When the aged connoisseur, art critic, historian, and man of letters Bernard Berenson took up Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean during World War II, it was to re-read the novel for the eighth time. As Berenson said in his Sketch for a Self-Portrait, written in these years and published in 1949: “The genius who revealed to me what from childhood I had been instinctively tending toward was Walter Pater in his Marius, his Imaginary Portraits, his Emerald Uthwart, his Demeter. It is for that I have loved him since youth and shall be grateful to him even to the House of Hades, where, in the words of Nausicaa to Odysseus, ‘I shall hail him as a god.’” As a young man Berenson had observed that “art teaches us not only what to see, but what to be,” and from Pater’s art Berenson learned to be an Edwardian Marius. He shared with Marius a native “capacity of the eye,” a “love of beauty”; and, aspiring to Marius’s “visionary idealism of the villa,” he eventually re-created this ideal world at his Villa I Tatti.
Berenson might well have added another book to the list of Pater’s works that he mentions in his Sketch for a Self-Portrait. He wrote from Europe in 1888 to his patroness Mrs. Gardner, “Many a midnight, in coming home, I took up the Renaissance and read it from cover to cover.” First published in 1873, Pater’s book was reprinted, with many revisions, through the end of the century. It was one of the principal texts to nurture the young Berenson who, as a college student in the 1880s, published poetry, short stories, and criticism in The Harvard Monthly and hoped to pursue a career as an imaginative writer. Yet even after he abandoned these literary ambitions to become a connoisseur and historian of Italian Renaissance art, the lessons of Pater’s prose, insights, and way of thinking were to penetrate deeply into his writings on art.
The last edition of The Renaissance to appear during Pater’s lifetime was printed in 1893. By that time Berenson had become an expert in Italian Renaissance art, and in 1894, the year of Pater’s death, Berenson, not yet thirty years of age, published the first of his four little books on Italian painting, The Venetian Painters. This volume was followed by The Florentine Painters of 1896, The Central Italian Painters of 1897, and then, a decade later, by The North Italian Painters. These four slim volumes, the “Gospels,” as Berenson later ironically called them, were subsequently collected in 1930 as The Italian Painters of the Renaissance, a book which has come to be regarded as a classic in the study of Italian Renaissance art.
In recent years Berenson has been the topic of much discussion. Ernest Samuels’s Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur, which appeared in 1979, vividly documents Berenson’s youth in Boston and education at Harvard, tracing his move to Italy and rapid ascent there as a prodigious scholar of Italian painting. The following year appeared Meryle Secrest’s polemical Being Bernard Berenson, which focuses on the controversial aspects of Berenson’s life—his financial ambitions, sexual relations, and religious motives. Since then, numerous reviews and essays on Berenson have been published. Although his books are referred to and sometimes summarized in these writings, emphasis has been placed on his alluring persona—the sage of I Tatti who presided over the extraordinary salon of his villa at Vincigliata in the hills outside of Florence for more than half a century. The man has become more important than his work, and even his former protégé, Kenneth Clark, who dedicated a fine chapter of his new Moments of Vision to “The Work of Bernard Berenson,” writes only a few pages on The Italian Painters.
The recent interest in Berenson coincides with an outpouring of books and essays on Pater.
The recent interest in Berenson coincides with an outpouring of books and essays on Pater.1 Although Pater’s influence on Berenson has always been observed, the degree to which Berenson absorbed Pater’s aesthetics and specific judgments has not been fully appreciated. Kenneth Clark, who has published an edition of The Renaissance, and who himself upholds the tradition of Berenson and Pater in modern scholarship, does not even mention Pater in his essay on Berenson.
There are of course fundamental differences between Berenson and Pater. Whereas Pater is now generally regarded as one of the greatest prose stylists in the history of English literature and The Renaissance looked upon as a classic of prose, “the passages in Berenson’s work which are likely to retain their value,” as Clark observes, “are few and short.” We continue to adhere to many of Berenson’s critical judgments, but “they often seem to us,” Clark adds, “imperfectly expressed.” Pater’s book is itself a highly sophisticated work of literary art, a sustained prose poem; Berenson’s books are conventional essays. Moreover, the subject of The Renaissance is different from that of The Italian Painters. Pater deals with both literature and art, Berenson focuses more narrowly on painting. Finally, there is a basic difference of objectives that separates the two authors. For Pater one of the fundamental goals of criticism is to describe or re-create aesthetic experiences: “What is this song or picture to me, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book to me? What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure? and if so, what sort or degree of pleasure?” Berenson is still alive to these questions: “. . . what is it then that makes Sandro Botticelli so irresistible that nowadays we may have no alternative, but to worship or abhor him?” But Berenson does not merely seek to describe the impression of art; rather, he attempts to identify exactly and precisely the formal properties of painting that account for our impression of it. Just as Berenson’s connoisseurship, based on the scientific principles of Giovanni Morelli, enabled him to attribute paintings to artists on the basis of their exact morphology, so too his criticism of these works depended on a close analysis of the essential characteristics of form. Thus, whereas Berenson admired Pater’s epithets for “their accuracy and rarity,” he deplored his “lack of exact connoisseurship,” for instance, Pater’s discussion of works that had been misattributed (the Medusa wrongly assigned to Leonardo da Vinci being a prime example). One finds marginal notes in Berenson’s copy of The Renaissance in the library at I Tatti, largely in the hand of his wife Mary Logan but reflecting Berenson’s own judgments, that object to the many erroneous attributions uncritically accepted by Pater.
Despite these basic distinctions between Berenson and Pater, the connections between The Italian Painters and The Renaissance are deeper and more subtle than has generally been supposed. If Berenson’s writing is not “literature” as such, we should recognize its literary ambitions and the association of its critical accomplishment to Pater’s writing; and if Pater’s book is far more than “art history,” we might well consider the value of his critical judgments of art both for Berenson and for subsequent criticism. To examine their writings together is to see the extent to which their shared understanding of the Renaissance reflected the values of nineteenth-century art and literature and came to shape our approach to modernist art.
For both Pater and Berenson, Goethe is the hero of modern culture. In the nineteenth-century world, where the unity of culture was seemingly “a lost art,” Goethe continued to uphold “the identity of European culture” against the multiple currents of modern thought. When Jacob Burckhardt published The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy in 1860, he followed the example of Goethe, aspiring to the ideal of cultural unity and wholeness exemplified in the Renaissance state as a work of art, embodied in the Renaissance man as uomo universale. Like Burckhardt, Pater and Berenson aspire to an ideal of cultural wholeness, or what Pater calls Allgemeinheit. Allusions to Faust abound in Pater’s book, especially in the essay on Leonardo, whose “curiosity” and “larger vision” are Faustian. Berenson similarly extols the Faustian ideal in Michelangelo’s art, where we behold “the creation of the type of man best fitted to subdue and control the earth, and who knows!, perhaps more than the earth.” The very emergence of the modern historical definition of Renaissance culture in the writings of Burckhardt, Pater, and Berenson is rooted in Goethe’s quest for a universal culture.
In The Renaissance, Pater outlines the “identity” of European culture, building in his “literary architecture” a “House Beautiful” from the classical and biblical traditions and their fusion in the Allgemeinheit of modern French, English, Italian, and German culture. The subject of his book is ostensibly the art and literature of the Renaissance, but he in fact ranges over cultural history from Homer and Plato to Blake, Goethe, and Baudelaire. In like fashion, Berenson discusses the Italian Renaissance painters in relation to the classics, alluding to Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristotle, Theocritus, Virgil, the Niebelungen, the Eddas, the Roman de la Rose, Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Calderon, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Tolstoy. In Pater there is a more unifying typology at work. For example, Plato is defined as a central type of western culture, and Abelard, Pico, Botticelli, Delia Robbia, Leonardo, Giorgione, Winckelmann, and Goethe are all discussed, either explicitly or indirectly, in relation to Platonism, which, as Pater later observed in Plato and Platonism (1893), “is not a formal theory or body of theories, but a tendency or group of tendencies.” Pater’s The Renaissance is permeated by an abiding concern with this Platonic “tendency” of vision toward “pure form,” and is, along with Pater’s other writings, one of the last sustained expressions of Platonism in the western tradition. Berenson’s book, although dependent on Arnold’s discussion of “Hebraism” and “Hellenism,” is not so stringently organized in typological terms.
Just as Berenson follows Pater in aspiring toward a universal culture, he follows Pater in writing in an implicitly autobiographical way about his artistic heroes. It is a commonplace of literary scholarship that Pater assumes the identity of all of his literary idols from Plato to Goethe. Like Botticelli, he is a “visionary”; with Delia Robbia he attempts to “etherealize form”; like Michelangelo, he is “preoccupied with death.” Pico’s aspiration to a “spirit of order and beauty in knowledge” is Pater’s, as is Leonardo’s quest for “correspondences.” The “music” of Giorgione and Du Bellay is that to which Pater himself aspires, and Winckelmann’s and Goethe’s ideal of “Hellenism” is also Pater’s. Although not to the same degree or as consistently, Berenson too becomes his own subjects. The refinement of Pisanello’s art and the “courtier’s way of life” that it embodies reflect Berenson’s ideals, as do the noble figures of Mantegna, who appear “as if they had never been anything but marble, never other than statuesque in pose, processional in gait, and god-like in gesture.” If we look at the widely reproduced photographic portrait of Berenson, taken at I Tatti in 1903 and picturing an elegant, courtly, and statuesque young man suavely posed beneath the Madonna by Domenico Veneziano, we see how the critic has passed through the looking glass of Italian painting into a world of confident aristocratic elegance of his own. He has also entered into the world of Pater’s fiction, appearing in the photograph as a modern Marius.
The Renaissance is a highly poetical book.
The Renaissance is a highly poetical book. Yeats transcribed its most famous passage, that on the Mona Lisa, into poetry, printing it as free verse in his Oxford book of modern verse; Harold Bloom has spoken of the whole book as a “prose poem”; and I have previously examined the book, its form and imagery, as “the poetry of nothingness.” Students of literature have always recognized the extent of poetical influence on Pater’s writings, the reflections in it of Keats, Wordsworth, and Shelley, of Rossetti, Browning, and Swinburne, and of Hugo, Gautier, and Baudelaire. Though less poetical than Pater’s, Berenson’s prose is similarly steeped in poetry, and at times it is poetical in its ambition to re-create the effects of paintings. The first lines of Gray’s “Elegy” capture for Berenson the subduing effects of coolness and opalescent grey in Verrocchio’s landscapes, and Ercole Roberti’s Herod is described with a phrase from Shelley’s “Ozymandias”: “If ever man had ‘wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command,’ it is Herod.” A line from Keats’s “On the Grasshopper and the Cricket” expresses the theme of Signorelli’s Pan: “The Poetry of Earth is never Dead.” And Berenson’s own evocative description of Pan, who “sits in hushed solemnity of the sunset,” echoes the melancholic Keatsean Pan of “Endymion,” “who through whole solemn hours doth sit, and hearken the dreary melody of bedded reeds.”
Sometimes this poetical language is fully assimilated into Berenson’s prose, as in his evocation of Perugino: “How refreshingly quiet are his Crucifixions and Entombments! The still air is soundless, and people wail no more; a sigh inaudible, a look of yearning and that is all.” Berenson’s immediate source of inspiration is Pater’s own musical “poetry” on the silences in Giorgione, but the passage also suggests the melancholy of Rossetti’s sonnet on Giorgione and, ultimately, the silent pastoral of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Berenson’s uses of poetry are also not always apparent. Discussing Andrea del Sarto, he teases the painter for depicting his figures like so many “clothes-horses” who dare not move “for fear of disturbing their too obviously arranged folds,” who “have nothing better to do than show off draperies.” Enjoying Berenson’s implicit pun on Sarto’s “sartorial” obsession, we might fail to recognize that his facetious tone is a transposition from Browning’s poem of 1855, “Andrea del Sarto,” in which the pathos of the painter is brought out in combination with just such mockery. For example, Browning has the pathetic artist offer his wife money for clothes: “Beside, What’s better and what’s all I care about, Get you the thirteen scudi for the ruff. Love, does that please you?”
In Moments of Vision, Kenneth Clark speaks of “art criticism and history as literature,” echoing Oscar Wilde, who described criticism as art, and Walter Pater, who rendered it so. Clark observes that this kind of criticism is rare even in the prose of the finest critics. The most famous examples in Pater are his evocations of Giorgione’s “idylls” and of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. Less familiar is Berenson’s re-creation of the paintings by the gifted Ferrarese painter, Cosimo Tura:
His figures are of flint, as haughty and immobile as Pharaohs, or as convulsed with suppressed energy as the gnarled knots in the olive tree. Their faces are seldom lit up with tenderness, and their smiles are apt to run into archaic grimaces. Their claw like hands express the manner of their contact. Tura’s architecture is piled up and baroque, not as architecture frequently is in painters of the earlier Renaissance, but almost as in the proud palaces built for the Medes and Persians. His landscapes are of a world which has these many ages seen no flower or green leaf, for there is no earth, no mould, no sod, only the inhospitable rock everywhere. He seldom finds place even for the dry cornel tree which other artists, trained at Padua, loved to paint.
There is a perfect harmony in all this. His rock-born men could not fitly inhabit a world less crystal-hard, and would be out of place among architectural forms less burdensomely massive. Being of adamant, they must take such shapes as that substance will permit, of things either petrified, or contorted with the effort at articulation. And where the effort at movement produces such results, expression must freeze inro grimace before it has reached its conclusion.
Where there is harmony there is necessarily purpose, and Tura’s purpose is clear. It is to realize substance with almost maniac ferocity. He will have nothing in his world which will not firmly resist his conquering embrace. Nothing soft, nothing yielding, nothing vague. His world is an anvil, his perception is a hammer, and nothing must muffle the sound of the stroke. Naught more tender than flint and adamant could furnish the material for such an artist.
We again find that Berenson’s description depends on poetry, in this case a poem on Tura by Katherine Bradley and her niece, Edith Cooper (both followers of Pater and friends of Berenson), who wrote together under the pseudonym Michael Field. In his copy of their Sight and Song of 1892, still at I Tatti, Berenson marked lines that contributed to his own poetical diction:
A foot that rather seems to be
The clawed base of pillar past all date
Than prop of flesh and bone.
Grey are the hollowed rocks, grey is his head
And grey his beard, that formal and as dread
As some Assyrian’s on a monument
From the chin is sloping down.
Berenson does not literally imitate the poem, but the description of Saint Jerome’s clawed foot as a fragment of statuary and the picturing of his bleak rocky setting kindled the critic’s poetical imaginings, which were indeed appropriate to the exotic forms of that most fantastical of painters. Berenson’s evocative, poetically inspired writing on Tura is not of the same order as Pater’s prose poetry, but it has exerted a powerful influence on twentieth-century interpretations of the Ferrarese school, helping to shape, for example, the appreciation of its strange, highly imaginative forms in Roberto Longhi’s Officina Ferrarese (1932), one of the great studies of Renaissance art of our century.
In The Renaissance Walter Pater makes sustained references to Wordsworth, to the poet’s idealization of childhood and feeling for nature, both of which underlie Pater’s appreciation of Renaissance art and literature, especially those “exquisite pauses” of Giorgione. Berenson similarly invokes the Romantic poet, associating Piero della Francesca’s heroic attitude toward landscape with Wordsworth’s grand vision of nature. Nineteenth-century writers had not neglected Piero. But it was Berenson who first saw the extent of his accomplishment, characterizing him as one of the greatest artists of the Quattrocento. He thus determined our present appreciation of the painter, still reflected in the classic monographs of our day by Longhi and Kenneth Clark.
Although Berenson’s aesthetic theories are not so consistently developed as Pater’s, his interpretation of Piero, influenced decisively by Pater, suggests a unified vision of art and is the core of his own critical position. The art that does not represent Piero’s own feelings is an art of “impersonality,” an ideal epitomized in the Flagellation of Christ, where none of the dramatis personae respond to the horror; the foreground figures especially are “as unconcerned as the everlasting rocks.” As Berenson observes, Piero loved impersonality, “the absence of expressed emotion, as a quality in things.” In the art of the “impassive” Piero, “grand figures” are combined with landscapes of “severity and dignity”; and the “utmost power” of this work depends on the fact that in it “all special emotion is disregarded.”
The roots of Berenson’s theory of impersonality are to be found in the eighteenth-century Neo-classicism of Winckelmann and Lessing, both of whom praised Hellenic art for its repose and harmony, for its lack of overt expression. Their point of view informs the thinking of Goethe, who once remarked to Herder “that the ancients represented existences, we usually represent the effect.” Goethe’s classical ideal subsequently influenced Burckhardt, who in Der Cicerone characterized Bellini’s S. Giobbe altarpiece as an Existenzbild, a harmonious union of emotionless figures “in a blessed state of existence.” In his book on Piero published in 1954, near the end of his life, Berenson invoked Burckhardt’s formulation as one of the foundations of his own survey of the history of impersonality in art. We should also observe that the background to Berenson’s notion of impersonality is extensive. In Hazlitt’s “On Gusto” we find an appreciation of Greek art reminiscent of Goethe’s: “It seems enough for them to be without acting or suffering.” In French Parnassian poetry of l’impassivité we recognize a similar ideal, prefiguring Berenson’s—for example, Leconte de Lisle’s “Vénus de Milo,” in which the statue is prized for its “impassive happiness,” a “serenity” and “calm” like that of the sea.
The very fabric of Neo-classicism, woven from the threads of modern French, German, and English tradition into Berenson’s work, had already been artistically rendered in the writings of Pater. The Renaissance itself is a work of impersonal art in which Pater presents his own view of life impersonally, through his Renaissance subjects. It is, however, only in Pater’s essay “Style” in Appreciations (1889) and in the last pages of Pater’s essay “Prosper Mérimée” (Miscellaneous Studies, 1895) that Berenson would have found the explicit formulation of the theory of impersonality. Speaking of impersonality in literary art, Pater describes an art of “self-effacement”—an art “impersonal in its beauty, the perfection of nobody’s style.” Pater quotes Flaubert’s goal in art: “'It has always been my rule to put nothing of myself into my works,'” adding that Flaubert was “disinterested in his literary creations, so to speak.” The word “disinterested” immediately brings to mind the criticism of Matthew Arnold; but it also suggests Kant’s concept of “disinterestedness,” and in fact we find that at the beginning of his essay Pater announces that “Kant’s criticism of the mind” is the context in which he intends to discuss Mérimée.
Pater describes an art of “self-effacement”—an art “impersonal in its beauty, the perfection of nobody’s style.”
Using Pater’s definition of impersonality, Berenson sketches the history of impersonal art, referring to the Parthenon frieze, which Pater had called “the highest expression of indifference,” and invoking the impersonal work of Velázquez. In the art of the Renaissance he observes numerous examples of impersonality. Perugino’s figures are “impersonal as architecture,” Raphael’s are “impassive”; Cossa’s work is marked by “haughtiness,” Roberti’s by an “absence of sensibility.” He also identifies a “magical aloofness” in Melozzo da Forli’s painting that he associates with the poetry of Aeschylus and Keats on the “fallen dynasties of gods.” He observes that Melozzo’s music-making angels, although abandoned to feeling, are “unconscious of others, or even of self” and are thus “impersonal,” as is Calvé in Carmen. Again, we are made to think of Pater, who pointed out that Mérimée’s Carmen exemplifies impersonality. Elaborating on Pater’s brief remarks, Berenson thus outlines a history of impersonality from Phidias and Aeschylus through the Renaissance to Wordsworth and Keats.
In his classic essay of 1919, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot, who reacted against the biographical approach to literature of nineteenth-century criticism, observed: “the poet has, not a 'personality' to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impression and experience combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality.” We can now see that Eliot’s “meaning” depends on the notion of “impersonality” articulated in the 1880s and 1890s by Pater and Berenson. In more recent criticism Clement Greenberg, who was deeply influenced by Eliot, has criticized the theatrical or “literalist” tendency in modern art, and he has been followed by his former protégé, Michael Fried, also a close reader of Eliot, who in “Art and Objecthood” (Artforum, 1967) called for an art that is a “presence,” art that is not theatrically expressive or gestural. Such criticism harks back indirectly through Eliot to the aesthetics of Winckelmann and Lessing. But it can also be observed that just as Berenson’s and Pater’s writings on impersonality link twentieth-century art and literary criticism to the tradition of nineteenth-century aesthetics, so does their work occupy a pivotal intermediary position linking recent “formalist” criticism to the aesthetics of eighteenth-century Neo-classicism.
If Berenson’s criticism of Piero has had a strong effect on modern criticism, so too has his writing on Botticelli. Pater was the first critic to focus on the sadness or “ineffable melancholy” of Botticelli’s works, but transcending Pater’s impressionism, Berenson identifies the painter’s “line” as the essential formal characteristic of his art: “This kind of line, then, being the quintessence of movement, has, like the essential elements in all the arts, a power of stimulating our imagination and of directly communicating life.” Describing the “rhythm” of Botticelli’s line, he calls his art a “linear symphony” in which “tactile values were translated into values of movement.” Botticelli was, in short, “the greatest artist of linear design that Europe has ever known”; he “may have had rivals in Japan and elsewhere in the East, but in Europe never.”
There are numerous aesthetic forces that shaped Berenson’s criticism of Botticelli. His vision of line was determined, as he himself implies, by Japanese painting; and he was surely stimulated to appreciate the rhythmic effects of Botticelli’s art by Pre-Raphaelite painting, especially the animated calligraphy of Burne-Jones. The rhythms of both Japanese art and Pre-Raphaelite painting were felt in the Art Nouveau of the 1890s, for example, in the cursive drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, who made illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome. We could say that Berenson’s “discovery” of the sheer buoyancy of Botticelli’s draftsmanship, influenced by the Art Nouveau, is itself a critical outgrowth of this style.
But how did Berenson come to write about Botticelli as he did? It is likely that when he speaks of The Birth of Venus, in which he “feels the force and freshness of the wind in the life of the wave,” he recalls once again the poetical imagery of his friends, the Michael Fields, who wrote about the painting in Sight and Song:
Frills of brimming wavelets lap
Round a shell that is a boat;
Roses fly like birds and float
Down the crisp air; garments flap;
Midmost of the breeze, with locks
In possession of the wind,
Coiling hair in loosened shocks,
Sways a girl who seeks to bind
New-born beauty with a tress
Gold about her nakedness.
Brimming, lap, fly, float, flap, coiling, sways—with this vocabulary the Fields had already brought out the movement of Botticelli that Berenson was to focus on a short time later. Berenson’s description of Botticelli’s “rhythm” or “music” of line might also be based on John Addington Symonds’s way of describing the “melodies of line” in Mantegna’s Hampton Court frieze. But finally, it must have been in The Renaissance that Berenson found his point of departure, for when he speaks of the “abstract” idea in Botticelli, the “pure values of movement abstracted,” the “unembodied values of touch and movement,” he is using the vocabulary of Pater’s book, which throughout is about the “way of etherealizing pure form.” Pater speaks of the “abstract lines” of the faces in Botticelli’s art, having already observed “the charm” in his art “of line and colour, the medium of abstract painting.” Pater’s repeated usages of “abstract” and “pure” are expressive of his own Platonism, as when he speaks of the “pure thoughts or ideas,” the “pure form,” and “system of abstraction” of the Hellenic art to which Renaissance art is related.
Pater’s own Platonism and Platonic vocabulary were to pave the way to an understanding of the Platonism of Botticelli’s art, though it was only in the later exegeses of this century that such Platonic significance in Botticelli was made explicit, some would say too explicit. But just as Pater looked back to antiquity, he also announced a major concern of modernist criticism when he spoke of “abstract painting"—perhaps the earliest such usage. Like Pater, Berenson speaks of Florentine art as “pure art,” an art of “pure values"; but, seeking to clarify Pater’s perceptions, he puts far more emphasis on “tactile values” or “form” and stresses the “significance” of this form. “It was on form, and form alone,” Berenson insists, “that the great Florentine masters concentrated their efforts.” Masaccio is “a great master of the significant"; Uccello is “endowed with a great sense of the significant”; Pollaiuolo “extracts the significance of movements.” The paintings of Fra Angelico, Filippino Lippi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Andrea del Sarto are criticized for their lack of significance. Nowhere is it clearer that Berenson was writing in the language that twentieth-century critics would adapt than in his famous appreciation of Giotto (the italics are added):
Now what is behind this power of raising us to a higher plane of reality, but a genius for grasping and communicating real significance? A painter who, after generations of mere manufacturers of symbols, illustrations, and allegories, had the power to render the material significance of the objects he painted, must, as a man, have a profound sense of the significant. No matter, then, what his theme, Giotto feels its real significance . . .
We can now see that Berenson’s modification of Pater’s criticism was a major step toward the emerging doctrine of “significant form” codified by Clive Bell in 1914 in his widely read book Art and developed earlier in the essays collected in Vision and Design (1920) by Roger Fry, who speaks of “abstract significance,” “pure beauty,” and the “purely aesthetic organization of form.” Fry’s “Essay on Aesthetics” in this volume is an adaptation of Berenson’s aesthetics. Berenson had spoken of form, movement, space-composition, and color as part of “decoration”; Fry provides a similar scheme of “design,” which includes line, mass, space, light, shadow, and color.
Clement Greenberg observed in Art and Culture that “the notion of ‘significant form’ was very much in the English air around 1914, and I cannot help thinking that this attempt to isolate the essential factor in the experience of visual art had some effect on the young Eliot.” We have already seen that the implicit doctrine of significant form was developed by Berenson in the 1890s. We find too that it was embellished by A. C. Bradley as early as his famous Oxford lecture of 1901, “Poetry for Poetry’s Sake.” Still writing in the tradition of Pater, Bradley discusses what he calls the “expressed meaning” or “significant form” of poetry. When he also observes that “in painting there is not a meaning plus paint, but a meaning in paint, or significant paint,” he is speaking, perhaps not coincidentally, in the language of Berenson’s book on the Florentines of five years before. Returning to Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” we find that his famous conclusion could have been written by Berenson himself: “But very few know when there is expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself to the work to be done.” Eliot’s famous formulation here is a rephrasing or paraphrasing of the twin doctrines of “impersonality” and “significant form” developed by Berenson from Pater’s criticism.
The emotion of art is impersonal.
So much has been made in recent years of Berenson’s aversion to modern art that his role in the development of its criticism has been largely ignored. Insufficient attention has been paid to the fact that his own perceptions of Renaissance painting were determined by contemporary art. Though Pater scarcely alludes to the art of his times, noting only Ingres and Legros, Berenson’s interpretations of Italian painting are made through his experience of nineteenth-century painting. He invokes Millet in his discussion of Roberti’s “atmospheric effect,” associates the “freedom of touch” in Signorelli’s late work with Daumier’s brush work, and compares the “harmonies of tone” in Bergognone’s work to those of “the exquisite American,” Whistler. We sense that when Berenson admires Raphael’s portrait of Castiglione, calling it “that exquisite study in grey,” he is seeing the painting through Whistler’s eyes. It is especially in his experience of the finest painting of the late nineteenth century that Berenson’s sense of form is developed. With a prophetic tone he predicts that a real art of landscape “will come only when some artists modelling skies like Cézanne’s, able to communicate light and heat as Monet does,” also convey a feeling for space like that of the Umbrians. And his sense of tactile values and movement in the work of Leonardo is heightened by his response to Degas. Berenson’s notion of significant form is thus already concerned implicitly with that painting later championed by Fry in Berenson’s idiom.
Because so much stress has been placed in the writing on Berenson on his celebration of the “life-enhancing” powers of “tactile values,” an important and influential addition to his theory in The North Italian Painters has been overlooked. Whereas tactility is one of the essential characteristics of significant form as defined in The Florentine Painters, Berenson expanded his definition of form in the later book to embrace a “purely pictorial” art, or what he speaks of as “the plastic-pictorial” as opposed to the tactile or “plastic-linear” of the Florentines. He finds this kind of art in Bellini’s painting, free of line and chiaroscuro, and even more so in the work of the Veronese masters, especially Brusasorci, who achieved a “mode of visualizing” that “still reigns in the world of painting.” Just as Michelangelo was the greatest Renaissance master of tactile values and Degas the leading modern exponent of tactility in art, Paolo Veronese was the finest Cinquecento painter of the “purely pictorial.” Berenson probably thought of Matisse as among the most distinguished painters in this tradition. For in 1908, the year after the publication of The North Italian Painters, he wrote a defense of Matisse’s work in The Nation. We have since come to see that the art of Matisse is the supreme example of the purely pictorial mode of visualizing in the first years of this century, thanks in part to the critical writings of Clement Greenberg, who in Art and Culture wrote in Berenson’s language, stressing “the exclusively two-dimensional, optical, and altogether untactile definitions of experience” in modernist painting.
Berenson’s influences have led us forward in time to Fry, Eliot, and Greenberg, but let us return, finally, to his origins as a writer on art, to The Venetian Painters in which he first articulated the views on color later elaborated upon in The North Italian Painters. Berenson’s book on the Venetians brings us back, once again, to Walter Pater, that diaphanous presence behind the future course of Anglo-American art criticism. In his essay “The School of Giorgione,” Pater speaks of “colouring” in Venetian art, associating it with the “abstract colour” of Japanese fan painting. Reacting to Ruskin’s overemphasis on what Berenson would call “illustration” but ever sensitive to Ruskin’s own analyses of color, Pater observes, as Ruskin never would have, that “in its primary aspect, a great picture has no more definite message for us than an accidental play of sunlight and shadow for a few moments on the wail or floor.” This passage was surely in Berenson’s mind when he described Carpaccio’s Dream of St. Ursula “as the picture of a room with the light playing softly upon its walls, upon the flower-pots in the window, and upon the writing-table and the cupboard.” Though, with attention to the painter’s artifice, Ruskin had focused instead on the subject of Carpaccio’s painting: “It is very pretty of Carpaccio,” he wrote in Fors Clavigera, “to make her dream out the angel’s dream so particularly and notice the slackened sleeves; and to dream so little an angel—very nearly a doll angel—bringing her the branch of palm and message.” Following Pater in his reaction to Ruskin’s stress on subject matter, Berenson agrees with Pater’s judgment that Venetian painters up to Carpaccio and Bellini make painting “a thing for the eye, a space of colour on the wall, only more dexteriously blent than the marking of a precious stone or the chance interchange of sun and shade upon it"—though, perhaps, in his attention to the details of St. Ursula’s chamber (the flower-pots, window, writing-desk, and cupboards) Berenson retains just a little of Ruskin’s love of particularity. Pater saw the epitome of this abstracting tendency in the art of Giorgione, calling him the “inventor of genre”; but Berenson, now modifying Pater and seeking some independence from him, insists that as a painter of genre Carpaccio “was the earliest master.”
Berenson’s criticism of Venetian art lies squarely in the French tradition that so informs Pater’s The Renaissance. His celebration of Bassano’s sensuous “jewel-like” paintings, this “art for its own sake,” echoes Gautier, and his description of Bassano’s “modern versions of biblical stories filled with episodes from the life in the streets of Bassano” recalls Baudelaire’s criticism of the painting of modern life. Berenson traces the evolution of modern art from the Venetians to the “best French painters” of his day, from Titian and Bassano to Cézanne: “Indeed, not the least attraction of the Venetian masters is their note of modernity.” Bassano “beat out” the path to Velázquez, and the Venetians affected the Spanish painters, who had “an extraordinary influence on modern painting.” The Venetian tradition was similarly absorbed by Rubens, then by Reynolds, and was sustained by Guardi, who developed “instantaneous effects” that prefigure Romantic and Impressionist painting. Similarly Tiepolo’s work in Spain contributed to the “revival” of painting there under Goya, who in turn influenced “many of the best French artists of our time.”
Depending on Pater’s sense of Giorgione’s modernity and embellishing it, Berenson outlined for the first time the evolution of modern art as we now construe it. His view has become commonplace in the texts of our day, but our familiarity with this historical outline should not diminish our recognition of his highly original formulation. When he later added to this scheme the definition of a “purely pictorial” tradition, Berenson provided a basis for extending this historical overview into the future to include Fauvism and even more recent forms of modernism, notably Abstract Expressionism and Color-field painting.
Berenson’s history of art is very much a formal history, and his influence on Fry, Eliot, and Greenberg is reflected in their attitudes toward form. Today, however, we are witnessing a reaction against “formalism” in the study of both art history and literature. Although the reaction to the New Criticism of literature is now already decades old, the hostility to formalism in the study of art is more recent, having emerged rather sharply in the 1970s—at the same time, curiously enough, that studies of Berenson and Pater have flourished. In any event, formalism is considered by many to be dead, to have been too narrow in its approach to art that is informed by ideologies and symbolic structures not susceptible to formal analysis alone. That art is more than its form is a proposition beyond dispute. To read Pater on Giorgione’s pastoralism, Berenson on Mantegna’s love of antiquity, Fry on Van Gogh’s personality, and Greenberg on Paul Klee’s fantasy and to recall the breadth of culture reflected in the writings of Pater and Berenson and their followers is to recognize that the “formalists” are not restricted in their interest only to form. But like the greatest critics before them and like those writing in their tradition, Pater and Berenson have justly insisted that the values of art, however we may define them and whatever our politics, philosophy, or method may be, reside in form and that it is through its form, and only through its form, that a work of art expresses its significance to us.
- Whereas the discussions of Berenson center on the cult or anti-cult of his personality, the bulk of the literature on the reclusive Pater is far more specialized, focusing on the character of his writings. The best general introduction to Pater’s literary career and to the qualities of his work is Gerald Monsman's Walter Pater, Twayne, 1977. Michael Levey’s more widely known biography, The Case of Walter Pater (Thames and Hudson, 1978), is surprisingly unsympathetic to its subject and unappreciative of Pater’s accomplishment. The interested reader will want to consult Donald L. Hill’s new edition of The Renaissance (University of California, 1980), useful for its detailed commentary on Pater’s sources. In Moments of Vision (Harper & Row, 1981), Kenneth Clark touches on Pater’s contribution to the literature of art. Pater’s influence on twentieth-century interpretations of the visual arts is, however, a subject that warrants further pondering. I have made some brief, preliminary remarks on Pater’s interpretations of Renaissance art in “Walter Pater’s Renaissance,” Virginia Quarterly Review (Spring, 1982), 208-220.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 2 Number 8, on page 47
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