Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade

Cover00Thomas Micchelli at Bookforum:

Though Berenson would become, in today's dollars, a millionaire many times over as well as a host to an endless parade of celebrities and scholars at his Florentine villa, I Tatti (whose grounds and library he eventually left to Harvard), his life “from the age of ten, had been a scramble to maintain a surface impression of belonging, with all the while a sense of incoherent and alien depths roiling underneath.” His compromised solution was “to work in a trade that, though more luxurious and outwardly significant [than his father's], still seemed to him sordid.” Up until the end of his life, Berenson's self-worth remained as fragile as the veneer of old-world sophistication put forth by his clients in the newly wealthy classes.

Berenson died on October 6, 1959, at the age of 94. Two years earlier, he wrote, “I wanted to become and be a work of art myself, and not an artist.” In her remarkable biography, Cohen approaches Berenson's life as a panorama full of artifice and profundity, whose brilliant flashes of color are inextricable from its substrates of shadow. The book leaves an indelible impression, not merely in the way it catalogues Berenson's accomplishments and failings, but also in its dissection of the struggle between desire and alienation that characterizes American art—and life—to this day.

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