Mary Berenson

Germantown, Pennsylvania, 1864 – Villa I Tatti, Florence, Italy, 1945
(Art Historian, Art Critic, Writer and Lecturer) 

Mary Berenson, a scholar of Italian Renaissance art, was the collaborator and wife of Bernard Berenson, whom she often assisted with his research, writing, lecturing, and business affairs. Born Mary Whitall Smith, she was the daughter of two well-known Quaker preachers, Hannah Whitall and Robert Pearsall Smith. She attended Smith College from 1882-1884 and the Harvard Annex (later Radcliffe College) from 1884-5. She left the United States to marry Irish barrister and political hopeful B.F.C. "Frank" Costelloe in 1885, which also necessitated her conversion to Catholicism. Mary and Frank had two daughters, Rachel (Ray), born in 1887 and Karin, born in 1889. Mary's family followed her to England and became deeply involved in social, literary, and cultural circles there. In 1888, Bernard Berenson was introduced to Mary through a mutual friend, Gertrude Hitz-Burton. Having already become dissatisfied with her marriage, Mary followed Bernard to the continent to study art under his tutelage where a passionate but clandestine romance blossomed. Although her rapport with Frank initially remained cordial, they soon began to battle over custody and the religious upbringing of their daughters, and Mary eventually separated from her husband to live and travel with Bernard. In December 1900, a year after Frank's death in 1899, Mary and Bernard were married in a small chapel on the estate of Villa I Tatti, where the couple had recently moved and where they spent the rest of their lives.

At Smith and Harvard, Mary focused on philosophy and studied government, history, and economics. She grew up in an intellectual climate, her parents frequently hosting scholarly and artistic guests such as Walt Whitman, with whom she developed a lasting friendship. It was through her family that she met William James, whose lectures at the Concord School of Philosophy she later attended. Rigorous debate and conversation were the norm in the Smith household, as was contemplation of religious questions. Along with her brother Logan, Mary was passionate about literature and poetry. Her interest in these "cultural" subjects, as well as the study of art, was stimulated in the Harvard environment. Encouraged by her feminist mother, during this period Mary became involved in the women's movements in the United States and England, publishing articles and making speeches on topics such as suffrage and women in politics. After marrying Frank and moving to England, she also used her capacity as an orator to help him with his campaigns for political office.

As the initial fervor of her personal and professional relationship with Frank waned, Mary's dormant, college interest in art and culture rekindled under the influence of Bernard Berenson. She worked closely with Bernard on his projects, frequently writing reviews defending his publications and lecturing about their ideas. She established herself as an art authority with journal articles and in particular a long pamphlet, Guide to the Italian Pictures at Hampton Court: with Short Studies of the Artists, published under the pseudonym Mary Logan in 1894. That same year she played a major role in the writing of the Venetian Painters of The Renaissance, which listed Bernard as the sole author due to the social delicacy of their association. Although she published less as she devoted more of her energy to supporting Bernard's work, in 1908 she published a small article, "A Tentative List of Italian Pictures Worth Seeing." Her books include A Modern Pilgrimage (1933) and A Vicarious Trip to the Barbary Coast (1938).

See Mary Berenson's publications in HOLLIS (all records with Mary Berenson in author fields)

See the entry on Mary Berenson in the Dictionary of Art Historians.