Connoisseurship as ‘the art-element in art’: three unknown articles by Mary Berenson in the Burlington Magazine (1903)

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Numerous articles in the early years of the Burlington were unsigned or merely initialled. For example in the first March 1903 issue of the Burlington five articles out of fifteen were anonymous. Authors were not explicitly mentioned in the case of ‘in-house’ pieces, either written by the Editors themselves or intialled by members of the consultative committee. In other instances, however, the use of initials or a pseudonym, such as ‘A Modern Painter’, concealed authors who consciously adopted anonymity as they did not wish to be identified – sometimes because they dealt with controversial matters, such as questioning the art market, or perhaps criticising the work of living artists. One of the aims of the Burlington Index is to identify when possible the authors concealed behind initials or pseudonyms. This task has not been easy: the Burlington has not kept any archival records for the first decades of its existence, so many of these identifications are conjectural and/or based on lateral evidence.

Nevertheless, some interesting discoveries have been made, of which perhaps the most important so far is the identification of ‘M.L.’, who wrote three lengthy book reviews in June, July and December 1903, with Mary Logan, the nom-de-plume adopted by Mary Berenson (nee Mary Smith) since 1894.

This identification is confirmed by the existence at the library of Villa i Tatti in Florence of the autograph editorial proofs by Mary Berenson of one of these articles, the July 1903 Pinturicchio review. Writings by Mary Berenson are few and these three essays are a significant addition to her bibliography.

Mary Smith (1864-1945), was an art historian who attended Smith College (1882-1884) and then Harvard (1884-5). After her 1885 marriage with Irish barrister and politician Frank Costelloe, she moved to England and became deeply involved in cultural circles there. Mary was also involved in the women’s movement; she published articles and spoke on universal suffrage. In 1888 Mary Costelloe and Bernard Berenson were introduced to each other and they soon developed a professional as well as a personal relationship. Following the death of Costelloe, they married at I Tatti in Florence in 1900 – Roger Fry painted a Renaissance-inspired Desco da Parto for their marriage (illustrated ).

Mary, under the pseudonym Mary Logan, established herself as an authority on Italian Renaissance art, writing articles and a long pamphlet, Guide to the Italian Pictures at Hampton Court: with Short Studies of the Artists (1894). Mary also played a crucial role in the writing of The Venetian Painters of The Renaissance (1894), which was however published as the work of Bernard alone.

The Berensons also played a major supporting role in the inception of the Burlington. Bernard Berenson was one of the members of its original consultative committee and his article on Alunno di Domenico (Bartolomeo di Giovanni) opened its very first issue of March 1903. However, the relationship between Roger Fry, eminence grise behind the Burlington at the time, and the Berensons was on shaky grounds from the very beginning of this venture. Not only did the Berensons refuse to buy shares in the newly-founded magazine but, already in January 1903, even before the first number of the Burlington was published, Fry had to write to Mary defending the critical impartiality of the Burlington affirming that ‘it is very important that it shouldn’t be said that the Burlington belongs to B[ernard] B[erenson]’s clique and surely it is still more important that B.B. should not have it said that he is capable of political scheming to ring-fence Italian art.[1]

1903 was a tumultuous year for the Burlington, as this magazine experienced financial and other difficulties from the onset. It witnessed swift changes of editorship – from Robert Dell to a joint editorship of Dell and Charles Holmes to the sole Holmes editorship in January 1904 – and scholarly controversies. The Berensons were involved in one of those, the heated debate with Robert Langton Douglas on Sassetta that resulted in Berenson ceasing abruptly his association with the Burlington and with Fry, and refraining to write for this magazine until 1940.[2] Certainly there were commercial interests at stake, as both Berenson and Langton Douglas were involved in the old-masters trade and Berenson owned works by Sassetta. Nevertheless, a methodological debate underpinned the disagreement as, in contrast to Douglas’s dry and archival reconstructions, Berenson proposed a reconstruction of the work of Sassetta following stylistic evidence and pursued an emotive exploration of the imaginative qualities of Sassetta’s work.

This attention to emotive aspects emerges also in Mary Berenson’s writings for the Burlington. Emotive, however, did not mean emotional. Mary Berenson sought for understanding rather than pathos. In her three lengthy, in-depth reviews Mary Berenson examined the work on Italian Renaissance of four major contemporaries – the popular writer Julia Cartwright, the museum director Corrado Ricci and the archival scholars Pompeo Molmenti and Gustav Ludwig – to bring forward questions of methodology and attribution, and to advocate hers and Bernard’s method as distant both from popularising compilations of facts as well as dry archival research.

In her June 1903 review of Julia Cartwright Mary Berenson described the three main ways of writing history: the first and best is ‘constructive imagination based on sound scholarship’, the second is archival research by the ‘conscientious finder and transcriber of document’ and the third the ‘via media of the gifted compiler,’ which needs to be free from the taint of journalism and sensationalism.[3]  Cartwright’s book was praised as positive example of this ‘via media’, especially because it avoided historic sensationalism. Similarly in her July 1903 review of Corrado Ricci’s monograph on Pinturicchio, Ricci is cited as a positive example of a researcher who has eschewed the danger of giving excessive prominence to Pinturicchio. Interestingly for Mary Berenson this over-rating of Pinturicchio reflected the contemporary fashion for popular, narrative painting based on facile appeal:  ‘modern art is just at a point where Pintoricchio is really more sympathetic than the masters of the great style, for the break-up of artistic tradition and the decline of classical taste the decorator of today is thrown back upon parading the mere materials of his art, upon bright colour and relief, upon sumptuousness and the startling and the attractive.’[4]

If populism – fashion above style – was dangerous, empty historicism was even more so. Mary Berenson’s December 1903 review of Pompeo Molmenti and Gustave Ludwig’s book Vittore Carpaccio et la Confrérie de Sainte Ursule à Venise is, in fact, a harsh criticism of the study of art as a mere historical subject. This study  was backhandedly complimented as ‘a valuable addition to the mass of historical learning that necessarily accumulates around fascinating subjects as attractive works of art.[5] Molmenti and Ludwig- whose interest lay less in the analysis of style than in the study of the historical and archival sources, which were used to reconstruct or recontextualise the history of individual works of art – were accused of pedantry by Mary Berenson.

For Mary Berenson this archival approach missed entirely the point of studying art:

Signor Molment and Dr Ludwig claim that no single statement or hypothesis in their volume is without ‘une aide’ […] in the documents of the archives […] But it must never be forgotten that in art there is the art-element! This art-element is not amenable to pedantry, it is not commensurate with the document and it is connected with history by a very subtle and delicate thread.’[6]

But what did this ‘art-element’ translate into when relating to a work of art? For Mary Berenson, the art-element was fully conveyed only by connoisseurship, the deep understanding of an artist that came from the rightful attribution of works of art. The correct method to arrive at an attribution was to follow the ‘internal evidence’ of the works themselves by means of visual memory and by training the eye through constant comparison of works.

Solid, stylistic ‘internal evidence’ was preferable to shaky documentary evidence. What Mary Berenson did not state openly is that her general methodological stance hid a divergence of opinion on specific matters:  Molmenti and Ludwig’s discovery of documentary evidence for Carpaccio’s schooling in the atelier of Lazzaro Bastiani contrasted with hers and Bernard’s published opinion in the Venetian Painters that Carpaccio was a pupil of Gentile Bellini.[7]  The whole genealogy of Renaissance Venetian art according to Bernard and Mary was at stake. Mary Berenson debated Molmenti and Ludwig’s attributions to Carpaccio, Lazzaro Bastiani and other Venetian painters by posing as an ‘objective’ reviewer without revealing hers or Bernard’s, interest in those matters. This allowed her also to retreat former attributions without making a public admission of error, such as in the case of the National Gallery’s The Virgin and Child with Saints and Doge Giovanni Mocenigo (here illustrated), attributed to Carpaccio in the Venetian Painters and to Lazzaro Bastiani by Molmenti and Ludwig, but believed by Mary Berenson in 1903 to be by neither (incidentally this painting is now ascribed by the National Gallery to ‘Venetian school’).

Did Mary Berenson only sign her articles as M.L. because such a semi-anonymous state allowed her to claim the status of an impartial observer, with the aim to defend hers and Bernard’s methodology and attributions as if it were coming from a third party? Or perhaps to the initiated reader of the times was the cypher M.L. clearly understandable, as Mary had already signed many writings thus? As Tiffany Johnston points out, her reviews could be read on two levels: one, by the uninitiated reader who did not know who M.L. was, in the hope of influencing them in their opinion of the book; and second, as a direct message from the Berensons to the authors. In the case of the Molmenti and Ludwig book she intended it to be a frontal attack and she knew they would know where it was coming from.  In fact, in response to this review, they wrote in their next book, The Life and Works of Vittorio Carpaccio (1907): ‘Among others, an American authoress, who writes under the name of Mary Logan, believes that it recalls the hand of Gentile Bellini ‘ (p. 11).  In the early days, when Mary began reviewing Bernard’s books under her pseudonym, however, the only intent was to promote his work and his name. Later, the world of Italian Renaissance art historians became very polarized – the Morellians against the largely British contingent of archivists and documentary historians and that is what we see playing out so clearly in this particular Burlington review. [This paragraph is based on observations by Tiffany Johnston, quoted with the permission of the author].

In any case these reviews, dense with information, rich of critical and methodological observations and attributions, are crucial to the understanding and reappraisal of Mary Berenson’s work and we are glad to be able to present them to the scholarly community at large.

BP, March 2014.
[With special thanks to Janelle Diethelm and Tiffany Johnston]

 

Illustrations:

Venetian, The Virgin and Child  with Saints Christopher, John the Baptist and Doge Giovanni Mocenigo, 1478-1485, London, The National Gallery.

Roger Fry, Desco da Parto, 1901, Florence, Berenson Collection.

Bibliography.

M. L. [Mary Berenson]: ‘Isabella D’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, 1474-1539; a Study of the Renaissance,’ The Burlington Magazine, Vol. II (June 1903), pp. 106-107.

M. L [Mary Berenson]: ‘Pintoricchio: His Life, Work, and Time,’ The Burlington Magazine, Vol. II (July 1903), pp. 265-257.

M. L [Mary Berenson]: ‘Vittore Carpaccio el la Confrerie de Sainte Ursule a Venise,’ The Burlington Magazine, Vol. III (December 1903), pp. 317-321.

References:


[1] Roger Fry to Mary Berenson, 30 January 1903. Denys Sutton (ed.), Letters of Roger Fry, Chatto & Windus, London, 1972, p. 203.

[2] On the Sassetta debate and the role of the Berensons in the early Burlington, see: Helen Rees-Leahy, ‘For Connoisseurs: The Burlington Magazine,’ in Art History and its Institutions, Routledge, London and New York, 2002, pp. 231–245.

[3] M. L. [Mary Berenson]: ‘Isabella D’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, 1474-1539; a Study of the Renaissance,’ The Burlington Magazine, Vol. II (June 1903), p. 106.

[4] M. L. [Mary Berenson]: ‘Pintoricchio: His Life, Work, and Time,’ The Burlington Magazine, Vol. II (July 1903), p. 256.

[5] M. L. [Mary Berenson]: Vittore Carpaccio et la Confrerie de Sainte Ursule à Venise,’ The Burlington Magazine, Vol. III (December 1903), p. 318.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Bernard Berenson, The Venetian Painter of the Ranaissance, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London, 1894, p. 101.

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