Berenson’s Certificate

Artful Partners: Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen

by Colin Simpson
Macmillan, 323 pp., $22.50

This scurrilous book—the editor of Connoisseur, with a sharper eye for scandal than for veracity, calls it “one of the most important and engrossing books ever written about the history of art dealing”—has long roots. They reach back over ninety years to the rather improbable setting of Siena, where a number of indigent enthusiasts were engaged in exploiting Sienese painting. They formed a curious group. It included Edward Hutton (the author of a series of literate books about Italian cities, and later a well-regarded small-scale art dealer in London), an Italian forger and copyist, Ilicio Federico Ioni, and an American Dresden-trained pianist, Mason Perkins, who procured many Sienese paintings—forgeries by Ioni among them—for collectors in New York. A timid, parsimonious man with a strain of suppressed violence, Perkins was, when I knew him in old age, living in self-imposed poverty at Assisi surrounded by the pictures he had failed to sell.

The most interesting member of the group was a clergyman named Langton Douglas. He was voluble, dynamic, and ambitious, and unlike Perkins (who was simply an attributor of paintings) he was an aspirant art historian, producing in 1900 a book on Fra Angelico which may not have been (as the present volume claims) a best seller, but which in due course went into a second edition. In Siena Douglas identified the work of a major painter, Sassetta, who had concurrently come to the notice of a more serious and more gifted scholar, Bernard Berenson. Ironically enough the discovery of Sassetta was due neither to Douglas nor to Berenson, but to an American, James Jackson Jarves, who had written on him forty years before. The tug of war of 1903 was, however, won by Berenson, with a brilliant interpretative essay, “A Sienese Painter of the Franciscan Legend,” that is still read by every student of Italian painting. For the remainder of his long life Douglas bore a nagging chip on his shoulder, that his contemporary Berenson had a worldwide reputation as a scholar while he had next to none. Whatever evasive action one took in conversation, this theme recurred, generally in the form of attacks on Berenson’s integrity. The gospel according to Douglas is the theme of the present book.

As an art dealer Douglas rapidly gained a reputation for ruthlessness. He made a promising start by securing some first-rate Sienese paintings for Pierpont Morgan, but when I first knew him in the 1930s he was a figure of legend. It was said (mistakenly) that he had been defrocked. It was said (also mistakenly, I hope) that he painted Bellini’s name on pictures. It was said that he exchanged new majolica for old with unsuspecting parish priests, and would faint at the lodge gates of houses with collections that were closed to members of the trade. According to Simpson, Douglas was “primarily interested in pictures of museum quality,” but on my own visits to his house all I recall, after tumbling over the perambulator …

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Letters

On R. Langton Douglas July 16, 1987