For my Fall 2020 Independent Study, Dr. George Smith, our respected President and founder of IDSVA, assigned me a task. With my focus on the movement of art, that is, the buying and selling of artworks in the art market and auction houses, museum acquisitions, and private art collecting, Dr. Smith rightfully told me I must read the following biographies: Duveen: A Life in Art and Being Bernard Berenson, both written by accomplished biographer Meryle Secrest. As a second-year student trying to assimilate my sources and read everything possible to support my ideas, I welcomed the recommendation. Granted, we have extensive, dense reading already, but when you are on a quest—as I like to describe my academic pursuits—it’s worth the extra time and effort to uncover some gems.
Why take the time to read more books, not on our syllabi? Because I like to think we are all “Alice,” the courageous, inquisitive character of Lewis Carroll’s imagination: we are peering through a looking glass and crossing over into sometimes bizarre and, more often than not, unpredictable findings in our research. Secrest reminds us that the art market is, indeed, filled with deceits, betrayals, lawsuits, and forgeries; yet, at the same time, she proves that without the sometimes unethical moves by Joseph Duveen and Bernard Berenson, without the belabored efforts of connoisseurship, salesmanship, mercenary dealings, and above all, aesthetic infatuation by these two gentlemen of culture, art as we know it in various galleries, museums, libraries, and (shared from) private art collections would largely not exist.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Duveen and Berenson developed a business relationship for over thirty years. In Secrest’s biography Duveen: A Life in Art, we are shown a man that may very well be the best salesman in the history of American and British art-dealings—dividing his time equally between Europe and America, he sought to find the best artwork for the likes of Andrew Mellon, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and the Royal families in Britain. His energy was described by his associate and art expert, Bernard Berenson: “I regard him as one of the most vital, life-enhancing energies I have ever approached” (Secrest 379). His adroitness in the “politics of art”—meaning charm, courtesy, humor, timing, research, and a quick study of character and money—make him a timeless, key figure in the art world. He built an annex in the National Gallery for the display of Italian primitives; offered his private collection to the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, and the University of London; he dealt with tsars, fascists, and Nazis all in the effort to win a Titian or Botticelli or a Rubens—even if they were a fake.
And that’s where Bernard Berenson comes into play in Secrest’s Being Bernard Berenson. Berenson was quite aware of forgery in the art world, and he was hired by Joseph Duveen to authenticate any given painting in question. Berenson was particularly astute in Italian Renaissance art and gained his knowledge while a student at Harvard, during the winter of 1888-1889. Art critic and historian, Giovanni Morelli, one of the first to attempt to catalog and care for Italy’s art, and his former secretary, Giovanni Cavalcaselle, collaborated to write a sixteen-volume history of Italian painting to clear up centuries of confusion regarding provenance. After reading these books, Berenson reiterated Morelli’s point that “‘provenance’ has very little value for Renaissance art’” (Secrest 90). He learned even if there was written documentation authenticating an artwork, painters such as Titian and Signorelli “customarily signed contracts promising to paint the principal characters in work themselves and then gave the whole project to their apprentices. They even signed the finished results. Or, the signature might be, and often was, forged” (Secrest 91). Berenson decided that the only evidence for authenticity is the picture itself. One must study the style: how did the artist paint the nose, the ears? how did a drapery fold? Secrest tells us he had a photographic memory. It is because of Berenson’s incredible eye for detail and extensive scholarship that Duveen paid him over $100,000 per year. Both Berenson and Duveen made thousands of dollars in their art market careers, despite the occasional conflicts and betrayals between them.
Secrest’s biographies reinforce what their lives meant. Berenson’s legacy is ‘i Tatti’ located in Florence, Italy, where he lived and entertained academics and celebrities worldwide. It contains a library of over 55,000 volumes and an art collection of a lifetime, bequeathed to his alma mater, Harvard University, upon his death in 1959 when he was 94 years old. Duveen died twenty years prior, at the age of 70, and his legacy and reputation as a skilled art salesman, prolific art collector, and loyal businessman, unaffected by his pursuits even with poor health, World War I, the Depression, and constant criticism, is worth respect. On Duveen’s last walk on his estate in London, he said, “I have had a wonderful life” (Secrest 380). There is so much to be admired in these aesthetes, that like Dr. Smith, I recommend taking the time to read both of these well-written and insightful biographies.
Secrest, Meryle. Duveen: A Life in Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
_____. Being Bernard Berenson. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1979.