From time to time, my art obsession moves front and center, pretty much displacing everything else…

February 27, 2014 at 1:40 pm (Art, Italy)

…and then I am happy.

This  time, the “art attack” began with this painting:


…and an accompanying article that appeared earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal.

Learning that in 1618, Van Dyck served as chief assistant to Peter Paul Rubens, I looked up the latter in Wikipedia and found this:


It does seem as though through these portraits, the painters are depicting their very souls. It’s something about that sidelong glance…

51lscyRdx6L  I have recently finished Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade by Rachel Cohen. Berenson was a remarkable man. Born Bernhard Valvrojenski in a village in Lithuania, he emigrated with his family to the United States in 1875. Bernhard was ten years old at the time. The family settled in the Boston area.

After graduating from the Boston Latin School, Berenson matriculated at Boston University. After his freshman hear, he transferred to Harvard. His exceptional abilities were recognized early on, and several wealthy patrons and relatives facilitated his trips to Europe, where he discovered his true vocation.

The story of Bernard Berenson’s journey from a shtetl in Lithuania to the rarefied heights of the fine art world makes for fascinating reading. He became the one of the supreme art historians and attribution experts of turn of the century American and Europe. Along the way he seems to have befriended everybody who was anybody. At Harvard, he was taught by William James; he in turn was the teacher of J. Carter Brown. He was close friends with Edith Wharton; they motored through Europe at regular intervals.

Isabella Stewart Gardner by John Singer Sargent, 1888

Isabella Stewart Gardner by John Singer Sargent, 1888

Perhaps most famously, Berenson was instrumental in securing paintings for Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose fabulous collection was ultimately gifted to the city of Boston and to the world beyond.The first old master purchased by Mrs Gardner was The Concert by Jan Vermeer. Acquired in 1892, this was Boston’s first Vermeer and America’s second:


In 1894, Berenson secured for Mrs Gardner a painting by Sandro Botticelli entitled The Tragedy of Lucretia. It was the first work by that artist to become part of an American collection:

Suicide_lucretiaRachel Cohen says of this painting that it is “rigorous and austere.” She adds:

It shows, simultaneously, three scenes from the story of the virtuous Roman maiden, who is raped and then commits suicide by dagger. Each scene is framed by carefully divided architecture,  which gives the viewer something of the feeling of watching a play on a stage.

In 1896, Gardner, Berenson, and Otto Gutekunst, another expert collector,  scored their greatest coup by acquiring The Rape of Europa by Titian (Tiziano Vecelli or Vecellio).  According to Rachel Cohen, this work is “…still considered by many to be the greatest Italian picture in America:”


The Vermeer, alas, can no longer be seen at the Gardner Museum. Along with twelve other works of art, it was taken as part of the famous heist of March 18, 1990. The FBI has a page devoted to the theft, and a Time Magazine article features excellent pictures of the stolen paintings. (As it happened, Ron and I were in the Boston area that summer on a long planned trip. We visited the Gardner for the first time, and  I still remember how, right as we entered, there were tables with the names and photos of the missing works, accompanied by a poignant plea for any helpful information that members of the museum-going public might possess.)

Berenson’s expertise in attribution was highly sought after. In one particularly acrimonious case, he found himself at odds with influential dealer Joseph Duveen and other art historians over whether a painting had been done by Giorgione (Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco) or by Titian. The work in question is The Adoration of  the Shepherds, also sometimes called The Allendale Nativity after the previous owner who resided in North Yorkshire. The painting is now generally accepted as the work of Giorgione – generally, but not universally. (See the Wikipedia entry.) A thoughtful and erudite essay on this controversy can be found on the blog Three Pipe Problem.

Here is the painting:

Giorgione_014I kept enlarging this image until I suddenly found myself focused on the tear in the standing shepherd’s garment, just above the elbow. At that moment, my heart contracted and tears filled my eyes. Not a wealthy man, not a potentate from a great kingdom – just a man in search of pure goodness – and as entitled to partake of it as anyone else. What a moment!

It does seem to me a painting of almost otherworldly beauty.

Giorgione blazed like a comet  across the firmament of the Italian Renaissance, his light all too soon extinguished. He died in 1510 when he was only just past the age of thirty, probably yet another victim of the ravages of the Plague. His influence reached for beyond his years.

From Rachel Cohen:

In Berenson’s life, the reconciliation of pricelessness and price was a continual struggle, but it allowed him to see nuances of the art he studied and the commerce he served that modern authentication procedures pass by. His own understanding of Giorgione had shades no X-ray could render. When Berenson had written his first book on the Venetian painters, sixty-three years earlier, glorying and delighting in Boston’s favorite painter and his own happy powers of perception, he had said of Giorgione that “his pictures are the perfect reflex of the Renaissance at its height” and that what was most characteristic in his work was “the lovely landscape…the effects of light and colour, and…the sweetness of human relations.”

Berenson on Raphael’s Lo Sposalizio (Marriage of the Virgin):

…you feel a poignant thrill of transfiguring sensation, as if, on a morning early, the air cool and dustless, you suddenly found yourself in presence of a fairer world, where lovely people were taking part in a gracious ceremony, while beyond them stretched harmonious distances line on line to the horizon’s edge.

Lo Sposalizio by Raphael, 1504

Lo Sposalizio by Raphael, 1504


  1. kdwisni said,

    Fortuitous, because I just finished Goldfinch by Donna Tart. While I have mixed feelings about this long “Dickensian” novel, it is a very powerful description of how a young boy falls in love with (and rescues/steals) a masterpiece. His obsession with protecting it shapes and distorts his entire life. The last chapter has some brilliant reflections on the effect of a particular painting on a particular individual:

    “’ll never strike anybody the same way and the great majority of people it’ll never strike in any deep way at all but–a really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular. Yours, yours. I was painted for you.”

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Kay, thanks. I’m intrigued by Goldfinch but haven’t gotten to it yet. I appreciate your comments, as always.

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