Greatest Art Critics Series
Bernard Berenson

Biography of Renaissance Art Historian.

The Lithuanian-American art critic
and historian, Bernard Berenson.
An unrivalled expert in the art of
the Italian Renaissance.

Bernard Berenson (1865-1959)


Career as an Art Critic
Legacy and Reputation

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One of the most influential American art critics and historians for most of the twentieth century, the Lithuanian-born Bernard Berenson specialized in Renaissance art, in particular Venetian Painting, as well as the Sienese School of the trecento. Resident for most of his life in Italy, he was a major pioneer in the area of art attribution, and his scholarly opinion was often critical in establishing whether a painting was created by one of the Old Masters, or by one of the latter's pupils, or merely by a contemporary imitating his style. Moreover, his four major books, Venetian Painting in America (1916), The Study and Criticism of Italian Art (1916), Essays in the Study of Sienese Painting (1918), and Studies in Medieval Painting (1930), were known collectively as the "Four Gospels" by a number of English-speaking art historians, while his masterpiece The Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1903) continues to dazzle. He also published monographs on Lorenzo Lotto (1894), Sassetta (1909) and Caravaggio (1953), as well as books on aesthetics and art evaluation. As a result, he became a highly respected advisor to several of the best American art museums during the early 20th century. Well-connected and polylingual, he was also a highly sought-after consultant to a number of private art collectors interested in acquiring examples of early Renaissance painting or High Renaissance painting. Notable clients who retained Berenson for his seal of authenticity, included the American collector Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924), and the English art dealer Joseph (later Lord) Duveen (1869-1939). However, the huge sums he earned in the art world has led to accusations of partiality, and many of his attributions have subsequently been questioned or downgraded. Despite this, he remains an important figure in American art, and his opinions on the output of Renaissance artists formed the basis for most 20th century scholarship in this area. In 1961, his villa at Settignano, which he left to his alma mater, became the Harvard University Center for Renaissance Studies. For a more controversial American historian of the Italian Renaissance, see: Leo Steinberg (1920-2011).



Career as an Art Critic

Born Bernhard Valvrojenski, in Butrymancz, near Vilna, he and his family emigrated to Boston in 1875, where they adopted the name "Berenson." Educated at the Latin School in Boston, and briefly at the Boston University College of Liberal Arts, he later studied at Harvard under Charles Eliot Norton, graduating in 1887. It was through Norton that he met the wealthy Boston socialite and art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner. In 1888, Berenson made his first visit to Italy, where he fell in love with its breathtaking range of painting and sculpture, and determined that one day he would return to live in Italy and devote himself to studying art. Not long after, he spent time in Oxford, England, where he met the art historians Herbert Horne and Jean Paul Richter, who introduced him to the writings of Giovanni Morelli, as well as the collector Edward Perry "Ned" Warren (1860-1928).

In 1890, he began searching for suitable works on behalf of Richter, Warren and the London dealer Otto Gutekunst (c.1865-1941). In 1892, he actually bought several Impressionist paintings and a work by Piero di Cosimo (1462-1522), this time for the English collector James Burke. In 1894, he published his book Venetian Painters (the first of his studies of Italian schools), which was followed by Lorenzo Lotto: An Essay in Constructive Art Criticism (1894). By the mid-1890s, Berenson was buying pictures for Mrs Gardner and also the American financier Theodore M. Davis. One of his 'discoveries' was the Sienese painter Giovanni di Paolo (c.1400-82), whom he dubbed the "El Greco" of the quattrocento. In 1896, he published a second treatise on an Italian school - Florentine Painters, in which he examined how artists treated surface texture as well as three-dimensionality in their figures - and in 1897, a third - Central Italian Painters, which catalogued the style of painting adopted by Renaissance artists. (For historical background, see also: the Renaissance in Florence (1400-onwards), the Venetian Renaissance (1400-1600) and the Renaissance in Rome under the Popes.

These publications quickly established Berenson's reputation as a Renaissance scholar, and soon became the standard texts for a number of university degree courses on the history of art. (Note: the term "Renaissance" was first coined by the 19th century French historian Jules Michelet 1798-1874.)

In 1900, Berenson married Mary Smith Costelloe, his partner of 10 years, and a notable art historian in her own right. He also bought a large house (Villa I Tatti) overlooking Settignano, near Florence, where he lived for the rest of his life. Here, he wrote his masterpiece Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1903), an illustrated detailed catalog of Renaissance drawings by Florentine draughtsmen. In 1903, along with Roger Fry, Herbert Horne and Charles Holmes, Berenson co-founded the celebrated Burlington Magazine - the first scholarly journal on art history. In 1907, he published North Italian Painters of the Renaissance, noted primarily for its highly negative assessment of Mannerist painting (c.1530-1600) of the cinquecento.

From his mid-30s onwards, Berenson became more and more active as a consultant and art broker for both individuals and institutions, including some of the best art museums, notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Not all his dealings were fully transparent - several involved significant conflicts of interest - nor was he above smuggling paintings into America. Around 1907, his business relationships with the Boston collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, the English art dealer Joseph Duveen and other Berenson clients like Morgan and Joseph E. Widener became even more devious. (Berenson later fell out with Duveen following a dispute over who painted the Adoration of the Shepherds now owned by the National Gallery in Washington DC: Duveen said it was a Giorgione, Berenson said it was an early Titian. Current opinion agrees with Duveen.)

In 1916, Berenson published two major works: Venetian Painting in America, and The Study and Criticism of Italian Art. His final book on the Italian schools, Essays in the Study of Sienese Painting followed in 1918. In 1925 he hired Kenneth Clark (1903-83), a young Renaissance scholar from Oxford, who assisted Berenson in revising Drawings of the Florentine Painters. In 1930, Berenson published his fourth major work, Studies in Medieval Painting, along with Italian Painters of the Renaissance, a one-volume collection of his 4-book series on regional Italian schools.

During World War II, Berenson was effectively a prisoner in his villa. In 1944 his wife Mary Berenson died. After the war, Berenson wrote Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts (1948) and acted as consultant to the dealer Georges Wildenstein. His final books (written during his mid/late 80s!) included monographs on Alberto Sani (1950), Caravaggio (1953), and Piero della Francesca (1954). In 1958, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1959, Berenson died at his villa aged 94, and now lies with his wife in a chapel on the grounds.


As an art historian, Berenson focused on the work of art itself - in particular, its authenticity - rather than its background or context. His major books, for instance, are little more than lists of paintings (authenticated by Berenson) with explanatory notes. This approach was especially useful to art dealers and collectors, with whom Berenson was undoubtedly too close for comfort. His confident analysis and attributions - which he rarely changed - led to the emergence of two opposing camps: his critics, consisting mainly of British scholars, led by S. Arthur Strong; and his supporters including John Walker, director of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Sydney J. Freedberg, professor at Harvard; Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, London, and John Pope-Hennessey, director of the Victoria & Albert Museum. While generally regarded as the leading authority on Italian Renaissance art of the trecento and quattrocento, his reputation was occasionally questioned, as in the famous legal case brought by Andree Hahn against Duveen, in 1923. Today, with advances in scientific testing, a number of Berenson's unqualified attributions are now believed to be inaccurate: but whether deliberate or accidental is not known.

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