Bernard Berenson and the Art of Seduction

How Immigrant Reinvented Himself as Connoisseur — and Svengali

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By Emily J. Levine

Published May 29, 2014, issue of May 30, 2014.
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● Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade
By Rachel Cohen
Yale University Press, 344 pages, $18.98

Born Bernhard Valvrojenski in 1865 to a tin-peddling father in the Pale of Settlement, Bernard Berenson transformed himself into one of the most influential connoisseurs of Italian Renaissance art.

An aspiring scholar, Berenson wrote a series of books about Italian painting that solidified connoisseurship as a profession and introduced Americans to the distinct styles of the great masters. Berenson’s career is now the subject of an absorbing new biography by Rachel Cohen for the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series.

Following the success of his 1891 book, “Venetian Painters of the Renaissance,” Berenson offered his expertise to an American art market desperate for authentication and access. Together with an agent improbably named Otto Gutekunst — “good art” in German — Berenson sold nearly a million dollars worth of Old Master paintings to rich Americans eager to get their hands on European art. He cajoled unwilling pastors and noblemen to part with their treasures. Berenson’s sometime associate, the British-Jewish art dealer Joseph Duveen, later spoke of Berenson as a sort of “Svengali.”

As Cohen writes in her biography, “The idea that he was a magician, and in some way a Jewish magician, was part of the atmosphere in which Berenson moved.” Cohen uses two side-by-side photographs to depict his transformation: a soft-skinned dark-haired student becomes — abracadabra! — a distinguished white-bearded fedora-clad gentleman. In addition to “B.B.,” Berenson also went by such noms de plume as “Il Bibi” or “Bernard,” with and without the “h” depending on whether he wanted to sound more or less German.

Hagiographer of a Houdini: In her biography, ‘Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade,’ Rachel Cohen calls her subject ‘a Jewish magician.’
peter serling
Hagiographer of a Houdini: In her biography, ‘Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade,’ Rachel Cohen calls her subject ‘a Jewish magician.’

One of Berenson’s first tricks was to turn institutional disappointment into opportunity. A graduate of the Boston Latin School and Harvard, Berenson applied for a Harvard fellowship to travel to Florence in 1888 following his graduation. When he was summarily rejected by the eminent art historian Charles Eliot Norton, who declared, “Berenson has more ambition than ability,” the resourceful Berenson secured private funding from a number of Boston philanthropists, including Isabella Stewart Gardner, to travel independently.

Berenson mediated between sellers and clients like Gardner, whose art collection he helped build. She claimed a Vermeer in 1891 (the second to come to America) and then, in 1896, Titian’s “Europa” for $100,000, a price that Cohen observes would “soon seem a bargain.” Depicting Zeus as a white bull making off with the sensual Europa, the painting has invited historical analogy to an ascendant America.

Yet it wasn’t always clear who was the plunderer and who the plundered. More than occasionally, Berenson “double dipped,” collecting fees from both seller and buyer. Earlier studies on Berenson were mired in questions about if and how Berenson used his role as authenticator for personal gain. Cohen instead emphasizes that his involvement with commerce resulted from the “mutual dependencies of art and money.” Berenson became one of Gardner’s protégés, and the income Berenson earned from his sales to her gave him freedom that he would have lacked at a “remote university.” Yet he also felt oppressed by his patrons, who often harbored anti-Semitic sentiments.

“The thicket of financial details sometimes obscures the fact that aesthetic and civic aspirations were of real significance to both Gardner and Berenson,” writes Cohen. Like a Renaissance Florentine patron, Gardner transferred her wealth to the collection that would become the Isabella Gardner Museum, justifying her fortune through its urban civic purpose. In Cohen’s drama, cities are essential actors, with Boston and Florence the main characters, and New York and Venice in supporting roles. With Berenson’s help, Gardner carved a place for Boston in the art world; with Gardner’s help, Berenson found a place for his talents outside the academy.


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