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Bernard Berenson Biography

(1865–1959), The Venetian Painters, The Florentine Painters, The Central Italian Painters, The North Italian Painters

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais Biography to Michel Bibaud Biography

American art historian, born near Vilnius in Lithuania; from 1875 onward he grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, and was educated at Harvard. As a student he was influenced in the eventual formulation of his theories concerning the tactile and spatial values of art by William James's emphasis on the primarily subjective nature of aesthetic experience. In 1887 he left America, travelling widely in Europe before settling near Florence in 1900 at I Tatti, the villa he later bequeathed to Harvard. Throughout the 1890s he acquireed an unrivalled knowledge of Italian painting; his four monographs on Renaissance art, The Venetian Painters (1894), The Florentine Painters (1896), The Central Italian Painters (1897), and The North Italian Painters (1907), collected as Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1930), were held in such regard that they were referred to as ‘the Four Gospels’. He became very wealthy by availing art dealers of his skill in the attribution of paintings, and from 1906 to 1939 was in close association with Lord Duveen, the leading international dealer of the day. His other studies of Italian painting include Venetian Paintings in America (1916) and Sienese Paintings (1918); Italian Pictures of the Renaissance (1932) lists the locations of paintings by the principal artists. Latterly, he wrote numerous works of a more general nature, among which are Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts (1948), the clearest statement of his belief in the ‘life enhancement’ afforded by art, and Seeing and Knowing (1954). His tastes in painting did not extend to twentieth-century art, much of which he despised, although he greatly admired Cezanne. Sketch for a Self-Portrait (1949), Rumor and Reflection (1952), his wartime journal, and Passionate Sightseer (1960) are autobiographical works rich in critical and philosophical commentary; Sunset and Twilight (edited by N. Mariano, 1963) contains selections from his diaries from 1947 to 1958. Meryle Secrest's Being Bernard Berenson (1979) is the fullest of several biographies.

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