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Rachel Cohen

Rachel Cohen

Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade

Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade was published by the Yale University Press Jewish Lives Series on October 22, 2013.

Bernard Berenson is a book about a person whose life was constrained by prejudice, and by the economic transformations of the Gilded Age, a man with an encylopedic memory and his own very powerful way of seeing art, who made foundational contributions to art history, art criticism, and the collecting of art in the United States. He worked very closely with women and the chapters of the book follow his collaborations with five of them. The accomplished educator Senda Berenson, his sister; art connoisseur and lecturer Mary Berenson, his wife; Isabella Stewart Gardner, one of the great art collectors in history, with whom he worked very closely on developing her museum; Belle Da Costa Greene, one of Berenson's lovers, and the librarian for J.P. Morgan who built the Morgan Library's unparalleled manuscript collection (and who also passed for Portuguese but was an African-American woman); and the novelist Edith Wharton, who was for many years Berenson's closest friend.

Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade was longlisted for the JQ Wingate Prize, and an excerpt from it about Berenson's relationship to the art market and with dealer Joseph Duveen appeared in the New Yorker under the title Priceless.


"In her remarkable biography, Cohen approaches Berenson's life as a panorama full of artifice and profundity, whose brilliant flashes of color are inextricable from its substrates of shadow. The book leaves an indelible impression, not merely in the way it catalogues Berenson's accomplishments and failings, but also in its dissection of the struggle between desire and alienation that characterizes American art—and life—to this day."—Thomas Micchelli, Bookforum

Read the complete review:

"The most dynamic biography yet of the groundbreaking art historian Bernard Berenson.... Cohen investigates Berenson’s contradictions, metamorphoses, and dramatically unconventional life with vivacious authority....Deftly channels the sweeping intensity of Berenson’s aesthetic ecstasy, hard-won expertise, surprising adventures, and vital legacy as a guide to appreciating art via 'exhilarated looking.'" -- Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred review.

“[As] Rachel Cohen, the author of this elegantly written biography. . . .nicely puts it, Berenson was ‘a person whose capacity for metamorphosis approached that of a moth.’”—Martin Gayford, The Sunday Telegraph 12/08/13

“Rachel Cohen’s unobtrusively and thoroughly well written short volume skilfully negotiates the contradictory sides of Berenson’s character – the aesthete and the huckster; the man who lived only for art and the man who very much liked to surround himself with the appurtenances of wealth.”—Sam Leith, The Spectator 12/14/13

“Rachel Cohen has written an admirable short life...[and] a touching portrait”—James Stourton, Literary Review 12/01/13

"Berenson's extraordinary and colorful life—from his humble birth in Lithuania, to Harvard and thence to his august and influential position as a critic and art historian, to the renowned splendor of his Florentine villa I Tatti—makes a rich and compelling subject. Ms. Cohen's remarkable book affords the occasion also for rumination upon self-invention and authenticity, upon the making of the man, and of taste, too."—Claire Messud, Wall Street Journal
“Written with intelligence and understanding and often with impressive psychological insight…A thoughtful, short biography.”—Walter Kaiser, New York Review of Books

"Cohen draws a psychological portrait of a man guided by passionate aesthetic ideals and tortured by the compromises in the world of commerce that he felt compelled to make.... If you live in an American city, there's a good chance that you can go to a museum today and see an exquisite Sienese Madonna, or a Venetian Holy Family, or a Florentine portrait. You have Berenson—and his collector-acolytes—to thank." - Hugh Eakin, Wall Street Journal

“Rachel Cohen who has written an extremely thoughtful and readable biography of Berenson”—Charles Saumarez-Smith, Apollo Magazine 02/01/14


“A highly sympathetic and graceful portrait of Bernard Berenson, the art connoisseur and dealer who remade himself into work of art, priced and priceless, which he protected, cultivated, and even at time bartered: Rachel Cohen's Bernard Berenson is an illuminating tale of this self-transformation, its successes and pitfalls, told with stalwart compassion.”—Brenda Wineapple

“An insightful, richly detailed account of Bernard Berenson’s brilliant transformation from an immigrant Jew and son of a tin peddler into a connoisseur of Italian Renaissance painting and a dealer in secret partnership with Joseph Duveen. With the keen gaze that Berenson brought to a picture, Rachel Cohen analyzes his high-wire act of self-invention against the glittering, aristocratic, anti-Semitic world of art collecting.”—Cynthia Saltzman

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