Bernard Berenson (Hardcover)
A Life in the Picture Trade (Jewish Lives)
Yale University Press, 9780300149425, 344pp.
Publication Date: October 22, 2013
When Gilded Age millionaires wanted to buy Italian Renaissance paintings, the expert whose opinion they sought was Bernard Berenson, with his vast erudition, incredible eye, and uncanny skill at attributing paintings. They visited Berenson at his beautiful Villa I Tatti, in the hills outside Florence, and walked with him through the immense private library—which he would eventually bequeath to Harvard—without ever suspecting that he had grown up in a poor Lithuanian Jewish immigrant family that had struggled to survive in Boston on the wages of the father’s work as a tin peddler. Berenson’s extraordinary self-transformation, financed by the explosion of the Gilded Age art market and his secret partnership with the great art dealer Joseph Duveen, came with painful costs: he hid his origins and felt that he had betrayed his gifts as an interpreter of paintings. Nevertheless his way of seeing, presented in his books, codified in his attributions, and institutionalized in the many important American collections he helped to build, goes on shaping the American understanding of art today.
This finely drawn portrait of Berenson, the first biography devoted to him in a quarter century, draws on new archival materials that bring out the significance of his secret business dealings and the way his family and companions—including his patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, his lover Belle da Costa Greene, and his dear friend Edith Wharton—helped to form his ideas and his legacy. Rachel Cohen explores Berenson’s inner world and exceptional visual capacity while also illuminating the historical forces—new capital, the developing art market, persistent anti-Semitism, and the two world wars—that profoundly affected his life.
About Jewish Lives:
Jewish Lives is a prizewinning series of interpretative biography designed to explore the many facets of Jewish identity. Individual volumes illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences. Subjects are paired with authors to elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the range and depth of the Jewish experience from antiquity to the present.
In 2014, the Jewish Book Council named Jewish Lives the winner of its Jewish Book of the Year Award, the first series ever to receive this award.
More praise for Jewish Lives:
"Excellent" –New York Times
"Exemplary" –Wall Street Journal
"Distinguished" –New Yorker
"Superb" –The Guardian
About the Author
Praise For Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade (Jewish Lives)…
"A highly sympathetic and graceful portrait of Bernard Berenson, the art connoisseur and dealer who remade himself into a work of art, priced and priceless, which he protected, cultivated, and even at times bartered: Rachel Cohen's Bernard Berenson is an illuminating tale of this self-transformation, its successes and pitfalls, told with stalwart compassion."--Brenda Wineapple, author of Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877
— Brenda Wineapple
"An insightful, richly detailed account of Bernard Berenson’s brilliant transformation from an immigrant Jew and son of a tin peddler into a connoisseur of Italian Renaissance painting and a dealer in secret partnership with Joseph Duveen. With the keen gaze that Berenson brought to a picture, Rachel Cohen analyzes his high-wire act of self-invention against the glittering, aristocratic, anti-Semitic world of art collecting."--Cynthia Saltzman
— Cynthia Saltzman
"Cohen draws a psychological portrait of a man guided by passionate aesthetic ideals and tortured by the compromises in the world of commerce that he felt compelled to make. . . . If you live in an American city, there's a good chance that you can go to a museum today and see an exquisite Sienese Madonna, or a Venetian Holy Family, or a Florentine portrait. You have Berenson—and his collector-acolytes—to thank."—Hugh Eakin, Wall Street Journal
— Hugh Eakin
— Booklist, Starred Review
— Thomas Micchelli
Book of the Week
“[As] Rachel Cohen, the author of this elegantly written biography. . . .nicely puts it, Berenson was ‘a person whose capacity for metamorphosis approached that of a moth.’”—Martin Gayford, The Sunday Telegraph
— Martin Gayford
“Rachel Cohen’s unobtrusively and thoroughly well written short volume skilfully negotiates the contradictory sides of Berenson’s character – the aesthete and the huckster; the man who lived only for art and the man who very much liked to surround himself with the appurtenances of wealth.”—Sam Leith, The Spectator
— Sam Leith
— James Stourton
— Claire Messud
“Rachel Cohen who has written an extremely thoughtful and readable biography of Berenson”—Charles Saumarez-Smith, Apollo Magazine
— Charles Saumarez-Smith
— Honorable Mention
"An absorbing new biography."—Jewish Daily Forward
— Jewish Daily Forward
‘This book proves to be a remarkably balanced treatment of a profoundly complicated and compelling life.’—Robert Simon, Burlington Magazine
— Robert Simon
— Ann Landl
— Wingate Prize