Bernard Berenson

views updated May 23 2018

Bernard Berenson

Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) was the world's fore-most expert on Italian Renaissance art. His expertise resulted in the acquisition of some superb works of art for American collectors and dealers.

Bernard Berenson was born on June 26, 1865 in the Lithuanian village of Butrimonys, near the larger city of Vilnius. His father, Albert Valvrojenski (name later changed to Berenson) and his mother, Judith Mickleshanski, were married in 1864. At the time of their marriage his father was 19; his mother 17. Bernard was their first child, followed three years later by his sister, Senda. In 1873, his brother Abraham was the last of the Berenson children born in Europe. His sisters, Rachel and Elizabeth, were born in Boston after the family moved to America.

According to Ernest Samuels, in Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur, Berenson was "an extraordinarily precocious child with large eyes, beautiful features, and long delicate fingers," quickly becoming the favorite of his extended-family. His parents reported that he could read German by the age of three, and was versed in the Romantic writers before he was 12. Berenson sensed his privileged position early in life, and expected that his life would be full of much notoriety. The memories of his childhood, before he immigrated to America with his family at the age of ten, remained in his mind. "At the foot of his maternal grandfather's garden," Samuels wrote, "the little streamlet of the Plausaupe meandered through the undulating landscape, dotted with clumps of birch and pine, toward the Nieman, a half dozen miles away. There the log rafts, seaward bound, hinted at other worlds and tantalized a boy's imagination… . The poignant memory of that far-off time never left Berenson."

The raging anti-Semitism that followed the Crimean War was made worse for Jews living in Czarist Russia during the financial panic of 1873. Berenson's father left for America, settling in Boston in 1874. His wife and three children joined him the next year. Once in America, Berenson abandoned the Jewish studies his grandfather had encouraged. He was not given a Bar Mitzvah when he reached the age of 13. By that time, the elder Berenson had joined a group of Jews in the north end of Boston who were pronouncedly anti-religious. Even on Yom Kippur, the holy day of atonement and fasting, this group would gather near the synagogue and eat ham sandwiches (forbidden in Jewish dietary laws) in order to horrify their observant fellow Jews. This influence had a profound effect on the young adolescent. Berenson's increasing preference to be thought of as a prosperous German Jew, rather than a poor Slavic Jew was evident even in later years. "At the same time, he was never to forget his boyhood resentment of the cruel condescension of the German Jews," Samuels noted. They had "… scorned him for his Lithuanian origin. In his old age he confided to an intimate that his treatment bred the desire in him to avenge himself by rising above them and compelling their admiration."

Berenson attended Harvard University, where he published his first literary essay on the writer, Gogol, for the Harvard Monthly, during his sophomore year. He went on to write several more articles as a contributing editor, and was elected editor-in-chief his senior year.

Collector and Critic in Demand

When Berenson graduated from Harvard in 1887, Isabel Stewart Gardner, a well-known Boston socialite, commissioned him to buy art for her in Europe. She recognized his talents early in their acquaintance and sent him on a series of "art-seeing" trips. Berenson spent nearly $3 million for her during the ten years of his commission. Many of those purchases would become the focus of her "Fenway Court" collection in Boston. Berenson met his wife, Mary Smith Costelloe, while in England. She was a married woman with two young children when they first became acquainted. They were legally married ten years later, after the death of her first husband in 1900. Berenson recalled that he and Costelloe were forced to live a furtive life prior to their marriage, with few friends except those who were able to accept their situation. The couple had no children together. They spent most of their lives at I Tatti, a villa located southeast of San Domenico, below the Italian village of Settignano. Berenson retained his American citizenship throughout his life, even while living abroad. By the time of World War II, he had converted to Roman Catholicism. Berenson bequeathed his Italian villa to Harvard University. It would serve as a center for the study of Italian Renaissance art long after his death on October 6, 1959 in Settignano, Italy.

Writings Gained International Reputation

Berenson published his first book, Venetian Painters of the Renaissance, in 1894, and followed quickly with other books on the painters of Florence and central and northern Italy, Florentine Painters of the Renaissance, 1896, and Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance, 1897. Along with a book he wrote in 1907, North Italian Painters of the Renaissance, all of his early works were collected into one volume in 1930, The Italian Painters of the Renaissance. That book served as the definitive authority on Italian Renaissance painting throughout the 20th century. Other books he published included: The Study and Criticism of Italian Art, three volumes, 1901, 1902, 1916; and Italian Pictures of the Renaissance, in 1932, listing the principal artists, their works, and an index of locations.

Lord Joseph Duveen, a renowned English art dealer, hired Berenson as a consultant in 1906. His skill at art authentication increased, and he worked for Duveen for 30 years. His methods were based upon an extensive knowledge of the painters themselves, and their particular characteristics. His opinions were often sought in the purchase of paintings as well. Many masterpieces found in American museums were bought upon his recommendation.

Further Reading

The Encyclopedia Americana, 1997.

Samuels, Ernest. Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur, Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1979.

Town & Country Monthly, August 1, 1994.

Encarta, 1999. Available at:

Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 1999. Available at:

Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia Online, 1999. Available at:

Berenson, Bernard

views updated Jun 27 2018


BERENSON, BERNARD (1865–1959), U.S. art historian and art connoisseur. Berenson was born Valvrojenski in the Lithuanian village of Baltramentz, where his father, an ironmonger and grain and lumber merchant, was one of the leaders of the Jewish community. When Berenson was ten, the family emigrated to the United States, where they changed their name. Berenson was sent to the Boston Latin School and, with the financial assistance of the art collector, Isabella Stewart Gardner, was able to go to Harvard University. After graduating he went to London, Oxford, Berlin, and finally Italy, where he made his home for the rest of his life.

Berenson made a thorough study of Italian Renaissance art, and was soon able to purchase important masterpieces for his patron. Through his books – his earliest, The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance, appeared in 1894 – he became known as an authority. In 1907 he began his long association with the English art dealer, Joseph (later Lord) *Duveen. This connection enabled Berenson to amass a fortune by providing Duveen's pictures with "Berenson passports," certifying the expensive paintings as genuine. He and his wife, who came from a wealthy American Quaker family, acquired an old villa near Florence and filled it with art treasures and a vast library. Here Berenson's research into Renaissance art came to fruition in a number of important books, among them The Study and Criticism of Italian Art (in three series, 1901, 1902, and 1916), Essays in the Study of Sienese Painting (1918), and Italian Pictures of the Renaissance (1932). Berenson was a prolific writer. His bibliography, published on his 90th birthday, listed 73 pages of books and articles. Although he destroyed some time-hallowed attributions, he also rediscovered artists forgotten for hundreds of years whose works had been credited to better-known masters. He managed to bring light into the jungle of naïve or careless credits that prevailed in Renaissance connoisseurship when he began his career.

Berenson experienced a certain conflict in his relationship to Judaism. As a young man he contributed essays on Jewish topics to the Harvard Monthly, and throughout his long life never denied being a Jew and even boasted of carrying on the Jewish "traditions of great learning." However, he joined the Episcopalian church as a young man, and later became a Catholic, although he never publicized these conversions. As an American citizen he was not affected by the antisemitic legislation in Italy before and during the Nazi domination. However, he became apprehensive for the safety of his art treasures, and in 1942 went into hiding until the German retreat from the country. In his autobiographical writings he vacillated between an enormous racial pride and a sharp condemnation of the Jewish people. One of his last autobiographical books was Sketch for a Self-Portrait (1949), which contained reminiscences of his childhood in Lithuania. For many years he was an anti-Zionist, but in his old age he accepted Zionism and the necessity for a Jewish state. He bequeathed his villa "I Tatti," with all its treasures, to Harvard, to be available to young scholars so that they could "live" art there as he had lived it.


S. Sprigge, Berenson (1960); N. Mariano, Forty Years with Berenson (1966); H. Kiel (ed.), Bernard Berenson Treasury (1962).

[Alfred Werner]

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Bernard Berenson

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