Butrimonys, Vilna, Lithuania, 1865 - Villa I Tatti, Florence, Italy, 1959
(Art Historian, Art Critic, and Art Collector)
Bernard Berenson was one of the most famous and influential connoisseurs of Italian Renaissance paintings and drawings. Born Bernhard Valvrojenski in Lithuania on 26 June 1865 to Albert (originally Alter) Valvrojenski and Judith (originally Eudice) Mickleshanski (Valvrojenski), he maintained the original spelling of his first name until 1914. Berenson was often known by his initials, BB (or Bibi in Italian). His first language was German, and from a young age he showed a great aptitude for languages, including Hebrew.
Berenson enrolled in the Boston Latin School in 1881, and Boston University in 1883. As a college freshman, he befriended Edward Perry Warren, with whom he shared a mutual interest in the Classics. Berenson had by then distinguished himself as a talented student, and Warren sponsored his admission to Harvard University in the fall of 1884.
At Harvard, Berenson majored in literature and pursued the study of a number of languages, including: Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic, Latin, and Greek. Berenson’s university years helped shape his later career in Italy as an art historian, critic, and collector. At Harvard, the new system of electives introduced by President Charles William Eliot allowed Berenson to explore a variety of subjects within the humanities. He studied Dante under Charles Eliot Norton and enrolled in Norton’s two-semester art history course on the Medieval and Renaissance periods. His readings of Walter Pater and John Addington Symonds were formative, as were visits to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and interactions with his philosophy professor William James. Berenson was a member of the O.K. Club, a literary society, and for two issues held the post of editor-in-chief at the Harvard Monthly, in which he published nineteen articles. Friends in the O.K. Club included the future philosopher George Santayana and the future art collector Charles Loeser.
Berenson sought to develop his interests in literary criticism and history after graduating from Harvard in 1887. Originally, he planned to travel in Europe on a Parker Fellowship. Though Berenson’s application was rejected, his friend Edward Warren and a handful of other benefactors in Boston, including Isabella Stewart Gardner and Thomas Sergeant Perry, provided the necessary funds. As he continued to travel, his interests gradually shifted from literature to the visual arts.
In 1888, while sojourning in England, Berenson met Mary Whitall Smith. They married in December 1900, and the following year they moved into "I Tatti," a villa owned by John Temple-Leader. They purchased the property in 1907 from Temple-Leader's son, who had inherited it upon his father's death. They spent several years updating, renovating and adding to the villa, especially the library and gardens, and continued to acquire adjacent properties.
Berenson’s reputation as an expert was established from his scholarly publications. His first art-historical article, "Vasari in the Light of Recent Publications," appeared in The Nation in April 1893. A year later, the volume Venetian Painters of the Renaissance, written in collaboration with Mary, was issued in London and New York, and enjoyed immediate success. New editions were called for 1895 and 1897. This was the origin of the four volumes later reissued as Italian Painters of the Renaissance and Italian Pictures of the Renaissance; the series also included Florentine Painters (1896), Central Italian Painters (1897), and North Italian Painters (1907).
In 1895 Berenson published Lorenzo Lotto: An Essay in Constructive Art Criticism, a manifesto of his appreciation of Giovanni Morelli's theory, as well as the essay "The Rudiments of Connoisseurship (A Fragment)," in which Berenson stated his own method. In 1903, BB published his most important and substantial work of scholarship, The Drawings of the Florentine Painters. Originally produced as an expensive folio, a revised and expanded edition appeared in 1938; this was again revised and expanded for the posthumous Italian edition of 1961.
Between 1901 and 1916, Berenson published three series of collected articles under the title The Study and Criticism of Italian Art. His interest in Sienese painting led to two major articles in 1903, published in The Burlington Magazine, on Stefano di Giovanni, called Sassetta. This was ultimately republished as the book A Sienese painter of the Franciscan Legend.
By this time Berenson had become one of the most famous art historians in the Western world. Over the following decade he published Venetian Paintings in American: the Fifteenth Century (1916), Essays in the Study of Sienese Painting (1918),Three Essays in Method (1926), and Studies in Mediaeval Painting (1930).
Berenson also served as a consultant to many major art collectors, mainly in the United States, and thanks in part to the social connections he had formed in Boston, most notably with Isabella Stewart Gardner. In time, most of Berenson's income came from commissions earned in his capacity as an intermediary between clients and art dealers. These funds allowed Berenson to build up a major library and a small art collection of his own. Another result of Berenson's collaboration with collectors was the publication of scholarly catalogs, such as his Catalogue of the Italian Paintings Owned by John G. Johnson,a collection now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the third volume of the Pictures in the Collection of P. A. B. Widener(1916).
Berenson's postwar writings included articles for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and the books Alberto Sani (1950), Caravaggio (1951), Essays in Appreciation (1952), Piero della Francesca and The Arch of Constantine, or, The Decline of Form (1954). Among his late writings there are some biographical books of particular interest: Sketch for a Self-Portrait (1949), Rumor and Reflection (1952), and Sunset and Twilight, the latter two based on Berenson's diaries. Though BB never received a formal education in art history, and always refused to be called‘Professor’, he received two honorary degrees in 1955, from the Universities of Florence (Italy) and of Paris (France). Berenson died on October 6, 1959 at the age of 94.