‘Berenson has more ambition than ability,’ Charles Eliot Norton told a Harvard colleague. The verdict haunted Bernard Berenson, who admitted, ‘Norton never changed his mind.’ Indeed Berenson poured petrol on his own pyre: ‘I never regarded myself as anything other than a failure.’ Born in 1865 and brought up among intellectual giants – George Santayana, William James and later his brother-in-law Bertrand Russell – Berenson always set himself impossible standards. What exactly were these exalted ambitions that caused the most celebrated connoisseur in the world, living in fabled splendour and surrounded by adoring women, to consider his life a failure? They were never strictly defined. Was he a modern-day Goethe without the science? Ruskin without the social conscience? Pater without the need of a university salary? Rachel Cohen has written an admirable short life trying to answer some of these questions.
The only misleading part of her book is the subtitle, ‘A Life in the Picture Trade’, which suggests another examination into whether Berenson inflated attributions for gain. As he himself noted towards the end of his life, ‘I have become a myth, or rather two myths, a kindly flattering one