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Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade

Rachel Cohen
344 pages
23 B&W illustrations
8.5 x 6 inches

When Gilded Age millionaires wanted to buy Italian Renaissance paintings, the expert whose opinion they sought was Bernard Berenson. He combined vast erudition with an incredible eye and uncanny skill at attributing paintings. Those who sought his advice never suspected that he had grown up in a poor Lithuanian Jewish immigrant family that had struggled to survive in Boston on the wages of his father’s work as a tin peddler. Berenson’s 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 he had betrayed his gifts as an interpreter of paintings. Nevertheless, his books and the the many important American collections he helped to build still affect the American understanding of art today.

This 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.