Leonardo’s drawings in which every single reproduced work was either a schoolpiece, a copy, or a modern fake.

While most connoisseurs did not achieve Muntz’s perfect batting average, the study and attribution of Italian art was a swamp of misattribution, and Morelli believed the only way through it lay in studying and comparing those apparently insignificant aspects of paintings which were not done with highly conscious intentions, and so tended both to remain the same whatever the subject matter and to be overlooked by imitators: the small details of style, the drawing of an ear or a nostril, the disposition of vertebrae in a back or the curl of a toenail, the springiness of grass or the number of stamens in a lily. Since artists tended to develop standard forms of generalization for such things, their stylistic print on them was unmistakable. In short, what Morelli, who had studied anatomy and medicine, proposed was a system of a scientific identification analogous to the system of identification Bertillon invented for criminals at about the same time.

Berenson had read Morelli at Harvard, and found in him the scientific system he craved, a mode of discrimination that raised Pater’s ideal from the cultivation of pleasure to the “objective” life of the classifying, analytical mind. As Berenson acquired experience of painting in Europe, he came to feel that Morelli was not only the Winckelmann or Darwin of painting, but a giant-slayer sent by providence to strike down the authorities Berenson most detested, the German Kunsthistorischers, whose chief—and Berenson’s lifelong—enemy was Wilhelm Bode of the Berlin Museum. Morellian comparison would be the means, as he excitedly said to his Florentine friend Enrico Costa one morning in 1889, of rewriting history, or more exactly, of writing it for the first time:

Nobody before us has dedicated his entire activity, his entire life to connoisseurship…. We are the first to have no idea, no ambition, no expectation, no hope of reward. We shall give ourselves up to learning, to distinguish between the authentic works of an Italian painter of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, and those commonly ascribed to him…. We must not stop until we are sure that every Lotto is a Lotto, every Cariani a Cariani, every Santacroce a Santacroce….

No student of Renaissance art today can do more than imagine the obstacles that lay in Berenson’s path of connoisseurship. In the age of art history, they have vanished, but their disappearance was very largely Berenson’s doing. There were no reliable guide-books or general histories of Renaissance art, although a start had been made by Crowe and Cavalcaselle. The best available guide was the notoriously unreliable Vasari, who at least had the merit of being an eyewitness to some of the cultural events he described. Otherwise, the material was jumbled, inchoate, uncatalogued, unsifted, or simply invisible. Provincial museums throughout Italy made no effort to coordinate their catalogues (when they existed) or to revise their attributions, which were jealously adhered to in a spirit of knee-jerk civic patriotism. Since the idea of accessible subcollections for study had not occurred to Italian museum men, vast deposits of paintings, terra cottas, and bronzes lay moldering in basements, coming to light only when filched by the museum staff and sold to dealers. And in churches, particularly Tuscan and Umbrian provincial ones, an appalling neglect prevailed; when Berenson first saw Piero della Francesca’s sublime fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross in Arezzo, for instance, the church had been turned into a military barracks and the frescoes were half hidden by dusty piles of ecclesiastical furniture, jammed higgledy-piggledy up the walls.

Berenson set out to cut his way through this mess and establish real canons of authentication for Italian Renaissance painting. Some people who love art have a short attention span; the effort of concentrated looking fatigues them. Berenson had the stamina of a chamois and, throughout his life, his ability to keep focused on the objects of his study was a wonder and a rebuke to other connoisseurs. It would never be used more energetically than in his early Italian years, between 1890 and 1895, when, while earning a small living by taking tourists round the Florentine museums for a lira a head, he studied and sorted and filed and extrapolated, tramping for months across rural Italy and applying the Morellian system to everything he saw. The results of these years of patient, impeccably disinterested observation would eventually be summarized in Berenson’s “four Gospels,” his four fundamental books with their accompanying lists of authentic paintings and their whereabouts: Venetian Painters of the Renaissance (1894), Florentine Painters of the Renaissance (1896), Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1897), and North Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1907), with, in between, his most exact and elegant work of scholarship, the Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1903).

Throughout this time he kept his eye on the main chance, the prospect of becoming an art pundit. Art, he wrote to his future wife Mary Costelloe in 1892, was the road to fame: “Once the public get the ring of this monosyllable, they will follow anyone who shouts it at them, you and me, if we shout loud enough.” One ingredient of this future ruckus was their utter indifference to conflict of interest; it was Mary’s regular practice, from 1894 onward, to publish glowing notices of Bernard’s work wherever she could place a review, sometimes under her own name, sometimes under assumed ones.

But what Berenson most needed was an opportunity to carry out a public slaughter of established attributions. He got it in 1894, with an exhibition of Venetian painting from British collections at the New Gallery in London. When Berenson’s essay on this show appeared, it transformed him at once into an enfant terrible. Of thirty-three works attributed to Titian in English collections, for instance, he spared only one, the Mond Madonna, assigning the rest to copyists or to such minor figures as Polidoro Lanzani, Santacroce, and Beccaruzzi; of seven “Mantegnas” he accepted two; and so on.

Since nearly all the paintings in the show were owned by rich and titled Englishmen, Berenson’s pamphlet stirred up the art establishment. It achieved its end, since if all earlier Renaissance attributions, in England as in Italy, could have doubt cast on them, whom could collectors trust? None but Berenson himself, the new authority. And so, amid envy from other critics and rancorous hostility from dealers whose swans he was degrading to ducks, Berenson—still the picture of scholarly detachment, the young aufklärer with no visible allegiances to any established art world interests—quite rapidly became what he would remain for another fifty years: the filter through which most Renaissance art, entering the new-money collections of the New World, had to pass.

The critic who deals is a common spectacle, and not a noble one; the only way to keep your nose clean in the art world is not to collect at all, and very few writers are prepared to do that. In Berenson’s time it was simply assumed that art critics and art historians were up for sale and on the take, unless they were so rich as not to need the money. To the end of his life, Berenson was sensitive on this point, and he had every reason to be. In his eighty-eighth year, one reads him lamenting about the comparative ease of his most famous protégé, Kenneth Clark: “K.C. not only inherited his fortune, but increases it. He buys and sells works of art, and that counts only as a gentleman ‘exchanging’ a good thing for a better one. If I sold any picture I should at once be put down as a ‘dealer’ because I started poor.”

The phrase “if I sold” betrays no mean capacity for self-delusion, since Berenson spent as much time setting art up for sale, and selling it, as he did contemplating it. It was his means of support from 1895 until his death. His terms, as contracted with Lord Duveen in 1912, were simple: he got one quarter of the profits from the sale of any paintings on whose authenticity he had been asked to pronounce.

Since few American collectors were prepared to buy an Italian gold-ground predella fragment, let alone a full-dress portrait by Titian or Moroni, without a Berenson ticket on it, the volume of his business was immense. It is impossible to say, without access to the Berenson-Duveen correspondence, how many works of art (if any) Berenson upgraded to enhance their market value, but Secrest appends to the end of her text a long and interesting list of Berenson attributions that have gone down since his death, or jumped from school pieces to autographed works when they were in Duveen’s hands. A spectacular case of this was a “Masaccio” acquired from Duveen by Andrew Mellon, the Madonna of Humility, a wreck with only a few square inches of genuine paint left on it. Berenson went so far as to publish it while it was still in Duveen’s hands, writing that no painting of equal splendor had been seen “since the builders of the Pyramids and the sculptors of the Chefrens….” It is now in storage in Washington.

Berenson likened his immersion in the art trade to Spinoza’s lens-grinding: a way of getting by, of underwriting the mind. In fact the scale of his business operations was such that the better analogy might have been the president of Zeiss dabbling in philosophy. This, as Meyer Schapiro maintained almost twenty years ago,* and as Secrest argues now, is why one cannot read Berenson lamenting his wrong turnings with much sympathy; not once, in all the diary entries of his late years, could he bear to face the real reasons for what he considered his intellectual apostasy.

His first big client was Isabella Stewart Gardner, for whom he secured most of the major paintings still at Fenway Court. He came groveling after her like a heat-homing missile. “Whatever comes, I shall always worship you without exception as the most life-enhancing, the most utterly enviable person I have ever had the good fortune to know,” he wrote to her in 1898, when she seemed to be going cold on further buying. And again, “You are really the most lovable person on earth, sunshine become flesh and blood. I know not how to describe you, but a miracle certainly, a goddess and I, your prophet.” When “Mrs. Jack” bought the Darnley Titian through Berenson, the Rape of Europa, its then astonishing price of $100,000 set a new plateau for Renaissance paintings, and caused almost as great a sensation as the $2 million paid for Pollock’s Blue Poles in 1973. From then on, Americans would pay ever increasing prices for Italian art, and the one person who could guarantee the integrity of their investments was Berenson.

Thus in the winter of 1903 the Berensons let fall their triumphal Blitzkrieg on America, and the accounts both Samuels and Secrest give of it make very funny reading—although it would take a Balzac to do full justice to the monstrous comedy of greed, insecurity, and opportunism that unfolded as they hit the “squillionaires.” The keynote of their trip was struck by Mary Berenson’s diary, after dinner in Boston with James Loeb, banker and founder of the Loeb Classical Library—“a handsome, fat, prosperous, philistine Jew, classmate of Bernhard’s,” she noted. “It is astonishing how interesting and unboring society becomes when you have something to get out of it.” Thus the little fox and the Quaker tank cut their swathe through the Wideners and Kresses, the Schiffs and Warburgs, the Potter Palmers and Freers and Gateses, deeply impressing everyone except, apparently, the wife of an Irish newspaper proprietor called Laffan, who later remarked of Mary to Roger Fry: “Oh! we women sink very low—to keep Berenson going, what a métier.”

Berenson would presently say, with understandable pride, that most of the major Renaissance paintings that entered the US in the first half of our century did so “with my visa on them.” He felt no compunction about prying them loose from Italy; the Italians had neglected their own heritage, and Berenson saw his work for Duveen not as the cultural plunder it was, but as a work of preservation, which it also was. But there can be little doubt that his own dependence on art dealing caused him to ossify as a critic and thinker. Berenson the attributor was much more interesting than Berenson the art critic, because he had so much territory to defend, and he saw that fief as an enclave of controllable sanity and ideal beauty—not to mention big money—in a decaying culture. For Berenson was a nineteenth-century man who survived into the twentieth, and his main intellectual problem was, as Meyer Schapiro pointed out, that he failed to grow. Nowhere did this show itself more vividly than in his transactions (or lack of them) with the culture of his time, modernism. For an art writer to have lived through one of the supreme periods in Western art history, the forty years from 1890 to 1930, and not uttered one intelligent syllable about it is nothing to be proud of, but Berenson managed to do it. Often he seemed to have no idea of what was going on around him. He not only anathematized Pound, Joyce, Stein, Eliot, and especially Freud. He actually managed to convince himself that Freud and Eliot had plagiarized him: “The stone I threw away as not to be used,” he wrote in 1950, “they used as the cornerstone of their [sic] system.”

In painting, little that tasted of modernist experience was allowed time in I Tatti. Late in life, Berenson would claim that he had “discovered” Cézanne by mentioning him in his Central Italian Painters. This notice was hardly more than a warbling palimpsest of incompatible names: a “real art of landscape,” he wrote, will come “when some artists, modelling skies like Cézanne’s…will have a feeling for space rivalling Perugino’s or Raphael’s.” No one who imagined that Raphael’s idea of space could be reconciled with Cézanne’s heroic doubt and deep sense of relativity can be said to have looked much at Cézanne, and Schapiro was certainly right when he acerbically remarked that “the name of Cézanne served him, I suppose, as a piece of up-to-date dressing like the name of the fashionable Tissot.” In any case, Cézanne was so well known to French artists by 1897 that any claim to have “discovered” him at that late date is absurd. All one can say is that Berenson had heard of him a little earlier than the “squillionaires” across the Atlantic.

He defended Matisse in 1908, in a letter to the New York Nation, but the terms now seem a trifle odd. Matisse, he suggested, was more draftsman than colorist. But after Matisse, from Cubism and Futurism onward, modern art was in his eyes an abomination, the work of madmen, dupes, Bolsheviks, poseurs, faggots, and decadents, led by that arch-fiend and demagogue of chaos Pablo Picasso, whom Berenson startlingly compared to Huey Long.

It is unlikely that he saw much modern art, except in photographs, and in any case it might be asking too much of a man who was nearly fifty when the Armory Show opened to have a late conversion. But Berenson’s asp-like hostility to the culture of his own day ran deeper than ordinary fear of the unfamiliar. Berenson experienced modernism as a direct threat to his own values, livelihood, and well-being. He took its rhetoric of destruction, the stock-in-trade of Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism, at face value. “Come on! Set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!” Marinetti had exclaimed in 1909, in the Futurist Manifesto. “Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discolored and shredded!” Since Berenson had one of the grandest private libraries of the twentieth century, paid for by collecting 25 percent on the profits of every one of those same glorious canvases which, recolored and patched and restored, were sold by Lord Duveen, it would have been naïve to expect him to sympathize with such outbursts. The energies of modernism therefore struck him as loathesome and satyr-like, certainly not “life-enhancing”; and he could not see the deep connections, direct or ironically masked, between modernism and its traditional sources. Besides, the confessional aims of Expressionism or Surrealism could not have been congenial to a man who believed so strongly in Pascal’s dictum, le moi est haïssable.

But Berenson’s defensiveness and his reluctance to face his own contradictions also tended to cut him off from developments within his own field: the study and criticism of Italian art of the distant past. In 1924 Duveen held a show of Berenson-attributed old masters, bought by American collectors, in his New York gallery. Some of these attributions were by then looking particularly optimistic. The art historian Richard Offner wrote an article for The Arts magazine, mildly but firmly questioning a Cimabue, a Daddi, a Fra Angelico. It would be twenty years before Berenson spoke to Offner again. The art world is a nutrient broth for paranoid disputes and imagined slights, but even by its standards of conduct Berenson’s was unusual. His ferocity may have been more closely connected with the nature of his thought than is generally supposed.

In general, Berenson’s perceptions about art were not easy to debate. Intuitions rarely are; they do not partake of the nature of argument, and Berenson staked his entire career on the superiority of his eye, backed up by an incomparable memory bank. Any questioning of his conclusions was therefore apt to be treated as a personal attack, and so he tended to see other art historians as barbarians shaking their bill-hooks and uttering hoarse dialectical threats below the walls of Altamura. The donnée of his work was that the value of painting lay in its ability to enhance self-consciousness, by means of intense increments of experience—flashes of vision and delight. These moments were to Berenson, as to anyone fortunate enough to have them, all but indescribable. Like his passionate delight in nature, they came close to mystical experience. They disclosed the “It-ness” of which he often spoke—the irreducible, self-manifesting essence of reality.

Nevertheless Berenson felt obliged to give this oceanic pleasure of the eye, the goal of the aesthete’s quest, the trappings of a system. Hence the awkward formulations of his critical writing—“tactile values,” “ideated sensations” and the rest. The idea of “tactile values” as expounded by Berenson sounded impressive but was merely a slogan: it was to illusion what Clive Bell’s idea of “significant form” was to abstraction. It derived from a crude physiological notion of how the brain interprets space and passes that interpretation to the body. All it stood for, if analyzed, was a convincing impression of three-dimensionality. Nevertheless Berenson insisted on applying this concept as a touchstone, quite mechanically, as though it were an arguable guide to quality in art. At the same time he despised iconographical studies as mere ground work at best and, at worst, a threat to his interests: hence his loathing of Erwin Panofsky, and of the kind of work that Panofsky and his Warburg Institute colleagues pursued.

What impressed Berenson’s admirers, the court of I Tatti, was his formidable certezza. It is the very quality that now makes him seem such a period figure, so remote, and in some ways so difficult to understand. He created the role of the waspish pontiff, and took it with him; few modern art historians would want to fill it again, and probably none has the devouring energy to do so. It costs too much to maintain, and the payment is not made in money but in suppleness of thought.

In any case, the idea that any branch of the art market could have one single Sorting Demon presiding over it today, as Berenson did over his field half a century ago, is no longer conceivable. The interest of Berenson’s writings—as distinct from his body of authentication, the Lists, which remain fundamental to the study of Italian art—has faded. It is unlikely that future generations will read them for the pleasure of good writing, as one reads Ruskin or the more sinewy passages in Pater. One wants to know more about art—its meanings beyond the aesthetic, its social setting, its structure as language, its connections to other ambient disciplines—than Berenson was prepared to offer, and so his works are no longer read, as those of his contemporaries Wölfflin, Dvorak, and Riegl still are, for their insights into the relations between art and history. Perhaps Berenson’s main claim to survival is as the character that Secrest so convincingly puts before us: a man who exemplified, more poignantly than anyone else in this century, the kind of Faustian deals the art market exacts on those who enter it with idealistic hopes of purity. It made him the big offer, and he could not make the gran rifiuto.


Uncensored Berenson July 17, 1980

He Was French January 24, 1980

  1. *

    In “Mr. Berenson’s Values,” Encounter, January 1961.