More about Mary Berenson

While there is much material on Bernard Berenson, works by his wife Mary are less known. Even if the interest in her work is growing, few scholars have tackled the questions that stem from an analysis of her writings. In first instance her work is difficult to reconstruct in its entirety, as it is either produced in association with Bernard-  and therefore difficult to assess on its own merits – or hidden in the periodical press – and therefore difficult to access.

Mary Pearsall Smith was born and raised in a Quaker community in Pennsylvania. Her parents, Hannah Whitall Smith and Robert Pearsall Smith, believed in giving their children the highest standard of education, so from an early age Mary and her two siblings were well educated in a variety of subjects. It was during the years 1882 through 1884 that Mary attended Smith College and studied a variety of subjects. After graduating she then went on to attend Harvard Annex (later on called Radcliffe College) in 1885 for one year. It was then Mary Smith met her first husband Frank Costelloe, an Irish barrister and politician who taught at Harvard Annex during Mary’s attendance. After their marriage in 1885 the couple moved to London where Mary became involved in the women’s suffrage movement, one may assume much to her liberal and progressive mother’s delight.   It should be mentioned that Hannah Whitall Smith was well known in her community and in America for being deeply involved in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1888 Mary Smith Costelloe was introduced to Bernard Berenson, who sparked Mary’s great interest in art history and left London to travel continental Europe with Bernard Berenson. One year after Frank Costelloe’s death, Mary and Bernard married, and their academic relationship combined under one roof in their new home the Villa I Tatti.

A comprehensive study of Mary Berenson’s academic works is only now beginning to emerge, mostly through the work of Tiffany Johnston and Rachel Cohen. A growing number of art historians are beginning to give her some credit beyond a single statement or footnote in an entire book on Bernard Berenson, and through these new studies and a re-examination of literary and archival sources the image of Mary Berenson as an art historian is on the rise.

Mary’s career as a Renaissance art historian started with the creation of Guide to the Italian Pictures at Hampton Court: with Short Studies of the Artists published in 1894. With this book, published under the name of Mary Logan, Mary began to make a name for herself outside of her husband’s work. Even though she is known to have significantly helped Bernard with the book The Venetian Painters, Mary did not push for co-authorship when the book was published due to objections from her mother who believed that publishing the two names together would lead to public scandal.[1] Bending to her mother’s will, Mary agreed to credit Bernard as the sole creator. It was not until 1908 that Mary wrote another major publication in her own name, the long pamphlet A Tentative List of Pictures Worth Seeing, in which Mary suggested a list of Italian paintings and museums for art historians to visit. The list is quite comprehensive and well thought out. Mary’s most extensive book was A Modern Pilgrimage, written in 1933, in which she described her travels as an art historian viewing the works she discussed elsewhere.

Mary communicated not just in printed form: her and Bernard often travelled to America to meet with colleagues and clients of their art dealing business. During these trips, Mary gave lectures on various art historical topics at universities around the country. Mary was known to have spoken at Smith College in October of 1903 on an unknown topic.[2] She also gave two lectures at Wellesley College, once in November of 1903 on the ‘History of Italian Painting’ and lectured again in March of 1909 on ‘How to know a good picture from a bad one’.[3] Mary also gave two unspecified lectures in unknown locations on the 4th and 10th of December in 1908.[4] There is not much information on these lectures, but it is known that they were received by those who attended them. In an article published in the Philadelphia Press on 7 February, 1904 Mary is described as having ‘captivated her listeners by the thorough knowledge she showed of her subject in enthusiastic yet remarkably simple words.’[5] According to entries in her journal, Mary enjoyed giving lectures on art history yet her true passion was in writing articles.

Known in her early articles as Mary Logan, or simply ‘M.L.’, Mary wrote articles for various magazines throughout her life. In these articles Mary covered a variety of topics ranging from ‘The Old and New Criticism’ in The Nineteenth Century to Italian marriage coffers in The Queen: The Lady’s Newspaper. These articles, a first list of which can be found listed on the Villa I Tatti’s website, elucidated hers and Bernard’s theories and attributions with the purpose to educate the general masses, to convince established art historians, but also to attract potential buyers to Renaissance art.

Three articles were written by Mary for the Burlington Magazine, under the nom de plume ‘M.L.’ in 1903 and 1904 (see previous blog post on this matter).

Mary and Bernard, along with Robert Dell, Herbert Cook, Roger Fry and Herbert Horne, had a crucial role in the creation of the Burlington, the first issue of which was published in 1903. The Burlington aimed to be an independent scholarly publication in contrast with other magazines, which published commercially-led articles. Bernard also contributed to three articles in the first few issues of the Burlington, on the topic of Italian Renaissance painting (specifically on Alunno di Domenico and Sassetta).

Just one year later the Berensons ceased to write for the magazine due to an argument between them and Fry (see previous blog). This, however, did not hinder Mary’s writing as she continued to publish elsewhere.

As Mary’s publishing career continued, she used the name Mary Berenson. The choice of name was an important choice for early 20th century women writers. Many of her contemporaries adopted a nom de plume during their entire writing careers, often hiding under a male pseudonym, such as her friend and colleague Vernon Lee (Violet Pager), the Jewish-German Jarno Jessens (Anna Michaelson), the art writer and novelist Frank Danby (Julia Frankau) and many others. Possibly Mary used her married name in her later published works because of the powerful validation she received from being associated to Bernard. Other female writers, such as ‘Mrs. Humphry Ward’, ‘Mrs Archibald Christie’ and ‘Mrs Stuart Erskine’ also chose to be associated with their husbands; the case of Mary, however, is slightly different because she adopted her husband’s surname but kept her own first name, as ‘Mary Berenson’, rather than losing completely her identity in her husband’s name as ‘Mrs Bernard Berenson’.

The acknowledgement of her works by her contemporary art writers demonstate Mary’s importance, and art historians today are beginning to reconstruct and acknowledge her role beyond the biographic notations.

Janelle Diethelm, April 2014.


See the online exhibition curated by Jonathan Nelson, Assistant Director for Academic Programs and Publications at I Tatti, ‘Bernard and Mary as students’:

Tiffany Johnston, ‘Mary Whitall Smith at the Harvard Annex’,

Mary’s biography in the Dictionary of Art Historians:


Unknown photographer, Bernard Berenson; Mary Berenson (nee Smith), sepia-toned bromide copy print, 1891, London, National Portrait Gallery

Frontispiece of The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance, 1895

[1]  Mary and Frank were quietly separated at the time and Hannah feared the co-authorship would publicize this fact. The Venetian Painters was being written. Rachel Cohen, Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 94.

[2] Mary Berenson Diaries 1903-1904. Bliblioteca Berenson, Villa I Tatti – The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, courtesy of the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

[3]Wellesley College, “The Wellesley News (03-10-1909)” (1909). The Wellesley News. Book 255.

[4] Mary Berenson Diaries, 1908. Biblioteca Berenson.

[5] Mary Berenson Diaries, 1904. Biblioteca Berenson.

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