Bernard Berenson has taken a lot of abuse over recent years as details behind his business practices have tarnished his reputation as a scholar. Another episode comes now in Stanley Mazaroff’s book that Robert Messenger reviewed in The Wall Street Journal. But Messenger takes a moment to remind us of Berenson’s achievement:
Walk into an art museum and stand at the center of one of its galleries. Turning 360 degrees, try to identify the painter of each picture. Can you tell a Vuillard from a Bonnard? A Corot from a Courbet? What about a Hobbema from a Ruisdael? An Ambrogio Lorenzetti from a Pietro Lorenzetti?
Now imagine standing at the top of a stepladder in a dim chapel looking at a painting begrimed by varnish and centuries of neglect, with only a candle to illuminate the work before you. This is what Bernard Berenson (1865–1959) often found himself doing in the last decade of the 19th century, when he settled on a career of connoisseurship—deducing who painted the works of the Italian Renaissance by drawing on a concentrated study of the art of the whole era. When he took up the challenge there was little art-historical scholarship to consult. In a few short years his books on the major schools of Italian Renaissance painting had created a canon—and an American vogue for such art.
Old Masters, New World (Wall Street Journal)