Berenson’s love of Venetian art came at a price

American art historian Bernard Berenson is now known as much for his distaste for modern art as for his love of Renaissance – and particularly Venetian – painting. For him, Venetian painting was the very pinnacle of art or, as he put it in The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance, “the most complete expression in art of the Italian Renaissance …[encompassing] intellectual curiosity, energy [and] grasping at the whole of life”. In Berenson’s estimation, the Venetian school’s greatness, founded on its master colourists, proved its worth by outlasting the Florentine school, based on the mastery of drawing, and by influencing the subsequent painting schools of Flanders or Spain.

As art historian, Berenson developed his own unique method of connoisseurship by combining comparative examination techniques with the aesthetic idea that elements of artists’ personalities could be detected in their works of art. The latter may sound like plain gut feeling but Berenson was convinced that his art scholarship was grounded in science well enough to enable him to study, deconstruct and, most importantly, authenticate Old Masters paintings. His technique eventually gained so much traction both in the academia and the art market that his verdict of authorship could either increase or decrease a painting’s value significantly.

Berenson became a major figure in the attribution of Old Masters at the turn of the century, at a time when these paintings were attracting new interest among American industrialists and financiers turned art collectors. His cultural influence was enormous and the high sales commissions, reportedly ranging from 5% to 25%, made him a very wealthy man. Berenson’s financial interest in the works of art he was authenticating for sale created an obvious conflict of interest which has been known, at the time and ever since, to throw into doubt many of his attributions of authorship. Some of these have since been authoritatively revised and downgraded.

The most notorious of such cases is the authorship dispute surrounding a Venetian masterpiece The Adoration of the Shepherds, also known as the Allendale Nativity. The picture, which now hangs at the National Gallery in Washington, was being sold by Joseph Duveen, arguably the most prominent art dealer of his time, as a Giorgione even though Berenson, who had been Duveen’s close collaborator, fervently believed the painting to be an early Titian. The attribution of this painting, which is now widely, although not universally, considered to be by Giorgione, eventually ended one of the most influential – and profitable – partnerships in art history.

It would be easy to dismiss Berenson as merely an enterprising character whose seal of approval was readily exchanged for cash from art collectors. A passionate art historian who spent most of his life in Italy scrutinising Renaissance art at the source, he was a pioneer in art attribution and his opinion was often critical in establishing whether a painting was created by one of the Old Masters or by one of their pupils or merely by an obscure contemporary imitating the style. In the final analysis, Berenson’s work helped to popularise Renaissance – and specifically Venetian – painting not only among wealthy collectors but in the English-speaking world at large.