Published  31/08/2015

My Dear BB … The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark, 1925-1959

My Dear BB … The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark, 1925-1959

The 34-year correspondence between two legends of the Anglo-American art world evokes the life and times of the 20th-century cultural establishment

Edited and annotated by Robert Cumming. Published by Yale University Press, 2015. £25


In 1937, after more than a decade of correspondence with Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) pleaded: “If there is anything I now crave for it is your affection … I want affection with perfect confidence, perfect ease … What I crave for is a brotherly comradeship. It is to be had, and others younger, one younger even than yourself give it to me. What comes in between you and me?”

The fact that Clark took some three months to answer Berenson’s letter suggests that a great deal came between them, not least Clark’s distinctly reticent nature: “I come of an undemonstrative family and my feelings are as stiff as an unused limb.” Such reserve was troubling to Berenson who, in his cloying autobiography, claimed to be “affectionate and caressing by nature … I feel baffled, frustrated, inhibited, when the person or group I am with thwarts my impulse to embrace them in the radiance of my goodwill”. Towards the end of Berenson’s life, Clark had thawed a little: “I send you my love as a son and a dear friend”, and confessed that he had “literally wept” on receiving his mentor’s praise for The Nude.

The relationship began in 1925 when Berenson invited Clark, still an Oxford undergraduate, to helpwith the preparation of a second edition of his Drawings of the Florentine Painters, though he was soon dismissed from this undertaking, “to save our friendship”.

Born Bernhard Valvrojenski in the Pale of Settlement in Lithuania, he initially became Bernhard Berenson when his family immigrated to Boston, his father eking out a living by peddling tin, and, finally, the anglicised and mythicised Bernard Berenson. Such name changes say something about Berenson’s declared ambition of shaping his identity so that it too would become a masterpiece: “I wanted to become and be a work of art myself.”1 It is perhaps now hard to perceive the fabled status Berenson achieved in his own lifetime, becoming, according to a young visitor to his equally fabulous domain near Settignano, I Tatti, “a sight one ought to see”. After meeting Marcel Proust in 1918, Berenson wrote: “He assured me that my books had been bread and meat to him … I confess I often wondered when reading Du Côté de Chez Swann whether my books had not influenced him.”2 Berenson was clearly impressive from a very young age, having secured the patronage of the great collector Isabella Stewart Gardner when still a student. Through Berenson’s guidance, Gardner would later bring the first Botticelli to America in 1895. A few years later, the National Gallery in London turned down an important Botticelli, illustrating Berenson’s prescience in re-establishing the status of neglected early-Renaissance artists.

Dying just shy of the 1960s, Berenson’s connections to mythic cultural figures elicit a heady feeling of time travel. He knew Oscar Wilde, who gave him the first copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray, a book Berenson described as “horrible” and “loathsome” to Wilde’s face. He was turned down by his idol, the critic and aesthete par excellence Walter Pater, who refused Berenson’s requests to attend his Oxford lectures. He also had the briefest of encounters with John Ruskin who shot him a look of hatred that Berenson likened to Titian’s portrait of the glowering Pope Paul III in Capodimonte. Ernest Hemingway courted him assiduously but unsuccessfully (Berenson feared “he may turn out too animal, too overwhelmingly masculine, too Bohemian … he may expect me to drink and guzzle with him”3). In the 50s, BB formed a surprising friendship with the science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury and, after initial reservations, found JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye “delicious”,4 a testament to his lifespan and enduring youthful curiosity.

Berenson formed intense and lasting relationships with women who did important work in their own right, including his wife Mary Smith (said to have contributed in large part to her husband’s work), his Italian librarian-companion Nicky Mariano and the fascinating Belle da Costa Greene, African-American librarian to JP Morgan (“Just because I am a librarian, doesn’t mean I have to dress like one”). Also part of Berenson’s inner circle was the novelist Edith Wharton, of great importance to Clark too who wrote Berenson that hers was “one of the few friendships that make life worth living”. Such an improbably enchanted life was at the same time ripe for satire, as evidenced in Alan Bennett’s sketch Tit for Tattiin which he spoofed Berenson’s idées fixes of “tactility” and “life enhancement”, with a tumult of impossibly eminent guests filling the courtly Tuscan retreat. For his part, Clark wrote to Berenson that, if he had a soul, “it only manifests itself when I am there.” Not everyone succumbed to the charms of I Tatti: the writer Lytton Strachey found it “remarkably depressing … with the atmosphere of a crypt”.5

Berenson’s reputation would eventually be severely compromised by his long association with the knavish dealer Joseph Duveen, a relationship veiled in secrecy. Tellingly, Duveen is scarcely mentioned in these letters, a rare exception being BB’s pithy characterisation of the dealer’s “power of persuading without convincing”. (Also absent is Berenson and Clark’s compendium of adultery in a correspondence that diligently avoids contentious subjects). Duveen, in Clark’s typically evocative description, “was irresistible. His bravura and impudence were infectious, and when he was present everyone behaved as if they had had a couple of drinks”, although his recognition of Duveen’s charisma did not stop Clark from ousting him from the National Gallery board of trustees.

Berenson would authenticate pictures for Duveen and recommend paintings he considered worth buying, in a period characterised by “a mania for attributions”, in Clark’s description. Berenson saw attributions as “stepping-stones rather than goals”, while Duveen and his circle seemed to have had a clear sense of each man’s particular role: “Berenson might know what’s authentic but only I know what will sell”; “Don’t chop it up Joe, B.B. likes it”.

As Berenson plainly stated in his autobiography, “I too needed a means of livelihood” (unlike Clark), yet he was also keenly aware of the hypocrisy surrounding the whiff of commerce contaminating scholarship (he referred to art-dealing as “the pig trade”). Nonetheless, the combination of a substantial annual retainer and commission on sales provided by Duveen subsidised Berenson’s bountiful lifestyle, which extended to supporting a retinue of his and his wife’s hard-up relations. Yet there is no evidence that Berenson “adjusted” attributions to order.6 On the contrary, he seems to have infuriated Duveen by refusing to do so, on one occasion sending the eloquently terse telegram: “NOT VERONESE. BERENSON.” The art historian and museum director John Pope-Hennessy judged Berenson’s opinions “the least likely to be wrong”, with most of his attributions having been vindicated. Ultimately, the relationship broke down because of Berenson’s refusal to give Duveen the attribution he wanted (Giorgione rather than Titian). Moreover, as John Updike noted, “Thanks to Duveen and their ilk, we have a national gallery and masterpieces for the masses.”7 (Already at Harvard, Berenson had expressed the desire for America to have “as many good pictures as possible”). Not only, Berenson’s villa and library, funded by Duveen’s largesse, were bequeathed to Harvard University and are still enjoyed by students of Italian Renaissance art.

Oddly enough, it was to the most prosaic of bodies, the US tax authorities, when questioned about his earnings, that Berenson evoked the intangible but potent secret of his success, for all the controversy: “I earn it by enjoying such authority and prestige that people will not buy expensive Italian pictures without my approval.” He was, at the same time, perfectly aware of his loss of reputation, writing in his autobiography: “My authority soon sank to something less distinguished, less respectable even. I soon discovered that I ranked with fortune-tellers, chiromancists, astrologers and not even with the self-deluded of these, but rather with the deliberate charlatans.” Berenson’s bitterness extended to his appraisal of the particular status of art history, or connoisseurship, as whole: “In any other field, an expert means a man who knows something about his subject … In any field except art.”8 Berenson was, in his words, “haunted by a sense of failure”, lamenting the fact that “as a contributor to thought I doubt whether my death soon after 50 would have made the slightest difference”.9

This self-deprecation might have been, at least in part, an affectation, while Clark candidly referred in his autobiography to an “almost insane self-confidence. My whole life might be described as a long, harmless confidence trick”, apropos of his shamelessly confident value judgments (“how important it is to introduce sense of value into this kind of quasi-historical writing”, he wrote to Berenson in 1949). In addition to the crucial differences in their backgrounds, Clark and Berenson would diverge in their art historical approaches, despite initial similarities. For both, a direct experience of the artwork was crucial. Berenson insisted that “the work of art is the event”, though his almost exclusive focus on the internal evidence of a picture’s style is perceptively characterised by editor Robert Cumming as a “tin tied to his tail for the rest of his life”. Clark, on the other hand, evolved from the strictures of connoisseurship based on Giovanni Morelli’s “ear and toenail school” in favour of a wider-reaching cultural history as exemplified by Aby Warburg. We learn incidentally from this correspondence that Clark’s attempts at London University to disseminate the work of the German art historians were “complete failures”, his audience “not understanding a word”, with Clark even being asked: “You do not really think [Alois] Riegl a serious writer, do you?”10

For his part, Berenson too was less than appreciative of the German school of art history, of which more below. But for all the aspersions cast against him, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin vehemently defended Berenson’s “extraordinary” intellect, his genius for conversation and ideas only equalled by “Pasternak, Keynes and Freud”. In response to the Marxist art historian Meyer Schapiro’s harsh, but not unnuanced, appraisal of Berenson, Berlin wrote, “Mr Schapiro conveys the impression of a personality so deeply flawed that whatever it might once have been, it had become hopelessly corrupted into triviality, snobbery, pretence – into a character clever, meretricious, venal and false. I can testify, without fear of contradiction, that when Berenson talked with sympathetic persons about ideas, books or people, the precise opposite was true.”11

This particular genius for conversation, impossible to record and therefore to appreciate, was also noted by Clark in his obituary of Berenson published in The Times, and reproduced in this book. There is a bite in this text, particular after the relative, if perhaps sometimes forced, warmth of the letters, with Clark adding the qualifier that Berenson could speak well only in the presence of a captive audience, any hint of criticism shrivelled him. Berenson was also said to prefer a female audience, women being more “receptive” and “appreciative”, and therefore possibly less discerning than men to his mind. Cumming conjures a less appealing image of Berenson’s conversational prowess: “At mealtimes he liked to deliver a monologue and make pronouncements.”

Both men highly valued the art of writing, Clark maintaining that “a well turned sentence gives me happiness.” Berenson claimed that only the production of “printable stuff” prevented him from feeling “morally hang-doggy and physically unclean,”12 and in a letter to Clark described his “Private, portable Hell, paved with intentions of writing that I let myself be distracted from”. It is said that Berenson’s written English had to be taken in hand by Mary and her uber-literary connections; his occasional Italian in the letters is also surprisingly unidiomatic, despite 64 years spent in Italy (“I cannot be considered a casual visitor”). While Clark claimed he “hated letter writing more than anything in the world”, there are flares of his descriptive verve and ability to render a specific visual experience, as in his elegant evocation of the Australian landscape, likened to a Piero della Francesca. Clark’s account of Australia greatly interested Berenson, who believed aboriginal art to be “uncontaminated” by external influences and thus purer than western art could be, much as he maintained for years that Chinese art was more inherently spiritual than any European art, with the possible exception of Sienese painting. Clark too was interested in intercultural correspondences of artworks, comparing in a letter to Berenson the Ajanta cave paintings in India with Sienese art.

A constant throughout the correspondence are Berenson’s pleas for photographs of paintings, demonstrating his known over-reliance on reproductions and complete neglect for restoration. These requests recur alongside his, and to a degree Clark’s, accounts of “conoscing”, Berenson’s term for seeking out, identifying, judging and enjoying art.As often in the medium of letter writing, it is the casually reported detail that has the power to surprise. We learn that after a series of Clark’s lectures at Oxford on David, Géricault, Ingres and Delacroix, his wife Jane reported in a letter to Berenson that – incredibly – “very few people in Oxford had heard of them”. Other off-the-cuff remarks are tantalisingly cryptic, such as Clark’s insistence that he would “refrain from saying anything about Toledo and El Greco”.

Occasionally, and despite his innate reserve, Clark inadvertently revealed more than usual. His parents emerge as controlling and possessive, making difficulties for him when he accepted Berenson’s first invitation to I Tatti. In a more comic vein, his organisation for this first trip was also marked by a pressing need to “find lodgings for my chauffeur”, tempered by an awareness of how “preposterous” it was that he should have a chauffeur at all at his age. Similarly, Jane was thought to need “a rest from servants”, while the tedium of childcare and a cold were soon relieved by the purchase of two Renoirs. Clark’s remoteness as a father is also sporadically implied, as when writing of taking his book to the publisher a quarter of an hour after “Jane’s son” was born.

One of the most frequent and, at first glance, tiresome threads of the correspondence is the subject of Jane Clark and Mary Berenson’s continuous illnesses. This running commentary gradually paints a picture of depressive hypochondria that seems to demand a study of its own. Perceptively, Berenson wrote to Jane that he was “delighted to read that you have forgotten to be ill”, while Clark suggestively defined his ever-ailing wife as “a tragic figure without in fact being associated with any tragedy”.

But overall, everything of interest here is couched between the lines and in Cumming’s background introductions and engagingly novelistic dramatis personae. The afterword too offers up some sharply formulated questions on the nature of friendship, the “manoeuvring, turning a blind eye” and, crucially, the importance of diplomatic self-censorship in a relationship that was perhaps partly sustained by reciprocal opportunism and competitiveness. Cumming also cites Updike’s observation that it is easier to love people in memory than when they are there in front of you, suggesting that in the case of Berenson perhaps the opposite was true. The footnotes too yield some of the unbridled feelings of the cast of characters. When Clark asked Berenson to receive Henry Moore, BB replied that, of course, Moore would be received “with open arms”. But Cumming alerts us to the true picture of Berenson’s feelings as confessed to his diary: “His own sculpture is so revoltingly remote from what I feel about art … Why does this so sensitive, so honest-minded man produce such horrors of distortion, misinformation, and abstraction? More incomprehensible still are his ardent admirers, Kenneth Clark for instance.”

To his credit, Berenson was unequivocally anti-Fascist from the outset, writing to Clark in 1939 of the “incubus of pro-Hitlerism in ever widening circles over the West”. When Clark accepted the invitation to join the selection committee for the 1930 exhibition of Italian art at the Royal Academy (Mussolini and Ramsay MacDonald were honorary presidents), Berenson’s disapproval in his letters to Clark was guarded and practical. Again, Cumming’s glosses provide other, more primal reactions to Clark’s appointment: the Keeper of the Ashmolean, Charles Bell, was said to have found Clark’s “pimping for the exhibition” contemptible, and refused to loan anything.

But tangled up with Berenson’s nobler sentiments are his occasional antisemitic barbs. These are often, and sometimes confusingly, bound up with his vitriol against Germans and particularly German art historians, whose penchant for contextual evidence he deplored – and perhaps feared given its ascendancy. Berenson warned Clark against the perils of this new school, whose proponents were “phonies” and whose approach was apt to yield “the usual boring rubbishy meta-fissical results”. More alarmingly, the art historians Karl Frey and Erwin Panofsky were likened to Goering and Goebbels respectively, despite Panofsky fully recognising the role of connoisseurs – or “laconic art historians”, as he called them.

Berenson’s most recent biographer, Rachel Cohen, attributes his convoluted relationship with Jewishness to the Boston of his boyhood, said to be the “pinnacle” of American antisemitism, a situation that probably motivated his conversion to Christianity. Moreover, Jews of Lithuanian and Latvian origin were looked down on by an earlier generation of German-Jewish immigrants, and their contempt drove Berenson to “avenge himself by rising above them and compelling their admiration”.13

On his side, Clark retained a note of subservience throughout the correspondence, turning to Berenson for advice on each prodigious appointment of his spectacular career path, although one senses this became more of a formality, the passing of time gradually shifting the balance of power. In a general climate of mutual, slightly overwrought, flattery, Berenson occasionally pulled rank, or expressed disapproval of Clark’s penchant for the Bond Street milieu, deemed inimical to intellectual work, “as distinct from petty antiquarianism”. He also objected to some of Clark’s friends, such as Somerset Maugham and the collector Calouste Gulbenkian, though he would go on to declare in a letter to Clark that he regarded him “in every way as at least my equal”.

But once again Cumming points to a much more conflicted relationship between the two men, a story not easily discernible in the letters alone. In his diary, Sunset and Twilight, we witness a Berenson who is refreshingly free of his occasional affectations and florid mannerisms, a Berenson who sometimes knew how to tell it like it is. He argued that because Clark had inherited money, he could not be considered a true success story, unlike Berenson who had risen to the top from nothing. Having inherited a fortune, Clark, wrote Berenson, was free to add to it by buying and selling works of art while, “If I sold any picture I should at once be put down as a ‘dealer’, because I started poor.”14 Everything, it seemed, was about money.

Clark was alerted to this entry by a friend, who told him: “How Mr Berenson disliked you!” Generously, or perhaps duplicitously, he replied that this was proof of “how sweet he was that he never let me feel it in my company”. Clark, we learn from Cumming, had himself taken an instant dislike to Berenson on their first meeting. Further currents of antipathy radiated from Mary Berenson, who wrote that Clark had an “ungenerous and self-centred nature”, and that she expected the ending of the Florentine Drawing collaboration to trigger a “deplorable quarrel”.

In his two-facedness Berenson was perhaps what he told Stewart Gardner he might most successfully be: “A man of the world. But you see that is not a profession anywhere – least of all in America.” But in other ways Berenson was not of the world at all, cosseted in his otherworldly, would-be Renaissance court where he would never be an outsider, while Clark dealt with the mess of the world. Clark judged that Berenson’s isolation had saved him from the activities “in which many public figures waste their time”, presumably an indictment of his own relentless public life – and the more public the better. Running the National Gallery, wrote Clark to Berenson, “was like being the manager of a large department store”, but at the same time there was “something intoxicating about administration”. With his occasional self-awareness, Clark wrote to Berenson that his greater success in broadcasting, years even before Civilisation, was probably the result of “some inherited commercial instinct & a slight trace of vulgarity”.

Berenson and Clark’s correspondence suggests two absorbing personalities who wrote sometimes monotonous letters for interesting reasons. While their motivations and anxieties are never directly addressed, we are closer to an insight of what these might have been with this excellent edition that serves as a reminder that their legacy somehow endures. Beyond their personal obsessions, talents, ambitions and foibles, both men were intent on defining what the role of art and culture should, or could, be. In this respect, one of Clark’s conclusions was distinctly bleak: in 1950, he wrote to Berenson: “Culture is a sinking ship in which everyone is trying to get a seat in the last boat; and quite prepared to stab their neighbour in the back in order to get there.”


1. Cited in Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade by Rachel Cohen, Yale University Press, 2013, page 245.
2. Ibid, page 244. In SN Behrman’s peerless portrait of Duveen, he wrote that many of the reflections on art in Proust’s great book had “passed through the fine filter of Berenson’s scholarly mind”. Cited in Duveen: The Story of the Most Spectacular Art Dealer of All Time by SN Behrman, Daunt Books, 2014, page 122.
3. Cited in Bernard Berenson, the Making of a Legend, by Ernest Samuels, Jayne Samuels, Harvard University Press, 1987, page 518
4. Cited in Letters from Oxford, Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006, page xxviii.
5. Ibid, page xxv.
6. In addition to Cohen’s biography, other studies include Ernest Samuels’ meticulously researched biographies Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur, 1979 and Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Legend, 1987, as well as Colin Simpson’s character assassination Artful Partners: Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen, 1987.
7. How to milk a millionaire by John Updike, The New York Times, 29 March 1987.
8. Cited in Behrman, page 149.
9. Rumor and Reflection by Bernard Berenson, Simon & Schuster, 1952, page 245.
10. On Clark’s relationship with the work of German art historians, see Breaking the shell of the humanist egg: Kenneth Clark’s University of London lectures on German Art Historians by Matthew C Potter, Journal of Art Historiography, Volume 11, December 2014.
11. Isaiah Berlin and Meyer Schapiro: An Exchange, The Brooklyn Rail, 2004. Schapiro responded that his appraisal of Berenson had been misinterpreted by Berlin and was far less vituperative than the latter claimed (and, indeed, Schapiro granted that Berenson possessed “innate ability”, “intense feeling”, “exceptional knowledge of Italian painting”, and a “wonderful eye”).
12. Cited in Behrman, page 126.
13. Cited in Cohen, page 30. Meyer Schapiro also examined Berenson’s relationship with his Jewishness in his essay Berenson’s values, Encounter, 1961.
14. On meeting the noted art dealer Rudolf J Heinemann, BB is said to have asked: “And what do you do, Dr Heinemann?” RJH: “I'm an art dealer, Mr Berenson. Just like yourself.” Cited in Indi(c)ting Bernard Berenson by Michael M Thomas, The New Criterion, March 1987.

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