Colin Simpson Artful Partners—Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen.
Macmillan, 320 pages, $22.50
Like most gossip, Colin Simpson’s Artful Partners is at first blush fascinating. Like most gossip, however, it does not stand scrutiny well. It presents its information in a manner which precludes verification of its accuracy. In the final analysis, its sole meaningful accomplishment may be to earn momentary talk-show notoriety for Mr. Simpson.
One would have thought the dead Berensonian horse had been beaten beyond resurrection. And indeed so it might have been, had not circumstances given Mr. Simpson, a journalist with a record of remasticating well-chewed material (the Lusitania sinking; Lady Hamilton; Lawrence of Arabia; and the like), a crack at the files of Duveen Brothers (on embargoed deposit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) in the course of ghosting the late Edward Fowles’s Memories of Duveen Brothers (Times Books, 1976). In the course of several visits to the Duveen archives, Simpson seems to have come across a number of letters and memoranda of a type which an opportunistic journalist would immediately recognize as grist for the scandal mill. Hence this book, which arrives swaddled in misleading hyperbole—for instance, “The Berenson Scandals” in Connoisseur (October, 1986). Indeed, the very fact of the Connoisseur interview is cause for more regret than anything in Simpson’s book, since it is another sad example of Thomas Hoving’s continued indulgence in his taste for sensation-—a yearning which has compromised, if not utterly crippled, one of the most extraordinary art-historical talents of our generation.
The implication is that Simpson has uncovered something new and titillatingly evil about Berenson and his connections with the art trade. This is not so. It has been known— and generally deplored—for some forty years that Bernard Berenson was actively involved with art dealing, both as a principal and as an “expert,” from around the turn of the century to 1938. Berenson himself did a little mea culpa chest-beating in his autobiographical Sketch for a Self-Portrait, decrying the need to practice a trade and self-importantly comparing himself to St. Paul and Spinoza. I can still hear in my mind’s ear the heavily accented gusto with which my late mentor, the noted art dealer Rudolf J. Heinemann, used to recount an exchange during his first (and only) visit to Berenson’s home. B.B.: “And what do you do, Dr. Heinemann?” R.J.H.: “Im an art dealer, Mr. Berenson. Just like yourself.” Finally, the catalogue to an essentially hagiographic exhibition (“Berenson and the Connoisseurship of Italian Painting”) mounted in 1979 at the National Gallery put the matter plainly enough: “Berenson was, in fact, the last great representative of a type, the connoisseur-dealer.”
It was the publication in 1952 of the late S.N. Behrman’s Duveen that first made broadly public the association between Berenson and the outrageous art dealer Joseph Duveen. It was a collaboration of which few outside the professional art world were aware, and about which fewer still could have cared. Behrman’s amusing biography-memoir (these after all were the days when New Yorker features still had a light touch), on which Behrman himself would subsequently base a singularly unamusing drawing-room comedy (Lord Pengo, starring Charles Boyer, which opened on Broadway on November 19, 1962), forever linked the names of Berenson and Duveen in the public eye.
Duveen was by then long dead. His memory was not celebrated at I Tatti, the villa which the fees Duveen paid Berenson for “certifying” Italian paintings had purchased. On my own first visit to Settignano, in 1956 (Berenson was then ninety), I launched a long career of faux pas by mentioning the dreaded “D-word” to Nicky Mariano, Berenson’s mistress-at-arms, whom my companion and I were giving a lift down to Florence. The atmosphere inside the car grew suddenly still and glacial.
Simpson’s version of the origins of the Behrman book fairly concisely illustrates the sort of “spin” he puts on most of the episodes central to his own. It was openly acknowledged by Behrman that his work was based on a never-published (and by all accounts unpublishable) memoir by Louis Levy, the long-time New York attorney for Duveen Brothers. Here is how Simpson puts it: “Levy’s original manuscript, which I have read, was a spiteful personal apologia ... . He took it to Behrman, who attended the same synagogue, for advice.”
How are we to square this with Behrman’s own account (in People in a Day: A Memoir, 1972): “I was [in Palm Springs] as the guest of ... an executive of Columbia Films. He introduced me to a friend who had written a book on Lord Duveen which he had been unable to get published. When I read it I saw why. It was a marmoreal panegyric on the late lord and his clients. They were all Franciscan characters, living for Art and Others.” The Behrman reading of Levy’s account has been confirmed by others, notably by the late Belle Greene, Morgan’s librarian and Berenson’s sometime lover.
The gist of Simpson’s book is that Berenson, on his own and in combination with a number of dealers, of whom Duveen was the most notable and highly remunerating, spent a good part of his life mulcting American millionaires. How? The catalogue of sins and evil practices set forth by Simpson includes overcharging, playing both sides of the table, smuggling, consorting with forgers, and, most notably of course, furnishing —for pay—attributions ranging from the optimistic to the knowingly deceitful. This is tasty stuff, reeking as it does of malefaction, especially at a time when once again popular interest in works of art appears to be solely a function of the price the new crop of centimillionaires will pay in the auction room.
Simpson’s bottom line is to suggest that Berenson was a crook. Was he? Unfortunately, as is generally the case when a specialized or recondite activity is served up by the ignorant for the benefit of the unknowing, the first and most grievous casualties are likely to be the shades of meaning which add as much to the truth as facts, especially with respect to an era and personalities whose standards were hugely different from our own.
In such cases, the truth lies in the specifics; to deal with all of these in Mr. Simpson’s case would require far more space than is available here. In seeking to discredit Berenson, Simpson seldom attacks frontally; he invariably prefers to skate on the somewhat safer ice of innuendo. Here is a typical example: writing of a Coronation of the Virgin in the Jules S. Bache Collection (Metropolitan Museum 49.7.4), Simpson states: “It was sold to Bache, always ajover of titles, as the property of Prince Charles von Lichnowsky of Kuchelna Castle in Eastern Prussia.” The “as” suggests that Bache may have been duped as to the provenance of the painting, but there is nothing in the Metropolitan’s 1971 catalogue of Florentine paintings to suggest anything of the sort.
In reference to the same picture, Simpson says that the Metropolitan lists the picture “as by a ‘follower of the artist’ who probably never worked in Botticelli’s workshop and ‘in remarkably bad condition’ with ’substantial losses of paint and repeated and clumsy restorations.” The Metropolitan’s 1971 catalogue in fact says: “. . . The painting is in an extremely poor state of preservation, and many areas . . . have suffered losses of pigment and repeated restorations.” One wonders why Simpson docs not quote the Metropolitan catalogue exactly; his substitution of “clumsy restoration” and “remarkably bad condition” for the Met’s milder phrasing is clearly designed to prejudice the reader. The fact that Simpson does this, together with his refusal to quote sources for his pejorative anecdotes, has to create serious doubts as to the scruples underlying his work. One might call such differentiations nit-picking, but in matters of scholarship, or when it comes to impugning a reputation, God—to paraphrase Mies van der Rohe—is in the nits.
In a way, it is too bad that Simpson’s tone, method, and use of his material so entirely discredits his book. To see Berenson and the art world of his era plain, it is necessary to play a judgmental spotlight over certain dark corners of his life without descending into dubious scandal -mongering of the Simpson variety. Indeed, this is the only cavil I have with Professor Ernest Samuels’s great biography, of which the second volume (Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Legend) is shortly to be published by Harvard. This is, I believe, one of the magisterial biographies of our time, comprehensive, scrupulous, thoughtful. It portrays both the man and his era generally fairly, I think. It is, however, in the end unevaluative, which is understandable, given the highly colored accounts of Berenson that preceded Samuels’s (Sylvia Sprigge, Berenson, 1961; Nicky Mariano, Forty Years with Berenson, 1966; Meryle Secrest, Being Bernard Berenson, 1979). Nevertheless, there was (and remains) something about Berenson, about how he lived and operated, upon which our own era seems to demand judgment.
The publication within months of each other of a shallow piece of unsubstantiated character assassination and a full-scale but very neutral biography in the grand manner suggests that we are getting close to the point at which the last word on Bernard Berenson has got to have been said. Art history, scholarship, and connoisseurship have better things to do than to continue to go back and forth on the effect of Berenson’s indisputable cupidity on the authority and accuracy of his attributions. The sheer awfulness of Simpson’s book should be argument enough that this particular subject has now been exhausted in moral terms.
Berenson, whom a friend of mine aptly described as “the Henry Kissinger of the art world,” was not the first splendidly gifted but impoverished moth to fly too near the seductive flame of wealth. He knew what poisonous and destructive influences and company the rich could be, and yet he wanted money. Having caught the virus of expensive tastes, he did what any young man in his position would do: he exploited his own talents and he curried favor with the rich in order to get some money for himself.
How bent did this make him? That’s the question, and the answer I think is: much less than his detractors would like; a shade more than his adherents and acolytes would prefer to admit. His “lists” have stood the test of time remarkably well. He was in the game for some seventy years, and over four fifths of his attributions still stand, have weathered every wave of scholarly revision, every attempt—and there have been many— to show the old boy up. Apart from a concentrated flurry of optimistic attributing in 1912, understandable (if unforgivable) as a maiden effort to please his new employer Duveen, Berenson’s record is remarkably clean. He was doing nothing unusual for his time, don’t forget. All the great connoisseurs of that era—Gustav Gluck, Max Friedlaender, Hermann Voss—had a regular sideline in authentication. The difference, however, and I believe this to be critical in understanding the reaction Berenson arouses, was that in their case the piddling sums they received for yea-saying paid for little more than bread on the table, while Berenson’s arrangements, beginning with his commission as Isabella Stewart Gardner’s agent/ scout and finishing with twenty-five years as Duveen Brothers’ house expert, provided a luxe Florentine estate to which the world’s rich and famous came worshipfully calling.
Scholars are not supposed to live this way. Trade tainted Berenson, it has been claimed again and again, notably by the late Sir Kenneth Clark, who could afford to be lofty and dismissive about money-grubbing, having inherited his millions. In 1961, on the occasion of the publication of Sylvia Sprigge’s biography, Meyer Schapiro set his formidable intellect to the task of demolishing the temple. In an article called “Mr. Berenson’s Values” (Encounter, January, 1961, oddly cited by neither Simpson nor Samuels), Schapiro wrote up one side and down the other of the matter, fingering and finding fault with everything from Berenson’s art history to his Jewishness. Much of what Schapiro says is on the mark, yet the force of his argument is diminished by an obvious, envious, unconcealable rage seemingly arising from a belief that Berenson had somehow gotten away with something. But had he? Apart from a few million dollars and the adulation of society, I think not. For all its posturing, I accept the torment expressed in Berenson’s autobiography and his published journals as genuine; I think that every time Berenson looked in his mirror, which was not infrequently, he knew exactly the sort of man who looked back at him. But he wanted the money.
I doubt that anyone reads Berenson any more. His brand of aesthetics and art history and connoisseurship (in particular his indifference—by today’s standards scandalous— to condition and restoration) has long since been overwhelmed by other approaches. The books which made his reputation, the four little volumes (with lists) which constitute The Italian Painters of the Renaissance, today read like a combination of Pater and Patience. Berenson was a period piece, “a quintessential relic of the world before 1914,” as Roger Hinks described I Tatti in his diaries. And not always a charming period piece, either, this vain, waspish, gossipy, insecure little man who often seemed as preoccupied with tailoring as with Tintoretto.
And yet, and yet... we cannot escape his legacy.
Which is where in the end it counts, in what is up there on the walls of the Gardner Museum, of the Metropolitan, of the National Gallery. Take away the Berenson-Duveen “contributions” and those noble galleries would be decimated. Berenson and Duveen may have been knaves, but would there be a Frick Collection without them, and which would you rather have? It would seem that Berenson’s posterity disproves Marc Antony’s assertion as to which part of a man is interred with his bones. That this should be understandably makes academic purists wail and rend their garments, and invites mean-spirited, scandal-baiting cheap shots like this book of Simpson’s. It will however all come to nothing in the end, for what’s done is done, and let us now for Heaven’s sake put this matter to rest, and simply stand back and enjoy the paintings.
Michael M. Thomas
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