Rachel Cohen

Bernard Berenson published October 22nd.

My second book, Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, has just been published in the Yale University Press Jewish Lives Series.  The press describes the book: "This brilliant new biography of the leading art connoisseur of the Gilded Age explores his accomplishments, his painful disappointments, the historical forces that affected his life, and the women who were central to his achievements."

“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


First in a Series

First in a Series

“The Bath,” 1891. State: xvii/xvii: color print with drypoint, softground and aquatint.

On a fleeting visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art late last December – five women of three generations, including the baby and her much-admired five-year-old cousin L. – I caught a first glimpse of something that seemed suddenly very interesting, or rather it was as if I had already for a while been interested and had come upon the occasion when a dim returning attraction becomes a definite line to pursue.

We were a small cloud of Brownian motion bounding and rebounding in that museum’s great atrium, recently-completed, and its great white rooms – it was almost by accident that we found ourselves in a small exhibition of Mary Cassatt’s prints. On one side of a hallway a room with works on paper having to do with life in Paris – something of Degas, something of Toulouse-Lautrec. And on the other side of the hallway the room of Cassatt prints. Their fine yellow, slightly Japanese in tone, women seated, stillness, design.  In the different impressions, deliberation. I didn’t have time to look comparatively, and envied the men and women spending a careful hour in that room.

Last weekend, at the Raven bookstore, a find: Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints, by Mathews and Shapiro, for an exhibition in Boston, DC, and Williamstown, 1989-1990.  And last night, reading late, found the thought I might have had, or begun to have, that dark December day.

In 1879, at the invitation of Degas, Cassatt began exhibiting with the Impressionists.  Later that fall, she made a trip to the Alps – I imagine one of those trips during which vision is clarified and from which one returns full of the energy to redouble one’s efforts. She found that Degas, Pissarro and Bracquemond had the idea for a new print journal, La jour et la nuit. She joined in.  “At the moment,” Degas wrote to Bracquemond of the project, “Mlle Cassatt is full of it.”  

At the Impressionist exhibition the following spring, Degas, Cassatt and Pissarro showed etchings they had been doing over the winter.  Interestingly, they showed early “preliminary” states as well. [The states of an etching are prints made at different stages from the same plate, often there are considerable changes both because the artist may draw and scrape out aspects of the design, and because the plate itself changes and wears in the process of being printed.]

The Impressionists were unusual in valuing preliminary unfinished states, and this bears an important relation to their understanding and depiction of time.  As Shapiro and Mathews point out: “States thus must be seen as a larger work of art; in a sense they form a “series” as in other Impressionist groups of related works.”  Cassatt, they continue, “keeps reworking the plate and redefining the lights and darks in endless variation as if to capture the changing light of the actual scene.”


Reading with Vijay Seshadri October 1

I'll be reading with Vijay Seshadri in the DoubleTake Series curated by Albert Mobilio at Apex Art Gallery October 1, at 7 pm. The gallery is at 291 Church St and details about the reading are to be found here: apexart.org/double-take-reading-series.php. Vijay's wonderful book 3 Sections is out this month from Graywolf.  For the reading, he and I have each written a short piece about seeing, but not seeing together, the De Kooning show at the MoMA two years ago.  


Shopping in Style

Shopping in Style

Suzanne De Chillo for the New York Times

The Impressionists were my first painters, as I think they were many peoples'.  They required no explanation.  I liked them.  I came early to painting and at twelve was fervently memorizing schools, dates, palettes, styles, as other children at that age remember scores, teams, clothes, lyrics.  The works of each painter moved in my mind like small rushing galaxies; at museums, I knew a Degas or a Monet across a room.  

As one grows older one comes to like bitter tastes.  The first sweet passions of youth, even if still felt now and again in private, seem soft, insufficient, a little embarrassing.  Coffee, Beckmann – one turns to darker matters.  The Impressionists don’t seem troubled enough; theirs are styles without irony.

One of the difficulties of seeing the Impressionists again is to learn to see the difficulties.  The paintings – reproduced in cheap metal frames in every dorm room and dentist's office – can seem as if they're not really paintings, not really individual canvases labored over by individual artists, at all.  Even the story of them, the way the artists were shunned by the Academy and were hungry and obscure and worked in a manner at the time genuinely radical and offensive, all seems shaded over with a sort of happy satisfaction.  When I try to say what this happy satisfaction is, the one that these paintings can seem to exude, I find myself thinking that it is vaguely akin to the feeling of shopping.  

Shopping – in the sense of ordinary middle class people wandering about in a maze of acquirable but not strictly necessary commodities – came to have certain peculiar characteristics in the 19th century in Paris as the Impressionists were growing up and beginning to paint.

Here is a description of the flâneur and the shopfronts taken from Pierre Larousse’s Grand Dictionnaire universel (Paris 1872) that Walter Benjamin included in his Arcades Project, his vast fragmentary meditation on 19th century shopping arcades.  “First of all, there are the flâneurs of the boulevard, whose entire existence unfolds between the Church of the Madeleine and the Théâtre du Gymnase.  Each day sees them returning to this narrow space, which they never pass beyond, examining the displays of goods, surveying the shoppers seated before the doors of cafés…. They would be able to tell you if Goupil or Deforge have put out a new print or a new painting, and if Barbedienne has repositioned a vase or an arrangement; they know all the photographers’ studios by heart and could recite the sequence of signs without omitting a single one.”  [Arcades Project, p451, translated Eiland, McLaughlin, fragment M18a,3]

Goupil, of whom it is immediately noticed if he has put out a new painting, opened the first retail house for the sale of paintings in 1829.  The Impressionists were among the first French children to see paintings in shops.  A fragment of an Etruscan fresco displayed in a Paris art shop window looks very different than a painting painted after the 1830s does in the same window, and part of the reason for this is deep in the consciousness of the painter, who knows his work is going to be seen this way, and who, as a result, gets unavoidably entangled in questions of style.

Here is what Larousse’s image of the scrutinizing flâneurs suggests to me about an emerging idea of style. Examination, at a distance, of wares behind glass, of the style of shops, and the examination, at a distance, of bodies enveloped in clothes, of the wares walking about, recognizable by their style, a style that is an intricate combination of the style of the designer / manufacturer and the style of the wearer.  Little thin layers of the exterior and the interior, wares of shops to be displayed inside homes and outside bodies; the painter of costumed bodies in decorated interiors reproducing these wares as further wares.          

It was a troubling feature of the Metropolitan Museum's recent "Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity," exhibition that it was harder than usual to tell the difference between the exhibition itself and the gift shop set up at the end.  In the exhibition halls, mannequins in glass cases modeling clothes similar to those in the paintings had the effect of making the paintings seem like fashion plates for a magazine.  Although this was possibly a productive confusion, it made me unhappy.

I came away with an incipient thought that the Impressionists' use of paint texture becomes a means of distinguishing the paintings at a great distance.  A painting, like a dress along a boulevard, now had to be recognizable from afar – commerce adjudicated in the space of the 19th century city with its fashionable women and magazines of fashion.

In a way this might be considered a further step related to that of the late medieval Italian painters who began to paint on portable canvases and to sign their pictures.  The authenticity and saleability of the object, both at once, are established by the signature and, in the later case, by the signature style.

Part of what now makes us, or me anyway, suspicious of the Impressionists is how saleable they are.  The ever higher prices the original works command seems but the top of a pyramid of sales: you can buy reproductions of Monets in good oil paint for many hundreds of dollars, in museum gift shops you can buy silk scarves made in Italy with patterns of Monet’s water lilies on them, online you can order for your baby a onesie made of camouflage fabric printed with a Monet.

All this apparel, for the exterior of the body and the interior of the home seems to make the Impressionists blameworthy.  As if their facility with style and shopping diminishes their work.  But perhaps this is a way of deflecting my own attention from the much more disturbing problem that museums have to a great degree set themselves up as large department stores, in which one acquires “looks” and purchases suitable accoutrements and mementos at the end of the visit.  A Beckmann seems to scorn my commercial desire, have I been mistaken in worrying that the Impressionists comply with it?      




Max Ernst, Une Semaine de Bonté, plate 10, detail

Walking through the gallery, struck from the first with what felt like a wind of invention, a strong wind with particles of sand in it, it was at about the tenth image that I noticed that not only did this lion have a medal (and it was a giant medal, ridiculous, but not without pathos, because he also seemed to be a gentleman now fallen on such hard times that he might be a wandering beggar, his ailing daughter clinging to his arm, and the fact that he had retained the medal, such a large one, seemed to suggest a painful pride and attachment to some institution that had not in the end cared for him at all), not only, as I say, did this lion have a medal, but every lion had a medal.

In the first “Lion de Belfort” section of Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté – the lions, the ones of authority parading through ghoulish exhibits, the night watchmen of ill intent, the one in a greatcoat seducing a dancing nude woman by playing the clarinet, the pride-engorged executioner whose victim lies down at the guillotine, the debauched reveler like an appalling caricature of a Dutch lass-on-knee genre picture – they all have medals.

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Worn with obdurate aggression, the medals would be pitiful if they weren’t pernicious. The writing on the medal of the lion in plate 21 is extremely legible: “Merite Agricole, 1883” it says and hangs from a loop that seems half-clamped in the teeth of a dusty disheveled bowler-hatted better-days lion.

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It was the summer of 1933; Max Ernst made these 184 collages in just a few months, while he was staying in the north of fascist Italy. All those medals – given for fifty years of military valor, colonial expeditions, police arrests, agricultural progress, upright bourgeois citizenship – all those medals for what had after all been rape, pillage, murder, surveillance, manipulation, state-sanctioned robbery and unbearable preening – all this hung heavy in the imagination and in the air over Vigoleno.      

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Images are photographed details from Lion de Belfort plates in catalog Max Ernst: Une Semaine de Bonté, les collages originaux, edited by Werner Spies, Paris: Gallimard, 2009.


Trying to be Taught

Trying to be Taught

Courbet, Rocks at Mouthier, 1862

Reading about the early years in the lives of the Impressionists – the period in the late 1850s and early 1860s when they began to arrive and to meet one another in Paris – I have been thinking about the necessity and difficulty of finding teachers.  Unlike writing, the craft of painting has always been passed on in ateliers and schools.  Sometimes it seems like every painter in the mid-17th century in the Netherlands spent a productive period in Rembrandt’s studio.  Painting is an apprentice trade.  You watch the hand of a master and your hand becomes knowledgeable.  You practice under a master’s eye and the lines of your drawings lose their clumsiness.

The men and women who became known as the Impressionists were desperate for teachers.  As a young man in Le Havre, Monet was fortunate to stumble on Boudin and Jongkind.  In Aix, Cézanne, arguing with his banker father to be allowed to study art and confined to the study of “dusty plaster casts” and “black and white engravings after paintings,” was, John Rewald estimates, “in dire need of guidance.”[i]

But in Paris there was a surprising paucity of genuine help.  The Ecole des Beaux-Arts, controlled to calcification by the persnickety academicianism of the followers of Ingres, had made a decades-long practice of excluding Delacroix and the fiery energy he would have brought to students in search of more expressive means.  Delacroix himself, though his studio was open to any sincere seekers, was isolated and growing old. Teachers like Gérôme were fiercely critical of what seemed to them the ugly uncouthness that resulted when younger painters attempted to render realistically the world around them.

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Delacroix, Tiger and Snake, 1862

Ingres, Turkish Bath, 1863

At that time, Courbet was the enfant terrible of realism and the Paris art world was shot through with partisanship. At the end of 1861, some students even left the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in protest and petitioned Courbet to teach them.  He tried.  For a few crazy months he rented a large space and everyone went there with great enthusiasm and he had horses and bulls brought in to be painted ‘from life’ and cartoons of this ran in the papers.  But he was haranguing and repetitive, good at the manifesto of his own work but not at helping students discover their own and the experiment was given up in April of 1862, just at the time that Renoir enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and a few months before the arrivals of Sisley, Monet, and Bazille.

They met instead at the school run by affable, old-fashioned, unimpassioned Gleyre.  He looked at a study of a nude that Monet had done and he said, “not bad!... but it is too much in the character of the model – you have before you a short thickset man, you paint him short and thickset – he has enormous feet, you render them as they are.  All that is very ugly.”  The vigorous, impatient Monet remembered this vividly when he was interviewed about it some forty years later.  Gleyre had continued, “I want you to remember, young man, that when one draws a figure, one should always think of the antique.  Nature, my friend, is all right as an element of study, but it offers no interest.  Style, you see, is everything.”[ii]  After that, Monet came to the studio just enough to pacify his family, who were already quite uncertain about letting him pursue painting.

Gleyre’s interaction with Renoir is also illustrative.  Renoir remembered, again decades later, that Gleyre had said to him, “No doubt it’s to amuse yourself that you are dabbling in paint?”  And light-hearted Renoir replied, “of course… if it didn’t amuse me, I beg you to believe that I wouldn’t do it!”  Renoir thought Gleyre was “a second rate schoolmaster but a good man,”[iii] who at least “left them pretty much to their own devices.”[iv]  And Gleyre made a place where they could work.  Determined to learn, Renoir, Bazille, and Sisley went on diligently in that studio, meeting afterward to talk through all their own ideas.

When these just-emerging painters looked around them in 1862, the teacher who seemed just a few steps ahead of them on the path was Manet. In those first heady conversations as they walked out of Gleyre's, Bazille told Renoir "Manet is as important to us as Cimabue or Giotto were to the Italians of the Quattrocento; and as the Renaissance is beginning again, we must be part of it..."[v]

Part of the excitement of studying Impressionism is to watch how this quite large group of people was able to teach one another and themselves.  In the lives of writers, two, three, four friends may have a long effect on one another’s understanding, but in painting, large groups – in this case there are easily twenty figures of great significance, perhaps many more – may teach one another in a very substantial, personal way.

“Each of Renoir’s friend brought him a gift for which he was grateful,” the painter’s son judged later.  “Bibesco [a prince and patron] gave him his first opportunity to see the bare shoulders of women in their beautiful evening gowns; Cézanne revealed to him the precision of Mediterranean thought; Monet opened his eyes to the wild imagination of the people of the north European countries; and Pissarro formulated in theoretical terms his own and his friends’ researches… Sisley’s gift was gentleness.”[vi]

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Manet, Concert in the Tuileries Gardens, 1862

[i] Rewald, The History of Impressionism, p61-62.
[ii] Rewald, p70-71.
[iii] Renoir, Renoir, My Father, p97.
[iv] Rewald, p73.
[v] Renoir, p95.
[vi] Renoir, p107.