The Magazine

The Connoisseur

Bernard Berenson and the appreciation of art.

Feb 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 22 • By JAMES GARDNER
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In any case, there was surely more to the man than his religious convictions. One of the great appeals of Berenson’s life is the virtuosic correspondence he maintained for much of a century with over 1,200 correspondents, among them some of the most brilliant luminaries of the age. Cohen has mined these letters and brings to life Berenson’s friendships with Edith Wharton, Bertrand Russell, André Gide, and Marcel Proust, among many others—not to mention his long marriage and numerous affairs.

But all of these considerations are, of course, ancillary to those attributions of paintings and drawings upon which Berenson’s fame and greatness principally rest. Though not all of his attributions have stood the test of time, he did more than any other scholar to establish the study of Old Master painting on a scientific basis. Before him, the field was a morass of subjective assessments and debatable misconstructions. 

Whereas most art historians—such as they were at that time—were rooted in the study of documents and literature, Giovanni Morelli, an Italian art critic, had devised, about a generation earlier, a more scientific form of connoisseurship. Through the discovery of recurring stylistic motifs that were unique to a given artist’s work (the consistent way in which said artist rendered a fingernail or an eye, for example), it was possible to arrive at more solid attributions than had been previously possible. But if Morelli created the theoretical framework for this study—comparable to contemporary advances in the study of ancient texts—Berenson was the first to make a profession of it and to master thoroughly the corpus of Old Master painting, especially that of 15th-century Italy.

Now it is the unfortunate fate of those who make their living in that line of work that, when they are wrong, they look foolish, and when they are right, their worthy contributions merge insensibly into the general mass of received truth. But even this consideration cannot conceal the size, quality, or revolutionary initiative of Berenson’s achievement: Quite simply, no one before him had ever studied the Old Masters, or any art, with such single-minded application over 70 years. 

There have been recurring rumors that Berenson intentionally misattributed paintings simply to earn his commission from Lord Duveen. This does not appear to be the case. Surely, he was not above dressing a mediocre work in purple prose if he thought that would move merchandise; but he appears to have stopped far short of outright misattribution. He took art and himself far too seriously ever to perpetrate such an unseemly act.

But these accusations attest to one of the unlovely secrets of the trade in old paintings: In most cases, attribution is an educated approximation. Unless a work is signed, and its provenance documented back to the studio of its creator, 100 percent certainty is impossible. Within the capacious indeterminacy of that approximation, many a dealer, and more than one scholar, have lived out their careers in affluence. And they have done so with a semi-clear conscience, since the work in question may, indeed, be by the painter to whom they attribute it—and in most cases the attribution (by the very nature of reality itself) is not susceptible to definitive proof or disproof. 

 

Yet even when this ineradicable subjectivity is understood, the fact remains that, before the more recent application of X-ray imaging and chemical analysis to old paintings, Bernard Berenson did more to illuminate this crucial corner of human culture than any single scholar had done before him, or is likely to do again.

James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).