Bonking with Berenson

Nicholas Penny

  • Bernard Berenson. Vol. II: The Making of a Legend by Ernest Samuels
    Harvard, 680 pp, £19.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 674 06779 7
  • The Partnership: The Secret Association of Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen by Colin Simpson
    Bodley Head, 323 pp, £15.00, April 1987, ISBN 0 370 30585 X

Bernard – originally Bernhard – Berenson was a Lithuanian Jewish refugee rescued from poverty by the charity of Bostonian plutocrats who sent him to Harvard and then to Europe. During the 1890s he established himself as an expert on Italian Renaissance art and simultaneously made his knowledge indispensable to the booming international art trade, which made him a very rich man by the time the second volume of his biography by Ernest Samuels opens in 1903. These relations with dealers, which were either discreet or secret, deepened in subsequent decades, and it should have come as no surprise to Berenson when he returned from holiday in October 1922, to his luxurious Florentine villa, I Tatti, to discover that the Internal Revenue Service had questioned his tax return.

‘From an aesthetic and spiritual point of view, it is regrettable that a person of my kind and in my position should be forced to treat himself and to organise himself as a business,’ he wrote. ‘I do not earn money by trade. I earn it by enjoying such authority and prestige that people will not buy expensive Italian pictures without my approval.’ He then proceeded to point out, reasonably enough, that to keep this authority he had to train his eye by daily contact with works of art – in other words, he had to have his own art collection. He also required an extensive library of books and photographs. Furthermore, he needed frequently to travel, which, given his delicate digestive system, he could not be expected to do without his wife (who was also a secretary of sorts) and his secretary (who was also a wife of sorts), and, of course, servants. He might have added that he had to mingle with high society in order to sustain his reputation for brilliance and cultivation, and that sexual relations with smart women (which entailed further expense) provided a stimulus as important as his own art collection.

Ernest Samuels has diligently read the love letters and collected the guest lists. At St Moritz in the summer of 1907 Berenson met ‘the Serristoris, Placci, the Rudinis, Gladys Deacon – lovelier than ever and more “mature” – and the enigmatic Florence Blood, the inseparable companion of the Princess Ghika at the Villa Gamberaia up in Settignano. The philosopher, Charles Strong, his college mate, who had married a Rockefeller daughter, showed up.’ It’s like watching the suitcases rotate in an international airport. Miss Blood comes round again a hundred pages and a half a dozen years later, writing to Gertrude Stein that the Berensons, ‘although neither young, or fresh, or cubistic’, were missed in Florence.

Berenson had in fact just left for a stay in Paris, where, Samuels tells us, ‘the social kaleidoscope ... displayed its usual glitter,’ and ‘the days passed ... in a dizzying but pleasurable succession of meetings with his circle of intimates – Walter Berry, Paul Bourget, Abbé Mugnier, Ralph and Lisa Curtis, Madame de Cossé-Brissac, Rosa Fitz-James (“the best hostess I have ever known”), and Philomène de Lévis-Mirepoix – all members of the fashionable upper crust of cosmopolitan Paris.’ Was there no one among all these fascinating people, we wonder, as we try to keep awake, who left a vivid picture of the behaviour of this opinionated, charming, witty connoisseur with his immaculate silken beard? If so, Samuels seems not to know about it.

The sharpest observations on Berenson in this book came from Mrs Berenson – above all from a letter in which she warned Roger Fry about the difficulties of resuming good relations with her husband. It begins by sounding like the sort of explanation we have to endure from the owners of vicious dogs or the mothers of beastly children. ‘At the bottom of everything is a curious lonely wish to be loved. It acts just the wrong way, often, making him suspicious of not being loved.’ This, of course, as Fry well knew, was likely to be rather more often a problem with men that with women. ‘Another thing,’ Mary Berenson observed in a more patronising tone, ‘which imposes on ladies and drives men to thoughts of murder is his occasional manner of seeming to think himself omniscient.’ How exhausted she must have been by the task of indulging her husband! In 1912, for instance, he wrote a short treatise on his own philandering for the benefit of his friend, Ralph Curtis: but also for her, to whom he showed it first, and for us (the prospect of someone like Samuels collecting this material was surely already relished). It is a good example of how Berenson thought – or rather, of how he thought he thought, or at least of how he wanted other people to think that he thought.

‘The female stimulus,’ he announces solemnly, ‘is scarcely less necessary for the mental than for the physical procreative act.’ Would the same apply to Newton, Darwin and Einstein, we begin to ask ourselves, as the great man steps down from the rostrum and, looking out of the window, affects to soliloquise, smiling whimsically at his own capacity to extend the length of his sentences. ‘And in the state of permanent warfare between the sexes, it is sweet to have breathing spells of illusion, halcyon days in the cold winter of our discontent when we seem to enjoy a truce from the struggle of self-assertion to abandon oneself to the abandon of a woman who seems to live and breathe only for us ... to pick out with a lobster fork all the sweetness that life has to offer in its most inaccessible tentacles ... For ... each moment has its cash value, and it is that cash value we must insist upon particularly when it is at once pleasant and not too expensive.’ The Shakespearean echo and the parody of Pater hardly make the performance less pretentious.

The metaphor of the tentacles and the lobster fork – the idea of soft and wriggling (and challengingly plural) females out of whom pleasure has to be extracted by means of a metal prong and a firm male grip – hints at a repellently surgical hedonism. He was capable of giving more heartless expression to his fastidious tastes, as when half a dozen years later he wrote to his wife that all he would like to take with him from this world to the next would be the memory of her ‘young eyes, of Miss Greene’s and of Madame La Caze’s ... at a sexual crisis’. Miss Greene was Bella da Costa Greene, his recent American mistress, and Madame La Caze was the Baroness Gabrielle La Caze, his latest Parisian one. This was too much for the ageing and overweight Mary Berenson, who had been both very ill and very unhappy. The letter helped precipitate a nervous breakdown. Later, Samuels explains, Berenson ‘implied that he had simply intended an aesthetic observation such as he might have made of supremely great paintings’.

During the last few hundred pages of the book, as his sexual activity diminishes, Berenson still has a good deal to say on the subject, and Samuels tells of how he liked to place his chill ivory fingers upon the arms and legs of the young ladies who listened to him so eagerly in the limonaia of I Tatti. In place of the hotel guests at St Moritz and the hostesses in Paris, we read of the celebrities who came to pay their respects to the sage in the cashmere shawl. For the most part their recollections are as uninteresting as the ‘thoughts’ to be found in posh visiting books: J. Paul Getty, the oil billionaire and art collector, found the ‘unostentatious luxury, the atmosphere of culture ... soul satisfying’; Jacqueline Kennedy found the old man to be a ‘kind of god-like creature, in the way he doesn’t fit in with the hurly-burly pattern of our present world’.

Berenson’s recorded utterances sound all too self-consciously sagacious. ‘Young John Carter Brown, who one day was to become director of the National Gallery of Art’, came with a plan ‘to prepare for a museum career by first taking a business course’. Berenson urged him to ‘look, look, look, until you are blind with looking, and out of blindness will come illumination.’ There was also an extensive fan-mail – for instance, with Ernest Hemingway, who flattered Berenson into providing a few sentences to serve as a puff for The Old Man and the Sea. Berenson duly likened Hemingway’s ‘calm and compelling’ prose to Homer’s verse.

The biography concludes with the funeral. ‘Princes, diplomats, intellectuals, people of the countryside paced slowly in the cortège that stretched for nearly half a mile from the door of I Tatti. Contadini dropped their hoes in the olive groves and came down the hill to the roadside to watch, shielding their eyes against the setting sun.’ The imprecision (who were the princes, and what are ‘people of the countryside’?) and fantasy (who saw the contadini drop their hoes?) are uncharacteristic: Samuels is trying to convince himself, as well as us, that, at the end of this massive second volume, a truly great life has finally come to an end. Berenson himself, one feels from reading his diaries, suspected that he was not a great man: but he seems to have been sure of posterity’s fascination with him and he was vain enough to suppose that in different circumstances he would have been a great thinker, or at least would have written a great book.

He planned to write a great book on ‘Decline and Recovery in the Figure Arts’, but he could never have organised it. Even Aesthetics and History, published in 1950, which he originally intended as an introduction to it, is irritatingly like a monologue.

What I have done is to put down whatever happened to come into my head as I meditated on art theory and art history. The pages which follow are the result. They are anything but systematic and scientific. They are a pell-mell of stray thoughts, desultory thinking aloud, generalisations, reminiscences, confessions.

Alas, this is entirely accurate. Berenson’s only serious attempt at a full-size monograph had been his book on Lorenzo Lotto, published over half a century earlier, and it had been a failure because of its lack of organisation, its catalogue awkwardly interpolated into the text, its best parts really separate essays.

Berenson in his early writings aspired to be a ‘scientific’ connoisseur: he cherished ‘the conviction that the world’s art can be, nay, should be, studied as independently of all documents as is the world’s fauna or the world’s flora ... Such a classification would yield material not only ample enough for the universal history of art, but precise enough, if qualitive analysis also be applied, for the perfect determination of purely artistic personalities.’ The absurdity of this ambition (announced in the Preface to the anthology of essays entitled The Study and Criticism of Italian Art which he published in 1901) is demonstrated by his careful reconstruction of an ‘artistic personality’ whom he called ‘Amico di Sandro’ – a supposed associate of Sandro Botticelli – to whom he attributed a variety of paintings which had in common certain deviations from the standards of Botticelli, Filippo Lippi and others – as those standards were defined by Berenson. Disinclination to work with documents and an emphasis on modern ideas of individuality precluded investigation of the artist’s workshop or of the nature of collaboration in this period. One suspects also that the ‘personality’ in question originated as a file of rejects. In any case, ‘Amico’ quickly dissolved, and all that remains is the brilliance of some of Berenson’s minute observations of the characteristic forms of artists, and the remarkable visual memory which enabled him to compare paintings which he had seen in different parts of Europe and America. (He was the first to admit to his debt to photography and to rapid modern transport – which were ‘beginning to enable the student to make of connoisseurship something like an exact science’.)

As an example of Berenson’s style of ‘scientific’ analysis, so greatly indebted to Giovanni Morelli, we may consider the following passage dating from 1895 on a painting then in the collection of Sir William Farrer but today in the Ashmolean Museum:

perhaps the freshest and most charming, as well as the earliest of all Montagna’s existing works ... the child is thin-haired, large-headed, and chubby-limbed. His ear has the nick in the cheek so rarely absent from the work of Alvise’s followers. The Madonna’s pupils are rolled a trifle too low, a fault not infrequent among the Vivarini ... Another Alvisesque trick that I must not forget to mention – Alvisesque although afterwards so much exploited by Giorgione and his following – is the exposure of the last joints only of the fingers, as in the Madonna’s right hand here.

The method, ironically, reduces works of art to reflections of other works of art (as in this example). And the definition of idiosyncrasies of form seldom connects with observations on handling (Berenson indeed disdained the study of technique) whereby personality is perhaps most clearly expressed. Again and again it is clear from his early essays that the ‘scientist’ responsible for this sort of Morellian anatomising wished also to be regarded as a high priest. He not only records the poetic resonance of the works of art he dissects but speculates on their spiritual significance and indeed tells us what the Renaissance really meant. ‘I said just now that Signor Crespi’s portrait’ – a painting of a lady now in the National Gallery in London and agreed to be a Titian, but proposed by Berenson as a copy of a Giorgione –

had a certain family resemblance to the one of the former Doetsch Collection. There, however, barring morphological details, the likeness ends. In character, in temperament, the persons were of different universes, and in artistic conception the works are scarcely less divergent. François Rabelais, not as the vulgar know him, but as he reveals himself to his nobler votaries, an artist glowing with the purifying fires of health, kindling into exuberant life whatsoever he touches, the last reincarnation of Dionysus – Rabelais then, or perhaps Shakespeare, in some divine moment between creating Titania and Falstaff – had either of them been a painter, might well have painted the original of this portrait.

The repetition of ‘Rabelais’, and the distinctive placing of ‘then’, the ‘votaries’ and the ‘kindling’ and Dionysus reincarnate, derive all too obviously from Walter Pater, who was, however, incapable of such nonsense.

For all his ferocious determination not to accept any traditional label or even signature at its face value (the ‘copy after Giorgione’ is in fact signed with Titian’s initials), Berenson’s view of Renaissance man was a naive restatement of an idea found in the writings of the previous generation.

But youth cannot last more than a certain length of time. No matter how it is spent, manhood and middle age will come. Life began to show a sterner and more sober face than for a brief moment it had seemed to wear. Men became conscious that the passions for knowledge, for glory and for personal advancement were not at the bottom of all the problems that life presented. Florence and Rome discovered this suddenly, and with a shock. In the presence of Michelangelo’s sculptures in San Lorenzo, or of his Last Judgment, we still hear the cry of anguish that went up as the inexorable truth dawned upon them.

It is hard not to feel that if his increasing involvement with the art trade prevented him from writing more in this way and confined him to such tasks as disentangling the stylistic currents of the early Sienese school, or worrying about the authenticity of this or that Bellini, it was perhaps no bad thing.

The seriousness with which Berenson regarded his own less ‘scientific’ achievements is startlingly clear from his response in 1918 to a meeting with Marcel Proust: ‘We exchanged compliments and he assured me that my books had been bread and meat to him ... I confess I often wondered while reading Du Côté de chez Swann whether my books had not influenced him.’ In fact, we know that although Proust was mildly curious as to whether there was anything by Berenson available in French, what really interested him was just the sort of thing that the Internal Revenue Service wanted to know. Have you any idea of Berenson’s ‘fortune’, he asked a friend, adding that he meant this dans le sens le plus vulgaire du mot.

Colin Simpson, formerly of the Sunday Times ‘Insight’ team, has written a book which reveals more than has ever formerly been known about the single most important factor in Berenson’s fortune – his association with the most successful art dealer of the period, Joseph Duveen. He has been able to do so because of the information and help supplied by the family of Edward Fowles, who had worked closely with Duveen and eventually took over the firm. A good example of the new material which the book presents is provided by comparing Simpson’s account of Berenson’s meeting with Duveen in Paris on 20 October 1917 with that given by Samuels. Both tell the story of how Duveen had mattresses placed behind the doors of his suite at the Ritz to muffle the anticipated shouting and of how Berenson pretended that he thought the meeting was elsewhere and forced Duveen to perform on an unprepared stage. Both know that the ‘discussion’ concerned Berenson’s continuing relations with other dealers, but Samuels does not know that Duveen was able to expose the fact that Berenson had been duped by a famous series of forged sculptures. All the same, Simpson provides a less balanced account of Berenson’s business life than Samuels does, and also has a more naive conception of corruption.

Berenson, although no doubt prepared privately to praise mediocre pictures more highly than he should have done (or would have done in his published work), seems to have been able to retain much of his integrity as a scholar. His relationship with Duveen was not a servile one like that between curators in modern American museums and their trustees. He needed Duveen, but no more than Duveen needed him. He repeatedly refused to endorse attributions in which he no longer believed (whereas dubious attributions are often retained in museums when the paintings belong to important benefactors). Simpson, however, is determined to prove that Berenson was also dishonest and re-attributed paintings when it was in his interest to do so. Careful consideration of two of the more convincing cases he makes reveals how inadequately and unfairly he presents the evidence.

Berenson selected five Italian paintings for Benjamin Altman, the ‘ageing millionaire’ who, according to Simpson, ‘liked Madonnas as long as they were pretty’. (In fact, Altman had considerable taste of his own and Berenson found few millionaires more hard work, as letters quoted by Samuels demonstrate clearly.) Among these five paintings ‘was a portrait of a young man which Altman was led to believe had been painted by Giorgione and had featured in Bernhard’s controversial catalogue where he had noted that it was in a deplorable state of preservation and had dismissed it as possibly a very early Titian but “probably only a copy”. Berenson later urged Duveen’s to buy it when it belonged to the Florentine dealer-restorer Luigi Grassi, describing it as a Giorgione.’

For Simpson it is particularly damning that Berenson should have altered his opinion of the work shortly before Grassi restored it. I can’t see why. Like most other scholars, Berenson was continually changing his mind about Giorgione and getting a close look at a painting in the good light of a restorer’s studio is just the sort of occasion when minds change most easily. Simpson does not quote what Berenson said to Duveen or to Altman and it is not clear whom he supposes Berenson to have been trying to deceive. What Simpson does quote from the review of the New Gallery exhibition is very misleading. Berenson did not ‘dismiss’ the painting. He said it was ‘of exquisite quality’ as well as badly preserved. He did not say that it was ‘probably’ a copy, but that ‘it may have been a work by the young Titian, or else only a copy of such a work.’

The second case concerns the letter which Berenson sent early in 1924 to another American millionaire, Henry Goldman, who had paid Duveen’s over $250,000 ‘for what he understood to be an original masterpiece by the great Fra Angelico’. The letter apparently reassured Goldman that the painting was very important and was in fact well preserved. This was a ‘lie’, Simpson tells us, because documents in the Duveen archives show that Berenson knew of the painting’s restoration and had indeed recommended its revision. He does not quote the documents, however, and, for all we know, Berenson may have been discouraging extensive repainting. Simpson seems to think that because a painting undergoes restoration it cannot honestly be described as well-preserved. The term is relative and the rubbing and the losses in the sky and landscape in this case are unsurprising in a panel painting of this period. Of course Berenson may have given an exaggerated account of the painting’s condition, but we should be informed of the words he used. As for the painting’s importance, Simpson sneeringly observes that ‘today Goldman’s painting is not even regarded as a Fra Angelico.’ But he should have had the grace to point out that many other scholars accepted the painting as by Fra Angelico when Berenson did so and also that Berenson himself came to question the attribution (although it was obviously against his interest to do so).

Berenson’s attributions were probably little affected by commercial interests, but his arrogant over-confidence may have been stimulated by them. A notable instance of this is the gratuitous and unsupported assertion in the Preface to the 1897 edition of The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance that two of the most famous Old Masters then in private hands in this country, a supposed Giorgione and a Bellini, were actually by Cariani and Basaiti. It reads like a threat that it would be unwise to buy or sell any Venetian painting, whatever its fame, without consulting him first. However, most of Berenson’s imitators and disciples found employment in museums and we find that they are in some cases even more arrogant about the power of their eye. The illusion of omniscience that the exercise of the ‘science’ of connoisseurship has given to men of mediocre judgment is far more worrying than the sort of dishonesty for which Simpson is hunting. How very much more respectable than the Berensonian ‘experts’ is the historian whose humble labours in the archives they so disdain. For the historian does not believe that truth is to be found in himself.