Bernard Berenson Biography

Bernard Berenson, an American art historian, was a renowned expert on Italian Renaissance paintings and drawings. His expertise and knowledge in the field led him to serve as a consultant to major American museums and collectors in the early 20th century. Berenson played a significant role in establishing the market for paintings by the “Old Masters” and became an influential scholar of Renaissance art. With a strong educational background in literature, languages, and the history of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, Berenson initially pursued a career in literary criticism and history. However, his passion for the visual arts eventually led him to shift his focus. By combining his interests in literature and the arts, he published numerous scholarly articles that solidified his reputation as a man of great knowledge. His expertise in Italian art made him highly sought after, and he frequently served as a consultant to many prominent art collectors. Berenson’s influence was so profound that his authentication of a painting could significantly increase its value. Undoubtedly, he was the most influential art historian in the United States for the majority of the 20th century, despite some controversy surrounding his techniques among his contemporaries.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Bernhard Valvrojenski
  • Died At Age: 94
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Mary Smith
    • Father: Albert Valvrojenski
    • Mother: Julia Mickleshanski
  • Quotes By Bernard Berenson
  • Historians
  • Died on: October 6, 1959

Childhood & Early Life

Bernard Berenson was born as Bernhard Valvrojenski on 26 June 1865, in Butrimonys, Southern Lithuania. His parents, Albert Valvrojenski and Julia Mickleshanski, were poor but well-read lumber merchants. As the eldest son in the family, his parents had high hopes for him. In 1875, his family immigrated to Boston from Lithuania and changed their family name to “Berenson.” Bernard was born into a Jewish family but later converted to Christianity. He attended Harvard University, where he studied under Charles Eliot Norton and earned his B.A. in 1887. During his time at Harvard, he tutored some of his classmates, including George Santayana.

After completing his studies at Harvard, Berenson moved to Oxford, England, where he became acquainted with art collector Edward Perry “Ned” Warren. He also met Renaissance scholar Herbert Horne, who had a significant influence on the young Bernard. In 1889, Berenson met the famous connoisseur Giovanni Cavalcasselle, which led him to start publishing various studies on art. He was deeply influenced by the works of Italian art historian Giovanni Morelli, and this influence was reflected in his writings.


In addition to his studies and writings on art, Berenson began dealing in art around 1890. He scouted pictures for his art historian friend Jean Paul Richter, collector Edward Perry “Ned” Warren, and the London dealer Otto Gutekunst. In 1892, he acquired his first work as a dealer and helped the British collector James Burke obtain some Impressionist works and a painting by Piero di Cosimo.

Berenson’s book on Renaissance art titled “The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance with an Index to their Works” was published in 1894. His systematic approach and extensive knowledge of art were well appreciated. In 1895, he published “Lorenzo Lotto, an Essay on Constructive Art Criticism,” which received praise from art critics, especially Heinrich Wolfflin. The following year, he released “The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance,” which was also lauded for its innovative interpretation of art. In 1897, he published “The Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance.”

During the late 1890s, Berenson began working on his masterpiece, “The Drawings of the Florentine Painters,” which was published in 1903 after six years of research and hard work. In 1907, he published “The North Italian Painters of the Renaissance,” in which he expressed his distaste for Modern Art and sparked controversy with his judgment of Mannerist Art. Throughout his writing career, he also published two volumes of journals, “Rumor and Reflection” and “Sunset and Twilight,” as well as other books including “Aesthetics and History” and “Sketch for a Self-portrait.” Berenson’s knowledge of Renaissance art made him highly respected and sought after as a consultant to major art collectors, earning him considerable wealth.

Personal Life & Legacy

In 1888, Berenson met Mary Smith, an art historian, during his trip to England. Despite her being married to British politician Frank Costelloe, they fell in love with each other. Mary eventually left her husband and two small children to be with Berenson. After her first husband’s death in 1900, Berenson married Mary. However, after a few years, Mary fell in love with another man, leading Berenson to have affairs with other women, including Belle da Costa Greene, Baroness Gabrielle La Caze, and Elisabetta “Nicky” Mariano.

Bernard Berenson passed away on 6 October 1959, at the age of 94, after living a long and productive life.

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