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October 22, 2013
288 P., 5.5" x 8.25"

Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade

by Rachel Cohen

When Gilded Age millionaires wanted to buy Italian Renaissance paintings, the expert whose opinion they sought was Bernard Berenson, with his vast erudition, incredible eye, and uncanny skill at attributing paintings. They visited Berenson at his beautiful Villa I Tatti, in the hills outside Florence, and walked with him through the immense private library—which he would eventually bequeath to Harvard—without ever suspecting that he had grown up in a poor Lithuanian Jewish immigrant family that had struggled to survive in Boston on the wages of the father’s work as a tin peddler. Berenson’s extraordinary self-transformation, financed by the explosion of the Gilded Age art market and his secret partnership with the great art dealer Joseph Duveen, came with painful costs: he hid his origins and felt that he had betrayed his gifts as an interpreter of paintings. Nevertheless his way of seeing, presented in his books, codified in his attributions, and institutionalized in the many important American collections he helped to build, goes on shaping the American understanding of art today.

This finely drawn portrait of Berenson, the first biography devoted to him in a quarter century, draws on new archival materials that bring out the significance of his secret business dealings and the way his family and companions—including his patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, his lover Belle da Costa Greene, and his dear friend Edith Wharton—helped to form his ideas and his legacy. Rachel Cohen explores Berenson’s inner world and exceptional visual capacity while also illuminating the historical forces—new capital, the developing art market, persistent anti-Semitism, and the two world wars—that profoundly affected his life.

Rachel Cohen's biography of Berenson was recognized as Highly Recommended for 2014 by the Boston Authors Club.

Feature Review: 

“Written with intelligence and understanding and often with impressive psychological insight…A thoughtful, short biography.”—Walter Kaiser, New York Review of Books

"Cohen draws a psychological portrait of a man guided by passionate aesthetic ideals and tortured by the compromises in the world of commerce that he felt compelled to make.... If you live in an American city, there's a good chance that you can go to a museum today and see an exquisite Sienese Madonna, or a Venetian Holy Family, or a Florentine portrait. You have Berenson—and his collector-acolytes—to thank." --Hugh Eakin, Wall Street Journal

“Written with intelligence and understanding and often with impressive psychological insight…A thoughtful, short biography.”—Walter Kaiser, New York Review of Books

"Berenson's extraordinary and colorful life—from his humble birth in Lithuania, to Harvard and thence to his august and influential position as a critic and art historian, to the renowned splendor of his Florentine villa I Tatti—makes a rich and compelling subject. Ms. Cohen's remarkable book affords the occasion also for rumination upon self-invention and authenticity, upon the making of the man, and of taste, too."--Claire Messud, Wall Street Journal

"An irresistibly readable and accessible account of this complicated character, who could be by turns brilliant and petty, generous toward others and scornful of himself, an inveterate philanderer and a staunch husband."--Ann Landl, ARTnews

"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."--Thomas Micchelli, Bookforum

Cohen deftly channels the sweeping intensity of Berenson’s aesthetic ecstasy, hard-won expertise, surprising adventures, and vital legacy as a guide to appreciating art via “exhilarated looking.”
— Donna Seaman, Booklist See Full Review in Press Room

“A highly sympathetic and graceful portrait of Bernard Berenson, the art connoisseur and dealer who remade himself into a work of art, priced and priceless, which he protected, cultivated, and even at times bartered: Rachel Cohen’s Bernard Berenson is an illuminating tale of this self-transformation, its successes and pitfalls, told with stalwart compassion.”—Brenda Wineapple

“An insightful, richly detailed account of Bernard Berenson’s brilliant transformation from an immigrant Jew and son of a tin peddler into a connoisseur of Italian Renaissance painting and a dealer in secret partnership with Joseph Duveen. With the keen gaze that Berenson brought to a picture, Rachel Cohen analyzes his high-wire act of self-invention against the glittering, aristocratic, anti-Semitic world of art collecting.”—Cynthia Saltzman

Rachel Cohen

Peter Serling, 2013

Rachel Cohen is the author of A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, winner of the PEN/Jerard Fund Award. Her essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Believer, Best American Essays, and many other publications. She teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Cambridge, MA..

Tuesday October 1, 2013 7pm
Apex Art Gallery
Double Take Reading Series with Vijay Seshadri
291 Church St New York, NY 10013
for details go to http://rachelecohen.com/index.php?page=calendar&view=event&display=25

Thursday October 24, 2013 7pm
McNally Jackson Books
BFF Reading with Jessica Francis Kane
52 Prince Street New York, NY 10012
For details, go to http://rachelecohen.com/index.php?page=calendar&view=event&display=15

RACHEL COHEN keeps a notebook on looking at paintings at http://rachelecohen.com