Saturday, July 10, 2010

Henry Walters and Bernard Berenson: Collector and Connoisseur

Henry Walters and Bernard Berenson: Collector and Connoisseur, by Stanley Mazaroff

What are you going to do when you retire?  When Mazaroff retired from the practice of law, he went to Johns Hopkins to study art history, wrote and article about Henry Walters' acquisition of the Massarenti Collection of Renaissance art, which became the foundation of Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, and conducted research at I Tatti, Berenson's villa in the Tuscan hills, reading a "treasure trove" of documents illuminating the relationship between Walters and Berenson.  Then he wrote this book.  So much better than golf!

Henry Walters was the son of William T. Walters, banker and railway magnate, and inherited from him, in addition to wealth and business acumen, a passion for collecting art in the service of the public.  Whereas the elder Walters concentrated on contemporary American and European art, his son, like many other Gilded Age millionaires, was particularly drawn to art of the Italian Renaissance.

And you couldn't be a collector of Italian Renaissance art at that time without crossing paths with Bernard Berenson.  Berenson was a most intriguing character, a self-made connoisseur and art expert, whose opinion was pretty much the final word on a work of art. If he said your painting was by Titian, it was, and if he said it wasn't, well,you sheepishly put it away.  If in Casablanca everyone went to Rick's, in the world of late 19th and early 20th-century art collecting, everybody went to I Tatti.

When Walters bought, basically sight unseen, the collection of Don Marcello Massarenti, he knew that the attributions were likely not all accurate.  He was buying the whole to get some of its parts, and he hired Berenson to vet the collection, write a catalog, and help him acquire additional works.

The relationship between the two was fraught.  Walters was oddly uninterested in seeing his own collection, much of it remaining in its shipping crates for months.  Berenson had lots of other fish to fry in addition to his work for Walters,   When financial constraints began to limit Walters' buying, Berenson did something which damaged the relationship beyond repair.

Dealer Joseph Duveen was known in the art world to be unscrupulous.  Walters disliked him, as did Berenson.  Nevertheless, driven by the need and desire to be on a firm financial footing, in 1912 Berenson entered into an agreement with him, under which Duveen had the right of first refusal of any "first class Italian paintings" Berenson found, and Berenson would provide him with an appraisal and certificates of authenticity.  This, in and of itself, is not so bad.  But the agreement further provided that Berenson would get a 25% commission on any sales Duveen made of the paintings that Berenson found for him, and, on top of this, Berenson's identity was concealed under the use of a fictitious name.  The conflict of interest is obvious.

We know now that Berenson's attributions, of Walters' acquisitions as well as those of other clients, were not always accurate.  Many people have assumed that seemingly inflated attributions of Berenson's were due to venality, but Mazaroff makes the case that they were simply due to the manner in which attributions were made. Artists of the Italian Renaissance did not always sign their names.  Contemporary copies, by the artists themselves, their assistants, and others, were common.  What is known about an artist changes and affects attributions.  Today, cconservators and appraisers have an arsenal of technical tools to assist them, chemical analysis of paints, X-rays to find underpaintings, etc.  Berenson had his experience and his eye.  It is noteworthy that his attributions wer not challenged at the time, despite the competition amongst collectors and dealers.  And Mazaroff points out that the extent of Berenson's misattributions did not differ from that of other experts. 

Altogether, this is an instructive book about art collecting and connoisseurship in the Gilded Age, and a fasinating account of the relationship between two men, each powerful in his own field.

Further suggested reading:
Being Bernard Berenson, by Meryl Secrest
An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Green's Journey from Prejudice to Privilege, by Heidi Ardizzone

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