By Alessandra Squizzato, Researcher, Museologia e Critica artistica e del restauro, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan
A thin, red thread connects the life and passions of two of the most eccentric U.S. collectors of the modern era, Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924) and Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979). Both women were determined to make art the cornerstone of their lives, were in love with Venice, and followed the teachings of famous art historian, Bernard Berenson (1865–1959). In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he was an authority in the field of art history and developed his own unique method of connoisseurship. The Renaissance treasures he discovered and brought back from his countless trips to Italy adorned Gardner’s Boston residence, Fenway Court. Guggenheim accepted a friend’s challenge to understand Berenson’s criticism and became a persistent reader.
I immediately bought and digested seven volumes of that great critic. After that I was forever going around looking for Berenson’s seven points. If I could find a painting with tactile value I was thrilled.
Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century (London: Andre Deutsch, 1979), p. 25.
The name Berenson immediately conjures a prodigious skillset and an almost legendary approach to the science of art that made him the unchallenged champion of European connoisseurship until the first quarter of the twentieth century. These qualities, combined with aesthetic digressions, and the decadent and refined elements that characterized his writing and were intrinsic to his personality, had a magnetic effect on his admirers and enthusiasts from the time he had been a student in Boston and Harvard. Among these admirers, Edward Perry Warren, Jack Gardner and his wife Isabella stand out.
Moreover, Berenson was quite aware of his extraordinary talent and of having positioned himself at the heart of a new profession. This is revealed, among other things, in a passage in his Sketch for a Self-Portrait (1949), where Berenson claims that, “Nobody before us has dedicated his entire activity, his entire life, to connoisseurship. Others have taken to it as a relief from politics, as in the case of Morelli and Minghetti, others still because they were museum officials, still others because they were teaching art history. We are the first to have no idea before us, no ambition, no expectation, no thought of reward. We shall give ourselves up to learning, to distinguish between the authentic works of an Italian painter of the fifteenth or sixteenth century, and those commonly ascribed to him. […] we must not stop till we are sure that every Lotto is a Lotto, every Cariani a Cariani, every Previtali a Previtali, every Santa Croce a Santa Croce.” (Berenson, Sketch for a Self-Portrait, [New York: Pantheon Publishers, 1949], p. 61.)
In addition to early Italian painters, the Italian Renaissance was the real object of Berenson’s interests and widespread research. His first published work was The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance with an Index to their Works, printed in London and New York in 1894. An innovative monograph on Lorenzo Lotto soon followed, as did Florentine Painters of the Renaissance (1896), The Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1897), and The North Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1907). These volumes were published in small format and initially comprised only an essay and a list of works. The worldwide success of these books, due in part to being a handy vade mecums for travelers, was the value that Berenson placed on attributing works of art. He communicated their enjoyment and the ability he believed they possessed—almost as if they were living organisms—to transmit vitality and aesthetic pleasure to the viewer. He thus described his theory of tactile values, which had a profound influence on Guggenheim. “Painting is an art which aims at giving an abiding impression of artistic reality with only two dimensions. The painter must, therefore, do consciously what we all do unconsciously – construct his third dimension. And he can accomplish his task only as we accomplish ours, by giving tactile values to retinal impressions.” (Berenson, The Italian Painters of the Renaissance, [New York: Phaidon Publishers, 1953], p. 40). Berenson’s later interest in the psychological aspect of artistic creation, his faith in the empathic exchange between the object and the sensations experienced by the viewer, likely arose from a meeting with the philosopher William James. However, this was never separate from the knowing gaze of the connoisseur, whose expert eye must know above all else how to distinguish elements of the work in order to ascertain its author.
Despite remaining distant in their respective preferences, Guggenheim treasured many of Berenson’s teachings, as she recalled in her memoirs. When Berenson visited the first post-war Venice Biennale in 1948, where Guggenheim exhibited her private, avant-garde collection with an installation designed by Carlo Scarpa, he expressed his utter disagreement for an art that was too far from his standards.