Bernard Berenson

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur, the first volume of a major critical biography of Berenson, covers the first forty years of his life, culminating in his triumphal tour of the United States in 1904 when he was recognized as a great art critic and feted by many of the important literary, social, and artistic leaders of the time.

Berenson, the eldest child in a family of unorthodox Lithuanian Jews, was ten when he came to America in 1875 with his immigrant family. A precocious and studious boy, he entered the famed Boston Latin School where he earned money tutoring other students. He found the Boston Public Library and became a voracious reader. For two years, from age sixteen to age eighteen, he worked so steadily at his studies “without resting one day,” as he told one of his older comrades in 1883, that toward the end of his first semester at Boston University he was “more of a walking ghost, a somnambulist, than a rational creature.”

His ambition was to become a writer as well as a scholar, and he was convinced that he must study at Harvard, which he entered after completing his first year at Boston University. His biographer says that Berenson’s awareness was all inward and literary, and that he seemed to feel that life for him must be a kind of intellectual footrace for which he must train himself to outrun the others. His small stature and delicate frame ruled out any distinction in rough competitive sports.

When he entered Harvard in 1884, the intellectual stir there aroused Berenson’s ambitions to the highest pitch. The challenging excitement of Harvard inspired in him a lifelong gratitude, and he willed his art treasures and papers to Harvard seventy years later. He had many eminent professors, but the courses which had the greatest impact upon his later career were those he took under Charles Eliot Norton, Boston’s dictator of art. Norton guided proper Bostonians into an appreciation of Italian art, and it was here that Berenson made the acquaintance of “Mrs. Jack,” Isabella Stewart Gardner, who was to play a large role in his future career as patron and client.

While at Harvard, Berenson converted to Christianity, joined the Episcopal Church, and was baptized by the famous Phillips Brooks. Five years later, in 1891, steeped in the religious art of the Renaissance in Italy, he converted again, this time to the Catholic Church, into which he was formally received by the abbot of the monastery of Monte Oliveto. His youthful interest in religion declined, however, and throughout his later life he considered himself a “lapsed Catholic.”

Berenson applied for a Parker Travelling Fellowship in order to broaden his study of art and literature abroad, but he did not receive it. This setback aroused his influential friends. Thomas Sergeant Perry, onetime instructor at Harvard and one of the leaders of Boston’s literary life, rallied a group of sponsors including himself, “Mrs. Jack” Gardner, Edward Warren, and Professor Ferdinand Bocher to make up a purse equivalent to the seven hundred dollars awarded to the Parker Fellows. Warren had sponsored him for entrance into Harvard and was now studying at Oxford; his wealthy family had long been identified with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. His fast friendship with Berenson continued with their joint desire to make Boston a world center of Italian art. Berenson’s sponsors had great faith in his genius and enabled him to continue his studies long past the one-year limit.

In 1888, Berenson met and fell in love with Mary Costelloe, the wife of Frank Costelloe, an English lawyer. He wrote in his diary that this meeting “became the determining factor in the rest of my life and career.” Mary left her husband and two little girls and eventually, after Frank’s death, married Berenson in 1900. Their relationship was so close that Bernard Berenson is almost as much her story as that of her husband.

Samuels describes Mary as being undeniably handsome with a Junoesque figure and vivacious charm and intelligence. Having been brought up a strict Quaker, she continued in adult life to use the traditional “thee” and “thou,” as one notes in many passages which Samuels quotes from her extensive correspondence. Yet in other ways, perhaps influenced by her life with Berenson, she departed from her...

(The entire section is 1793 words.)