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Bernard Berenson and the Art of Seduction

● 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.’ Image by peter serling

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.

Chief among these talents was Berenson’s well-known abilities as a raconteur. Holding court in salons, first in Boston and later in Florence, Berenson earned friends and allies, including many prominent women. In 1892, Berenson charmed Mary Logan Costelloe, a Philadelphia-born budding art aficionado bored by her marriage to a British barrister. Costelloe and Berenson married in 1900 and acquired I Tatti, a villa outside Florence that would become their base.

Florence of 1900 was an ideal setting for conversation and romance. Cohen organizes the book around the women in Berenson’s life, including Gardner and Costelloe, as well as his lovers — his longtime librarian Nicky Mariano, and Bella da Costa Greene, the daughter of the first African-American Harvard graduate. (Another skilled self-fashioner, Greene gave her ethnicity as Portuguese and controversially “passed” in New York society.) Structuring the book around these women highlights the lifelong tension between Berenson’s passion for art and his more mercenary motivations.

Berenson’s conversational wizardry was equally double-sided. Though his theoretical approach to art amounted to a vague notion of “artistic personality,” he peppered his writings with the contemporary philosophical slogans of pragmatism. This overreaching occasionally got him into trouble. At one point, Bertrand Russell — who was his first wife’s brother — gently suggested that Berenson reread his William James.

That Berenson’s conversation often lacked depth may have exacerbated the anti-Semitic attacks on him as a fraud. Before his foray into art history, Berenson apparently penned a manuscript titled “Talmudo-Rabbinical Eschatology,” recently unearthed in his archive at Villa I Tatti. Believed to be his 1887 Harvard senior thesis, the manuscript interrogates the beliefs of Russian Jews on eschatological questions, which Cohen calls a “fine specimen of biblical scholarship.”

Yet Berenson did not want to become a scholar of esoteric philology and, like many Jews, he converted largely to assimilate. Renouncing Jewishness, however, was a trick that not even the Svengali could pull off.

No doubt Berenson had a penchant for self-loathing, but Cohen’s treatment of Berenson’s Jewishness is nuanced and responsible. “The way he admonished the Jews of America had a close parallel in his self-criticism,” Cohen observes. “Sometimes he preferred to feel that the sources of his failures were not in the world but within himself; this was better than to think that he had been outfoxed from the very beginning.”

Greene helped the unfulfilled Berenson see the potential for his own legacy in the collection of paintings, photographs and books that he had built at his I Tatti estate. So devoted to this collection was Berenson that he remained in Italy in the 1930s, at great risk to his life, to ensure that I Tatti would not fall into the hands of the Gestapo. If Berenson’s guile enabled him to build the collection on occasionally questionable terms, that same cunning helped him save the library and nearly all of its art collection from the Nazi rape of Europa.

Following his death in 1959, I Tatti was bequeathed to Harvard and became the Harvard University Center of Italian Renaissance Studies. The irony that Berenson would donate his library to Harvard, which had rejected him so harshly, is not lost on Cohen: “Harvard, which had made it possible for him to be a connoisseur, and in some ways, had prevented him from being anything else, should now accept as a gift his library, as he wrote of it, ‘the surest and completest biography of myself.’”

Emily Levine is an assistant professor of modern European history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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