Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 9, 2015
Joseph Connors and Louis A. Waldman, eds. Bernard Berenson: Formation and Heritage Cambridge, MA: Villa I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, 2014. 440 pp. Paper $40.00 (9780674427853)

Most of the essays contained in Bernard Berenson: Formation and Heritage, edited by Joseph Connors and Louis A. Waldman, were presented as lectures during a conference at Villa I Tatti in 2009 marking the fiftieth anniversary of Berenson’s death. As Connors both perceptively and tactfully observes in the introduction’s opening paragraph, the timing was propitious: by 2009 the “cult of personality” that had surrounded Berenson during his life had “dissipated for the most part,” and the approach to the study of art that he had espoused in such spirited fashion throughout his long career no longer stood “at the center of the field.” Such an apparent “lull” is often a fruitful moment to initiate a fresh reconsideration of any figure or issue, offering an opening to new kinds of interest, and the volume under review takes full advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate how many sources of such interest are to be found in Berenson’s life and work.

Connors’s introduction provides a succinct, authoritative summary of Berenson scholarship in the last half century, beginning with obituaries—radically divergent in their assessments—by Kenneth Clark and Meyer Schapiro. Emphasis is on work done since the appearance, in two volumes, of the excellent biography by Ernest Samuels in 1979 and 1987, setting the stage for the sixteen essays that then follow (Ernest Samuels, Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979; Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Legend, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987). These essays range widely, enhancing and inflecting the image of Berenson assembled by earlier scholars and emphasizing the multi-dimensional nature of his interests and achievement, so that there is truly something for everyone. Many of the essays explore Berenson’s relationships with other people—colleagues, “disciples,” or friends—and are valuable in part because most of those relationships received only spotty treatment from Samuels.

The first two essays, by Dietrich Seybold and Jeremy Howard, reconstruct Berenson’s relationships with two contemporaries involved in the art trade, Jean Paul Richter and Otto Gutekunst. Richter, who was eighteen years older than Berenson, had established his scholarly reputation with his edition of the writings of Leonardo da Vinci—an edition that, in amazing testimony to its value, is still used today—but was also a pioneer of the Morellian method of “scientific” connoisseurship and had made a fortune advising collectors such as Ludwig Mond on the purchase of pictures. Seybold convincingly argues that Richter was a more important model for the young Berenson than has previously been appreciated.

Gutekunst, a rather shadowy character in Samuels’s biography, emerges in Howard’s account as a brilliant figure. While serving as one of the directors of Colnaghi, he helped Berenson arrange several of his most important early purchases for Isabella Steward Gardner. Berenson trusted Gutekunst’s instincts as a connoisseur, though he gradually abandoned their collaboration as he moved into the orbit of art dealer Joseph Duveen. Gutekunst felt this shift of loyalties as a personal betrayal; he put up with it for many years, but at one point, in 1934, chafing under Berenson’s dismissive treatment of an attribution he had made, he penned a forcefully worded condemnation of his former partner’s snobbery and hypocrisy:

Who, after all, are this holy circle “the best of you?” Do they not all make mistakes? . . . Are you not all like me, just after money—[I] openly and you quietly, less candidly? . . . I do so mightily resent this high-brow superior attitude. . . . I will not [cede] place to a living soul regarding eye & experience or honesty of endeavor & dealing & sincerity, nor in balanced knowledge and understanding of pictures, drawings, prints of all schools. I am no specialist, not an art historian, critic, or writer. I am an expert who has to stand by his guns and I have always paid for my mistakes myself. (65–66)

Howard offers this rebuke as “Gutekunst’s finest epitaph,” and one cannot help thinking that it hits the nail squarely on the head.

Bernd Roeck, drawing upon material from his wonderful book, Florence 1900: The Quest for Arcadia (trans. Stewart Spencer, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), offers a glimpse of Berenson in historical context, and of the way in which he both benefited from and helped to further the “myth of Florence” that had developed in the late nineteenth century, in part through the influence of John Ruskin and Jacob Burckhardt. A modern city with a modern city’s problems, Florence yet owed its livelihood to tourism and to a nostalgia for the past, attracting people seeking refuge from the contemporary world. Roeck develops an interesting comparison between Berenson and Wilhelm Uhde, a pioneering dealer of modern French art: both men subscribed to a Romantic aestheticism that privileged spontaneous feeling rather than intellectual judgment in their responses to art, yet their tastes led them to specialize in art of very different kinds.

Berenson’s most important art-theoretical ideas, “tactile values” and “life enhancement,” are the subject of an essay by Alison Brown. While the sources of these ideas in the writings of Walter Pater, William James, and Adolf von Hildebrand have long been known, and Berenson himself, much later in life, invoked Arthur Schopenhauer, Alois Riegl, and even Friedrich Nietzsche, Brown reconstructs Berenson’s reading and conversation during the crucial months of 1895 when the essay on the Florentine painters, in which his theory is most explicitly articulated, was written. She suggests that a reading of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy (1872) in May of that year may indeed have enabled him to overcome his writer’s block. Mary Costelloe, who would eventually become Berenson’s wife, played an important role in helping him formulate his thoughts, as did their friend, Violet Paget, known as Vernon Lee, who would later accuse Berenson of having stolen her ideas.

Robert Colby’s contribution to the volume revolves around an essay that Berenson authored together with Costelloe and her brother, Logan Pearsall Smith. Entitled “Altamura,” it is an appallingly puerile fantasy about a priesthood of refined epicureans who live in an isolated colony somewhere in the mountains of Italy, cultivating their exquisite sensibilities far from the corrupting vulgarity of the modern world. This text was a point of reference for Berenson and his friends throughout their lives; it expresses their semi-religious dedication to the pursuit of beauty, and even influenced the design of an outbuilding with a high wall that Gardner added to Fenway Court.

Claudia Wedepohl reconstructs the visit that Berenson paid to the Warburg Library in Hamburg on August 23, 1927. He and Aby Warburg had long regarded one another as adversaries, exemplifying diametrically opposed approaches to the study of art. Yet as Wedepohl reveals, it was in both their interests to get along that day: Warburg was looking to develop an institutional connection between his institute and Harvard, and thought that Berenson might be able to help, while Berenson—to quote his wife’s disarmingly direct explanation to her mother—“wanted to be in with all the rich Jews in New York” (163), to whom Warburg, through his brother’s bank, would have had access. While the terms in which the two men aired their disagreements now seem rather crude, some such fundamental, destabilizing methodological divide still lurks in the depths of art-historical inquiry, the place of Berenson’s romantic aestheticism now taken, perhaps, by a “phenomenological” emphasis on the irrational and an impatience with the pursuit of historical objectivity.

The late William Mostyn-Owen, Berenson’s assistant during the 1950s, discusses the relationship between Berenson and Clark. Having arrived at I Tatti in 1925 and quickly earned Berenson’s admiration and affection, Clark was invited to help in preparing the second edition of The Drawings of the Florentine Painters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938), but—entertaining his own ambitions—resisted committing himself. Although the two always remained friends, their subsequent exchanges were overshadowed by feelings of disappointment on the one side and guilt on the other.

Kathryn Brush shows that Berenson was a vitally important mentor to the medievalist Arthur Kingsley Porter. Although Porter had already published two ambitious books before making Berenson’s acquaintance in 1917, he benefitted from his colleague’s example as well as from his encouragement. Berenson began to explore the pilgrimage roads of Spain as early as 1919, a year ahead of Porter. He also welcomed Porter to I Tatti; in fact, much of Romanesque Sculpture of the Pilgrimage Roads (Boston: Marshall Jones, 1923) was actually written there, at Berenson’s own writing table, while the Berensons were visiting the United States. Porter was with Berenson during the visit to Warburg in 1927; Warburg noted that the presence of Porter—and especially of his wife, Lucy—helped to make what might have been a very awkward occasion into a mutually satisfying one.

David Alan Brown discusses Berenson’s relationship to Paul Sachs, the creator of the long-running course on “museum work and museum problems” at Harvard, as well as Sach’s protégée John Walker, future director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Thea Burns discusses Berenson’s friendship with D. V. Thompson, the translator of Cennino Cennini and expert on medieval painting techniques. He too benefited from Berenson’s advice, even though the old aesthete liked to tease him by saying that the technical aspects of painting were mere “cookery,” unworthy of serious intellectual interest. Isabelle Hyman provides an overview of the life of Archer Huntington, the extraordinarily wealthy heir to a railroad and shipping fortune who was also a serious student of Spanish culture and founder of the Hispanic Society of America. The Berensons tried to interest him in Italian art: he never bought anything from them but continued to correspond with them throughout his life (a favorite topic during the 1930s was the way in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was destroying the United States).

Elisabetta Landi’s essay reports on the collector and dealer Carlo Alberto Foresti, a contemporary of Berenson’s; Robert and Carolyn Cumming offer an account of Berenson’s lifelong friendship with Count Umberto Morra, who was not an art historian of any kind but a passionate anti-Fascist. Connors sheds light on the unlikely and surprisingly intimate friendship between the elderly Berenson and the much younger African American sociologist and dancer Katherine Dunham.

Two essays by Mario Casari and Brandon Strehlke discuss Berenson’s engagement with Islamic culture and Asian art. As a young man, Berenson had studied Sanskrit and Arabic, but though he collected Islamic art for a few years, his interest waned, in part, Casari suggests, as a result of a growing animosity toward Islam and Arab culture, which he came to see as of only secondary importance in the advance of civilized values and often purely destructive of them. The collection of East Asian art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts had played an important role in Berenson’s early aesthetic awakening; he later claimed that if he were starting over again he would devote himself to the study of Chinese art, and he continued to collect it until 1917. His 1903 essay on Sassetta contains a claim that the art of China is more purely spiritual than that of the West, but as he grew older, he became increasingly negative in his attitude toward “the East,” by which he meant “civilizations where the horde, the tribe (as in Japan), the mass (as in China) prevails, and individuality exists only negatively” (198). He actually described Nazism as “an attempt on the part of Germany to Asiatize itself completely, destroying and eradicating everything in itself that spells Europe” (201–2).

Bernard Berenson: Formation and Heritage is more than the sum of its parts; it effects a comprehensive reorientation of thinking about Berenson and all that he represents, one that while more objective—able to tolerate highly critical points of view—is not without abiding respect for the achievement. Berenson himself believed that the practice of art history had to be rigorous—“scientific”—but also that it was part of a more comprehensive art of living, that it implied a mode of being and thus had inherent moral content. The terms in which he justified that belief now strike us as old-fashioned, and we may find some of them deeply objectionable, but if we too feel that art history has an urgent and fundamental role to play in the larger scheme of things, then perhaps Berenson’s challenge to us is to define that role in our own terms.

Robert Williams
Professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara