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.

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