- Bernard Berenson’s Silent Conversations
How very different were J. Alfred Prufrock and Bernard Berenson! Where the former impotently watched the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo, the latter drew them like bees to pollen, held them rapt with dazzling discourses on not just Michelangelo but a thousand lesser-known painters, and sometimes even persuaded them to buy whatever masterwork he happened to be lauding, with a nice little commission for himself. No “one-night cheap hotels” or “sawdust restaurants” for Berenson—he slept on and dined off the best Continental linens, whether at a St. Moritz hotel, Edith Wharton’s country house, or his own Florentine villa. Far from being prey to “a hundred indecisions,” he was vehemently decisive, and far from being fixed “in a formulated phrase…pinned and wriggling on the wall,” it was he who did the fixing, whether skewering his enemies with epigrams or nailing down the attribution of a painting with a few choice and seemingly inarguable phrases. Whereas Prufrock was tormented by the mermaids’ singing and a vision of them “riding seaward on the waves,” whenever Berenson looked at Botticelli’s Venus surfing on her scallop shell—even as a teenager he spent entire afternoons gazing at a copy of the painting in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts—he was filled with an almost orgasmic ecstasy. He measured out his life not with coffee spoons but espresso cups and dared to eat the juiciest peaches.
This comparison between a real-life art historian and T. S. Eliot’s invented wallflower is of course perfectly absurd, and I’m ill equipped to defend it. (The fact that both Berenson and Eliot, after graduating from Harvard, moved permanently to Europe and became preeminent [End Page 302] in their fields hardly seems relevant.) But after reading Rachel Cohen’s wonderfully nuanced and suggestive study of Berenson, I found Prufrock popping into my head with surprising insistence. At first he merely seemed Berenson’s opposite, a figure thwarted in all the ways that Berenson was fulfilled. Yet the longer I sat with “Love Song”—which, incidentally, strikes me with renewed force each time I read it: the poem’s languorously coiling music and crushingly sad frivolity are unique—the more I began to notice similarities. For Berenson, despite his success, was gnawed by Prufrockian doubt and self-recrimination. Like poor J. Alfred, he was disgusted by “all the butt-ends of my days and ways” and oppressed by the sense of an “overwhelming question” that he could never quite answer.
Again, it was Cohen’s short biography that sent me off on these dubious musings. While the book itself isn’t the least bit loopy or self-indulgent, it has the effect of putting Berenson before us as a person of exceptional complexity, split down the middle by contradictions that made him hell on himself and those around him—he could be a true monster of peevishness—yet fascinating to contemplate from a safe distance. Admittedly, the few other books I’ve read on Berenson have had some of the same effect. But Cohen’s, by concentrating on his essential character rather than the hectic surface of his life, manages to bring him into an especially tight and revealing focus. It makes a perfect adjunct to Ernest Samuels’s justly celebrated two-volume biography, with its hundreds of names and minute unraveling of Berenson’s countless dealings, intrigues, quarrels, and amours.
Samuels’s double-barrel treatment was warranted not only by the scale of Berenson’s interactions but by his longevity and multiple phases, and at this point a quick review of his ninety-four years seems in order. Born Bernhard Valvrojenski in Lithuania in 1865, he immigrated ten years later to Boston, where his father scraped by as a tin peddler. After Harvard, he was sent to Europe on a traveling fellowship by a group of philanthropic Bostonians impressed by his genius. In an astonishingly short time he made himself an expert in Italian [End Page 303 ] Renaissance art, writing five books on it by 1907 and serving as a scout, adviser, and buyer to, among others, Isabella Stewart Gardner, who...