In response to:
The Passions of Bernard Berenson from the November 21, 2013 issue
To the Editors:
In recounting the reasons to praise Bernard Berenson [NYR, November 21], Walter Kaiser unfortunately has stumbled over some important facts that require a much more balanced assessment. Kaiser erroneously asserts that the incomparable collection of Henry Walters was “essentially the creation of Berenson.” Contrary to this claim, most of Walters’s collection of hundreds of Italian paintings was acquired by him in 1902, seven years before he ever met Berenson. In 1910, Berenson contacted Walters and proposed to write a scholarly catalog about his collection. Although he studied the collection and helped to refine it, Berenson never satisfied his promise to write a catalog about it. Instead, he began to sell paintings to Walters. Berenson sold thirty-six paintings to Walters between 1910 and 1916. Most of the attributions given by Berenson to these paintings have been downgraded. A painting attributed to Tintoretto was deaccessioned, and a painting attributed to Pietro Carpaccio was determined to be a forgery. Among the thirty-six paintings that Berenson sold to Walters, only six remain on display at the Walters Art Museum. Kaiser is certainly correct in claiming that Berenson was brilliant and the greatest connoisseur of his time, but he certainly did not walk on water.
Walter Kaiser replies:
I find Mr. Mazaroff’s letter perplexing, because the objections he raises are qualified or gainsaid by the much more balanced assessment in the book he has written on the subject, Henry Walters and Bernard Berenson: Collector and Connoisseur (2010). It’s true that Walters bought the vast Massarenti collection, which the German connoisseur Wilhelm von Bode said “does not contain one noteworthy picture” (p. 73), before he knew Berenson; but he subsequently asked Berenson to weed out the mistakes and revise attributions (“more than two-thirds of his paintings were probably attributed to the wrong artist,” p. 45), thus “transforming Walters’s collection of Italian paintings” (p. 120) and giving it “a fresh start” (p. 105). Although his letter seeks to minimize Berenson’s role in the Walters collection, in his book he speaks of “the significant influence that Berenson had on Walters’s collection of Italian paintings” (p. 11, repeated on p. 144).
It’s also true that a number of Berenson’s own attributions have subsequently been revised, not so much by an unspecified number of unnamed “modern scholars” (p. 100) as by the late Federico Zeri; yet in his judicious discussion of the problems of attributions (pp. 102ff.) Mazaroff concludes that “any effort to score the number of correct or incorrect attributions is relatively meaningless. The field of connoisseurship at the turn of the twentieth century was an intuitive and inexact science.”
Since I admire much of his book, I’m sorry if I unwittingly misled Mr. Mazaroff into believing that I think Berenson walked on water. I don’t.