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Rachel Cohen’s clear, concise, and gracefully written retelling of the life of Bernard Berenson is far more manageable than Ernest Samuels’s long, magisterial biography published in 1979 (Ernest Samuels, Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). It would be unfair to think a much shorter account would cover any part of Berenson’s life in equal depth to Samuels’s study, but a reader might reasonably form that expectation about at least one aspect of it, for Cohen’s book is part of a Yale series of biographies entitled Jewish Lives. Whether these are life stories of well-known people who merely happened to be born Jewish, or if those selected lived lives informed in some significant way by their heritage and their beliefs, is not clarified by Yale’s definition of the series as “interpretive biography designed to illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences” (“Books from ‘Jewish Lives,’” Yale University Press: http://yalebooks.com/series/jewish-lives).
Berenson obviously qualifies for inclusion in the Yale series; he was born Jewish in Lithuania, and lived there until he was ten, when his family moved to Boston. Although his mother was observant, his father was an extreme liberal and nonpracticing, raising his son the same way. The remarkably precocious boy was educated in the Torah and Talmud, and the family language was Yiddish, but he appears always to have been quite without any investment in Jewish practice. Berenson did, however, have a cultural association with Yiddishkeit, a word that implies much more than Judaism as a body of belief and ritual, referring to a vibrant, broadly inclusive, primarily Eastern European way of life. It remained a deep, essential part of him. But he was a complicated man and, from his youth, a highly paradoxical Jew. Cohen deals well with his contradictory attitudes and conversions from Judaism, but it is difficult to determine from her text exactly what she thinks his Jewishness meant to him. Different things at different times, of course, but that needs to be carefully charted and accounted for by myriad factors in his life. Given the series in which this biography appears, one might imagine that the question would be the central part of her story, but the book lacks an extended consideration of what inspired Berenson’s conversions and what they actually signified. This is a pity, for without thoughtful analysis simplistic explanations tend to become established as fact.
In 1885, his second year at Harvard, the twenty-year-old Berenson was baptized into the Episcopal community in H. H. Richardson’s great Trinity Church by its rector Phillips Brooks. When Berenson arrived at Harvard, Brooks was one of a board of rotating preachers there. It was Brooks’s own alma mater, and he was wildly popular.
An easy interpretation of Berenson’s conversion is that it was an attempt to free himself from the anti-Semitism he found in Boston and at Harvard in particular. There can be little doubt that he was the victim of discrimination at the university—a fellowship he deserved went to someone else, and there may have been a trace of anti-Semitism in Charles Eliot Norton’s remark, which got back to Berenson as was perhaps intended, that he had more ambition than talent.
Less convincing is the idea that Berenson was trying to pass, which would likely have been impossible; everybody who knew him at Harvard knew he was Jewish, and in the small world in which he worked all his life, it was no secret. The point is not that Berenson couldn’t hide his background, but that he may not actually have wanted to.
Nonetheless, Berenson often made anti-Jewish remarks. In this he was like many immigrants who have looked critically at others of their group for not living up to some standard, but his “anti-Semitism” has bothered or offended people like Alfred Kazin and Meyer Schapiro, who wrote about him. Yet the unpleasant and embarrassing remarks found in his letters can be overemphasized, and they may not tell the whole story.
One of the ironies of Berenson’s life is that after Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943 and Germany declared war on his adopted country, Berenson had to go into hiding; the Italians were after him because he was an anti-Fascist and an American, while the Nazis wanted him as a Jew—to rob before exterminating. One wonders whether, despite the inconvenience and real danger of being captured or killed in the shelling of the environs of Florence, there was an element of pride and identification with tormented Jews in other Nazi-infested parts of Europe. Yet at the same time he wrote an “Epistle to the Americanized Hebrews,” urging them to keep a low profile and assimilate.
Had Berenson merely tried to become a Christian while at Harvard it might still be difficult to understand what it meant to him, but the story of his religion becomes more complex and interesting five and a half years after his Boston conversion when, early in 1891, by which time he was living in Italy, he converted again: this time to Roman Catholicism.
In his eighties, Berenson suggested it was the New England education, which he had passionately pursued, that had largely obliterated the memory of the Jewish character of his early life in Lithuania. It had taken Hitler, he thought, and perhaps old age, to exhume it. Despite his conversions, he was regarded as a Jew all his life, initially by Harvard and later by Nazis, which in the end brought him to an acknowledgement of his origins and to see, as others no doubt saw, that in his brooding, yearning love of study there was something of the Talmudist.
The most important fact about Berenson is that first and foremost he was an aesthete. Shaped by the writings of Walter Pater, particularly Marius the Epicurean (1885), which appeared the year of his first conversion, he cared for nothing so much as refining to preternatural exquisiteness his aesthetic responses to his sensual and intellectual surroundings.
Berenson was drawn to Italian painting and delighted to discover early on that his astonishing sensitivity to their individual aesthetic characters made it easy for him to distinguish among the hands of different artists, a gift that would make his fame and fortune. But that was only part of his character. His response to everything that he could see, hear, taste, or feel was the subject of great study and consideration, and his ideal was to be in tune with everything significant in the world around him and not to miss any of the resonances that were, in his own famous phrase, life-enhancing.
To Berenson in Italy, Boston seemed far away, and he began to find that the feelings he acquired by his first conversion had never quite satisfied him and had largely, perhaps completely, worn off. So at twenty-six he was received into the Church by the abbot of a rural Tuscan monastery. His letters at the time of his second conversion suggest the degree to which he was aesthetically motivated; he felt that Italy was more beautiful to him in the light of his new faith. He had, as he had tried to do at Trinity Church, tuned himself into harmony with the local vibrations, enhancing his experience of a place by adopting its beliefs. It is significant that his first conversion took place in a great urban church, his second in a country monastery surrounded by the Italian landscape he loved. One cannot imagine him adopting Catholicism in Saint Peter’s or the cathedral of Florence; it was not ceremony or ritual he sought, but an enhanced sense of nature. Berenson’s conversions do not suggest any sort of theology, and all his life he was, in a cultural sense, still Jewish.
There is another aspect of Berenson’s Jewishness that Cohen does not take up. The most complicated business relationship of Berenson’s life was with the art dealer Joseph Duveen. His dealings with Duveen lasted over three decades and made Berenson a rich man, enabling him to afford his villa, its library and collection, as well as his travels and constant entertaining. Berenson had many doubts about the wisdom of entering into a business arrangement with Duveen. He distrusted much of what the flamboyant dealer did and sometimes felt compromised by the relationship. Duveen was the most successful member of a large family of art dealers of Dutch-Jewish origin, and one wonders to what degree Berenson may have ignored his better judgment and formed an alliance with Duveen because he too was a Jew. Cohen suggests that for both men one of the few professional paths open was as advisors to wealthy non-Jews, as Jews could be doctors or bankers to the powerful. This may have been true, in part, although by the first years of the twentieth century things were beginning to change, and some of the rich were now themselves Jews. Benjamin Altman and his dealer, “Uncle Henry” Duveen, spoke Yiddish to each other: Altman richer, Duveen more knowledgeable, but equals as Jews.
Certainly Berenson’s association with Duveen, who made no secret of being Jewish, would have brought Berenson’s own Jewishness to the attention of people, or reminded some of them of what they had forgotten. The reader would be grateful for some thoughtful consideration of whether Berenson, a man who had twice converted to Christianity by the time he met Duveen, felt an affinity with him on the basis of their common background.
Perhaps one might not have these expectations of Cohen’s biography if it were not part of a series called Jewish Lives. As a life it is good; as a Jewish life, rather less so, which could be said of Berenson himself.