World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Bernard Berenson

Bernard Berenson in the garden of his estate Villa I Tatti in 1911

Bernard Berenson (June 26, 1865 – October 6, 1959) was an American art historian specializing in the Renaissance. He was a major figure in pioneering art attribution and therefore establishing the market for paintings by the "Old Masters".


  • Personal life 1
  • Professional life 2
  • Correspondence 3
  • Works 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7

Personal life

Berenson was born Bernhard Valvrojenski in Butrimonys, Vilnius Governorate (now in Alytus district of Lithuania) to a Litvak family. They emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts from the Vilnius Governorate of the Russian Empire in 1875, whereupon the family name was changed to "Berenson." Berenson converted to Christianity in 1885, becoming an Episcopalian.[1] Later, while living in Italy, he converted to Catholicism.[2][3][4]

After graduating from Boston Latin School he attended the Boston University College of Liberal Arts as a freshman during 1883–84, but, unable to obtain instruction in Sanskrit from that institution, transferred to Harvard University for his sophomore year.[5] He graduated from Harvard and married Mary Smith, who became a notable art historian in her own right. Mary was the sister of Logan Pearsall Smith and of Alys Pearsall Smith, the first wife of Bertrand Russell. Mary had previously been married to barrister Frank Costelloe. Bernard Berenson was also involved in a long relationship with Belle da Costa Greene. Samuels (1987) mentions Mary's "reluctant acceptance (at times)" of this relationship.

Among his more surprising friendships was a long one with the American writer Ray Bradbury, who wrote about their friendship in The Wall Street Journal and in his book of essays, Yestermorrow. He was also a friend and admirer of Natalie Barney, who lived in Florence during World War 2 and also of her friend, Romaine Brooks.

Marisa Berenson, an actress, is a distant cousin of Berenson's through Louis Kossivitsky. Louis was a nephew of Berenson's father, Albert Valvrojenski, the orphaned son of his sister. On arrival in the U.S. both Koussivitsky and Valvrojenski took the name of Berenson. (Meryle Secrest, Being Bernard Berenson, p. 34) Her sister, Berry Berenson, was an actress/photographer, and the wife of actor Anthony Perkins. Berry died in the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City.

Professional life

Among US collectors of the early 1900s, Berenson was regarded as the pre-eminent authority on Renaissance art. His verdict of authenticity increased a painting's value. While his approach remained controversial among European art historians and connoisseurs, he played a pivotal role as an advisor to several important American art collectors, such as Isabella Stewart Gardner, who needed help in navigating the complex and treacherous market of newly fashionable Renaissance art. In this respect Berenson's influence was enormous, while his 5% commission made him a wealthy man. (According to Charles Hope, he "had a financial interest in many arrangement that Berenson chose to keep private."[6] ) Starting with his The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance with an Index to their Works (1894), his mix of connoisseurship and systematic approach proved immensely successful. In 1895 his Lorenzo Lotto, an Essay on Constructive Art Criticism won wide critical acclaim, notably by Heinrich Wölfflin. It was quickly followed by The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance (1896), that was lauded by William James for its innovative application of "elementary psychological categories to the interpretation of higher art". In 1897 Berenson added another work to his series of scholarly yet handy guides publishing The Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance. After that he devoted six years of pioneering work to what is widely regarded as his deepest and most substantial book, The Drawings of the Florentine Painters, which was published in 1903.

In 1907 he published his The North Italian Painters of the Renaissance, where he expressed a devastating and still controversial judgement of Florence.[7] Another memoir with personal reminiscences and photographs of Berenson's life in Italy before and after the war is Kinta Beevor's "A Tuscan Childhood" [New York: Vintage Books, 2000; c.1993].

The Allendale Nativity, which Berenson attributed to Titian.

Through a secret agreement in 1912, Berenson enjoyed a close relationship with Duveen, Berenson also consulted for other important art dealerships, such as London's Colnaghi and, after his breakup with Duveen, New York's Wildenstein.

In 1923, Berenson was called to give expert witness in a famous case brought by Andrée Hahn against Duveen. In 1920 Hahn wanted to sell a painting[8] that she believed to be a version of Leonardo's La belle ferronnière and whose authorship is still debated. Duveen publicly rejected Hahn's Leonardo attribution of the painting, which he had never seen. Consequently, Hahn sued him. In 1923 Hahn's painting was brought to Paris to be compared with the Louvre version. Duveen mustered Berenson's and other experts' support for his opinion, dismissing Hahn's painting as a copy. At the trial in New York in 1929, where the expert witnesses did not appear, the jury was not convinced by Berenson's Paris testimony, in part because, while under cross-examination there, he had been unable to recall the medium on which the picture was painted. It was also revealed that Berenson, as well as other experts who had testified in Paris, such as Roger Fry and Sir Charles Holmes, had previously provided paid expertise to Duveen. While Duveen, after a split verdict, ended up settling out of court with Hahn, the whole story damaged Berenson's reputation. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1958.[9]

Berenson died at age 94 in Settignano, Italy.

Recent scholarship has established that Berenson's secret agreements with Duveen resulted in substantial profits to himself, as much as 25% of the proceeds, making him a wealthy man. This clear conflict of interest has thrown into doubt many of his authentications for Duveen and a number of these have been shown, through careful examination, to have become more optimistic, therefore considerably more valuable, once he was working for Duveen. No systematic comparison has, as yet, been done, but a partial study of 70 works points to this possibility. (Meryle Secrest, "Being Bernard Berenson", 1979, Appendix, p. 399) The issue is still controversial.


2006 saw the publication of the noted British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper's letters to Berenson in the period 1947–60, in a book entitled Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

In 2015, Yale University Press published Kenneth Clark's correspondence with Berenson in the book My Dear BB: The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark, 1925-1959, edited and annotated by Robert Cumming.

Nine years worth of correspondence (1950-1959) between Berenson and San Diego-based Norah Bisgood Woodward is held by Special Collections and Archives at the UC San Diego Library.[10]


  • Venetian Painters of the Renaissance (1894)
  • Lorenzo Lotto: An Essay in Constructive Art Criticism (1895)
  • Florentine Painters of the Renaissance (1896)
  • Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1897)
  • The Sense of Quality: Study and Criticism of Italian Art (1901; second series, 1902)
  • The Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1903), his masterpiece
  • North Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1907)
  • A Sienese Painter of the Franciscan Legend (1910)
  • Venetian Painting in America: The Fifteenth Century (New York, 1916)
  • Essays in the Study of Sienese Painting (New York, 1918)
  • Aesthetics, ethics and history in the arts of visual representation (Estetica, Etica e Storia nelle Arti della Rappresentazione Visiva) (1948)
  • The Italian Painters Of The Renaissance (1952)
  • Rumor and Reflection (New York, 1952)
  • Caravaggio: his incongruity and his fame (1953)
  • Seeing and Knowing New York Graphic Society, Ltd., (1953)
  • The Passionate Sightseer (New York, 1960)
  • Sunset and Twilight (New York, 1963)

Most of his books were published in the United States and went through many editions.


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Boston University College of Liberal Arts Class of 1887 50th Anniversary Memory Book, published 1937
  6. ^
  7. ^ WORKS OF ART IN ITALY, losses and survival, London 1945 compiled from War Office Reports of the British Committee on the Preservation and Restitution of Works of Art, Archives and Other Material in Enemy Hands, in Engramma n. 61 (freely available online)
  8. ^ Painting seen here, bottom of the page
  9. ^
  10. ^

Further reading

  • Patricia Luce Chapman: "To Bernard Berenson with Love" (2005).
  • S.N. Behrman: "Duveen" (1951–52).
  • Kenneth Clark: Another Part of the Wood (1974).
  • Rachel Cohen: Bernard Berenson: A life in the Picture Trade (2013).
  • Mary Ann Calo: Bernard Berenson and the Twentieth Century (1994).
  • Simon Gray: The Old Masters A play in which Berenson is a leading character. (2004).
  • John Pope-Hennessy "Bernard Berenson" in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, 34. (1988)
  • Ernest Samuels: Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur (1979).
  • Ernest Samuels: Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Legend (1987).
  • Cynthia Saltzman: (2008) Old Masters New World: America's Raid on Europe's Great Pictures
  • Meryle Secrest: "Being Bernard Berenson:A Biography"; Holt, Rinehart & Winston;(1979);Weidenfeld & Nicolson, (1980).
  • Colin Simpson: Artful Partners: Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen (1986).
  • William Weaver: A Legacy of Excellence: The Story of Villa I Tatti (1997).

External links

  • Quotations related to Bernard Berenson at Wikiquote
  • Works by Bernard Berenson at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Bernard Berenson at Internet Archive
  • Dictionary of Art Historians
  • Villa I Tatti and Bernard Berenson
  • Online exhibition and catalog about Bernard and Mary as Harvard students
  • Art as Existence Gabriele Guercio - The MIT Press, 2006
  • The Allendale Nativity - connoisseurship and controversy Detailed account of Berenson's involvement in the Allendale Nativity attribution, posted at 3 Pipe Problem.
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from World eBook Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.