Michael M. Gorman

Berenson’s Appreciation of Japanese Art in the 1890s

In his autobiography, Yashiro speculates that one reason Berenson gave him such a warm welcome was his interest in Eastern art. “Perhaps it was because I was the only Asian among Mr. Berenson’s disciples and his extraordinarily broad field of interest also included Eastern art, but I was treated with affection by my teacher.”

This interest of Berenson’s has been explored by several scholars, including Carl Strehlke, in this exhibition. Strehlke gives particular attention to a fascinating letter from Bernhard Berenson (as he spelled his first name, until World War I) to his future wife Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe, dated October 26, 1894 (for the complete letter, see entry 16 below). Here Berenson recounts the powerful impact of seeing Asian art during a visit to the Fogg Museum, in the company of Ernest Fenollosa.  

During the 1890s, Bernhard Berenson made many comments about Japanese art in letters to Mary and to his sister Senda. Entries in Mary’s diaries from the same period furnish additional evidence on this topic. Berenson specifically expressed appreciation for four Japanese artists: Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858, whom he calls 'Hieroshigi', see entry 16), Ogata Korin (1658-1716, whom he calls 'Koreen', see entry 16), Kitagawa Utamaro (1797-1858, whom he calls 'Outamaro', see entries 5, 10 and 16) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849, whom he calls 'Hokosai', see entries 2 and 6 ). It is of interest to note that in his monograph on Botticelli, which will be published in 1925, Yashiro will discuss three of the four artists mentioned by Berenson in the 1890s: Korin, Utamaro and Hokusai.

A few of Berenson's comments have appeared in earlier publications, often incorrectly transcribed due to the difficulty of reading Berenson’s handwriting (e.g. entry 6 ). Most of the entries are unknown and provide insight into Berenson's interest in both Asian and contemporary art, especially Degas. All twenty-nine items date from before Bernhard and Mary were married in 1900 and are listed below in chronological order. 

A biographical note at the end provides brief introductions to many of the contemporary figures mentioned in these letters and entries, such as Fenollosa.


1. Padua, October 26, 1891 (Entry in Mary Costelloe’s diary)

We spent the morning in the Chapel of the Arena, which is filled with Giotto’s frescoes. We were thoroughly surprised by the real beauty of all the compositions, by the delightful straight-forwardness and clearness of his stories and real appropriateness of his allegories. But we were even more struck by the real beauty of the frescoes as painting — the wonderful purity of the outlines and the daintiness yet richness of the colouring – and perhaps more than anything else – what is so rare in the old Masters – the sweep of his brush. Almost every stroke of this can be traced – and it shows a masterly skill and decision. The naiveté is very winning – and coupled with this is a delicious gaucherie, remarkably like that gaucherie which we also find in Japanese art. In a curious way his peasants, even to their clothes, and his way of treating landscape and animals, is also Japanese. Giotto as well as the Japanese looked upon a picture as the means of expressing an idea – so they mentally abbreviate the scene – simplify it. From one point of view, of course – the point of view of atmosphere – these pictures are as much bas-reliefs as if they were in marble – and this very simplicity is a quality which Giotto has in common with the bas-relief. This is simply saying that Giotto had not yet got free from the style of painting which was nothing but the Alexandrine bas-relief in paint. Certain things in these frescoes are types for the whole school – as, for instance, arranging the heads in a line – which is found throughout the whole Tuscan school.

2. Florence [undated: December 7, 1891?] (Bernhard Berenson to Mary Costelloe)

This morning I … spent two hours in the Ufizzi, where it was bitter cold. … I looked at Botticelli’s Venus, and never before did I enjoy is so much. I enjoyed it as I expected to enjoy it when I used to dream about it in Boston, reading Pater’s description. In that picture Florentine art touched bottom, created something which invites no comparison, asks for no explanation, is complete in itself as Degas, or Hokosai, or our friend who did the door of Spoleto. To bring us close to life is in one shape or another the whole business of art, and Botticelli in the Venus does bring us close to life, not the life in Potapenko, or Huysmans, but just as much life. You have it in the toss of the drapery, in the swing of the line – life full of power, and not afraid to spend itself. I must make you appreciate the Venus. You have never done it justice.

3. Florence [undated: 1892?] (Bernhard Berenson to Mary Costelloe)

One thing to note is that at Munich there was a room full of Japanese pictures by living painters.

4. Lucca, April 23, 1892 (Entry in Mary Costelloe’s diary)

It had also an interesting font and a pulpit in the Pisan style, and behind the High Altar an excellent terra cotta plaque of St. George and the dragon, of the della Robbia School. The dragon was quite Japanese in colour, and in form too.

5. Paris, September 4, 1892 (Entry in Mary Costelloe’s diary)

We lunched together (all but Thiis) and then went to the Exposition des Arts de la Femme. We were interested in the fashions and coiffures, also some lovely Tanagras and Japanese things. Outamaro is as elegant as Parmigianino.

6. Pesaro, October 17, 1892 (Bernhard Berenson to Senda Berenson)

I left Venice Thursday morning, and stopped the day at Padua.  I saw the great Veronese, and the soaring church it lives in, the famous Santo with its queer half Eastern minarets, and the frescoes of Giotto, and Altichieri. My interest in the 14th century people is growing at a rapid pace. Every time I see the Giottos at Padua I think a world more of them. It is curious that my love for the 14th century painters grows in exact proportion to the increase of my interest in the very latest painters of our own time. It is curious, and yet I can explain it. Naturally I have a sense for form, for composition. This was fed by the passionate interest I took in ancient art, and in the architecture of the Renaissance, not only while I was at home, but even during my first year abroad. Of course in painting also I looked for form, composition, and as to feeling I looked for the sentiment that Virgil’s Bucolics filled me with. Even now when I think of perfect happiness my mind forms a picture that would illustrate one of those idylls. All this is as much as to say that painting as painting meant nothing to me. Drawing particularly, in the art sense of that word, was a small matter. If I found figures which satisfied my ideal of beauty, and a landscape and sentiment which realized my Virgilian dream I thought that picture beautiful. But time has changed all that. The quality of line in drawing, force, decision mean everything to me. The same force, vigour, and decision plus a quick sense for the whole, that is to say tone are all I ask for in colour. When I find these qualities I am satisfied, without asking to find expression of myself in every picture. After I have had my fill of enjoyment of the art in a picture, then I ask what it says, and I do my level best to hear what it says, and to take care to say nothing myself. So you see, as the sentiment of a picture has become indifferent to me, I am ready to appreciate any picture with quality to it, whether it be Giotto, Hokosai, or Degas.

[Note: Hokosai's name was transcribed as "Masaccio" in Ernest Samuels, Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Connoisseur, Cambridge, Mass. 1979, 160.]

7. Florence, January 5, 1893 (Entry in Mary Costelloe’s diary)

I went to the Pitti to speak to Prof. James, and then to the Panciatichi collection with Bernhard. We saw the most lovely of all Crivelli’s, a smallish Pietà, of perfect, compact composition. There were fine Japanese things too, and a couple of delicious small Tura’s.

8. Florence [undated: 1893?] (Bernhard Berenson to Mary Costelloe)

The weather is more than ever miraculous. This afternoon things looked as in Japanese art, where the objects are dashed off on the bare surface of the panel or paper, with no attempt at background, or intervening atmosphere.

9. Florence, March 25, 1894 (Entry in Mary Costelloe’s diary)

Fabbri spent the afternoon here, looking at Lotto photographs. He judges everything by the Velasquez or Japanese standard, and prefers Botticelli to Bellini.

10. Florence, March 26, 1894 (Entry in Mary Costelloe’s diary)

We lunched at Loeser’s with Miss Hallowell, and there made our first real acquaintance with Outamaro and his master. We passed a couple of hours of absolutely lyric joy looking at those things. His collection is very unequal. His rooms are furnished with exquisite taste. He seemed rather nice, and I am glad we have tried to heal up the quarrel.

11. Paris, August 30, 1894 (Entry in Mary Costelloe’s diary)

After lunch we went to the Exposition du Livre, and saw some nice Japanese things.

12. Roxbury, September 17, 1894 (Bernhard Berenson to Mary Costelloe)

By the way, yesterday, Sunday, I went to the art museum. It was fearfully crowded — the Metropolitan in New York had no crowd at all. The picture show is not extraordinary, except for Copley who seems interesting. But my first glance over the Japanese collection was a treat, particularly of the potteries and lacquers.

13. Newport, Rhode Island, September 18, 1894 (Bernhard Berenson to Senda Berenson)

What pleasure in mere existence one may enjoy here! Not a clashing note; and beside the pictures, lots of Japanese potteries and bronzes.

14. Roxbury, September 26, 1894 (Bernhard Berenson to Mary Costelloe)

[Visit to the home of Quincy Shaw]. The proprietor was not at home. So much the better for a first look. No decoration whatever! Simple, square rooms with homely furniture, but pictures on the walls, and here and there, where they seem articles of every day use, the most exquisite Old Satsuma, Japanese bronzes, and lacquers. The pictures are Millets, Corots, Rousseaus for the most part. The Corots are among the most intime I’ve ever seen. The Millets are chiefly pastels, but dozens of oils also. They are pictures not to constater — as so very many are — but to live with. Yes, to understand Millet, you must come here. Here you see him not only as an artist than whom there never was a greater, but as the chief instrument in the genesis of the Impressionnistes.

Shaw’s Italian pictures are of small amount beside the French. A genuine Cima Madonna, a Licinio “Santa Conversazione”, a Mainardi, some sham Veroneses, a small Annunciation, and an enormous Nativity, both of which you with your neophytic certainty would baptize Domenico Tintoretto, and I hesitate about […], lest they be by Jacopo himself, and finally a Magdalen by B. Vivarini, almost a Crivelli. To all this add a Madonna by Luca della Robbia, as lovely as any, the marble Madonna with angels and Child, ascribed to Verrocchio, and certainly close akin to the mysterious Madonna and Angels in the National Gallery, and a bust of a warrior, possibly by Polajuolo.

15. Boston, October 25, 1894 (Bernhard Berenson to Senda Berenson)

This morning at 10 I met him in the art-museum and he introduced me to Fenelosa. From 10 to 5, with the hour for lunch excepted, I spent in a sort of dream of ecstasy before Chinese and Japanese painting. They revealed a new world to me.

16. Roxbury, October 26, 1894 (Bernhard Berenson to Mary Costelloe)

Yesterday morning before ten I met Denman Ross at the Art Museum. We looked at his version of the Bergamo Raphael which seems to me possibly by lo Spagna. At ten he took me down to Fenelosa whom I liked at once. He is a little taller than I, has a long face, colouring not unlike my own, beautiful grey eyes, and something in his look that suggests Burke.

He began almost at once to show me things, starting out with a life-size painting by a Japanese dating from the 9th century, a figure of a saint with all the literary qualities and much of the charm of Lorenzetti, beside its own power.

He then showed me a series of Chinese pictures from the 12th century, which revealed a new world to me. To begin with they had composition of figures and groups as perfect and simple as the best that we Europeans have ever done. Then they had, what was never dream of in oriental art, powerful characterization, now surpassing Dürer, and now Gentile Bellini. Furthermore, and most astonishing, they are profoundly contrite, full of humility, love, humanity, of the quality of the tenderest passage in the Gospels, or in the story of St. Francis. And all this (that we have approached) in terms of line, colour, and tone that we Europeans have never approached, that no Japanese things you and I have seen together at all rival.

I was prostate. Fenelosa shivered as he looked. I thought I should die, and even Denman Ross who looks dumpy Anglo-Saxon was jumping up and down. We had to poke and pinch each other to let off some of the tension, and almost we fell on each other’s necks and wept. No, decidedly I never had had such an art experience. I do not wonder Fenelosa has gone into esoteric Buddhism. What is so convincing as art! And where ever was religion so manifested as in these paintings!

A Mrs. Scott, Fenelosa’s assistant, who was also present asked me solemnly at a certain moment, if I did not feel the presence in the room of all the occult influences represented in the pictures.

Then Fenelosa picked out choice specimens of Japanese painting thro’ the centuries. The decline seemed steady, and everything seemed rather flat after the 12th century series, yet when I looked at them the other way, i.e., going backward, from the 17th to the 12th century, one thing seemed more wonderful than the other. I never had such a test of the relativity of aesthetic enjoyment. What we got out of the individual picture depended entirely on whether we took it in an ascending or descending series. And what is so wonderful we were unanimous. The same cry rose from all our lips at the first sight of the great thing, and I never made an adverse criticism without it being seconded by Fenelosa. It was delightful. Here he had devoted twenty years to Japanese, and I seven to Italian art, and the result is a perfectly equal sense of quality in line, grouping, colour and tone. How it fortified me in my impressions! And I could see that he was even more delighted. One series of paintings from the 14th century was so much like Fra Angelico only very much more beautiful. Oh, the drift of stars in the milky way that one represented! No, it did not represent it, but so suggested it that I felt it instantly, and Fenelosa told me that actually [it] was the subject as labelled by the painter himself. At one we ended with seeing a large screen by Koreen, a wild sea with green waves, toothed and fanged like terrible beasts gnawing rocks as strange as in Lorenzetti. O, the freedom, the wind, the sunshine, the salt smell, the coolness, and great spirit of nature there was in this!

Ross and I then went to lunch, and after lunch we went back and looked at prints, but such prints, the best Outamaro you have seen are as nothing to them, landscapes by Hieroshigi that beat Whistler, and figures ad lib.

I looked until there was no more light in the sky, and then called on the James’ in Cambridge. I saw James whom I found limping about with a sprained ankle. I stayed only a minute, and went to dine with Archie Coolidge and Santayana, and the present editor of the Monthly who has the pretty name Pierre la Rose.

17. Roxbury, October 30, 1894 (Bernhard Berenson to Mary Costelloe)

Yesterday I spent most of the day with Denman Ross at his house in Cambridge. He has two of the very finest Monets, and quantities of Japanese things.

18. New York, November 6, 1894 (Bernhard Berenson to Mary Costelloe)

After lunch Davis took me to Marquandt’s. The old man is now very deaf, so one can look, and need not talk. You enter into a hall with wooden balconies running all around at different storeys, the walls hung with the loveliest Persian tapestries, or inlaid with Oriental tiles of the daintiest pattern and colour. There we spent the rest of the afternoon looking at Moorish, and Persian, and Japanese pottery, at lacquers, at bronzes, at tapestries, until my eyes closed of themselves. Mary, such, such a feast, and on the whole such exquisite taste in the arrangement, particularly a room containing the Japanese pottery wherein all the carving of the shelves, the walls, the ceilings, the fire things, everything was either old Japanese, or well recreated.

19. Paris, December 15, 1894 (Entry in Mary Costelloe’s diary)

Bernhard lunched with Bing and saw his marvellous Japanese things, while I took Mrs. Hapgood to Durand-Ruel’s and the Louvre.

20. Paris, December 20, 1894 (Entry in Mary Costelloe’s diary)

Loeser and Sturges came to dinner and we went to see M. Rouart’s Japanese things, next door to Reinach.

21. Fiesole, February 13, 1895 (Entry in Mary Costelloe’s diary)

The great event of the day was the arrival and spreading of our Japanese rugs.

22. Fiesole, May 26, 1895 (Entry in Mary Costelloe’s diary)

Today at lunch Bernhard suddenly broke out in praise of the Degas on the mantelpiece, “the greatest of all works of art.” “Why?” … A good deal of hesitation and feeling round, and at last the right reason hit on the head, because it conveys life directly. He has deserted the theory that art is to “uplift”, or “broaden” life, or any hygienic, social or moral view of its mission. That may or may not be, but the essence of essences is to be a sheath, an envelope of just “plain life”. effects of space and composition belong to architecture, and are rightly called in painting “architectonic”. But painting can communicate life, livingness, itself. This is the purely aesthetic artistic standard of art. Whether it resembles or not is aside from the mark. Painting can convey life more forcibly, more essentially, than the living thing itself. Neither Maud [Cruttwell] nor I looked half so much alive as Degas’ ballet-girl bending down to tie her slipper. We were not sheaths of aliveness as the painter made that figure. This idea, unclearly felt after, is at the bottom of most criticism, from Vasari’s “pare vivo” down. But most people can’t imagine it can convey life unless it is as much like the living thing as possible. Hence most bad criticism, such as mother’s contempt for the Japanese, who seem to be the greatest “life-bearers” of all.

23. Mainz, July 19, 1895 (Entry in Mary Costelloe’s diary)

We the “did” the town [Frankfurt], ending up at 10 at the Städel Institut, where we stayed till one. It is a splendid collection. Perhaps a huge triptych by Roger van der Weyden impressed us more than anything else, the splendidly decorative Christ on the Cross with a Japanese landscape, like a stronger, more human Crivelli.

24. Paris, June 29, 1896 (Bernhard Berenson to Mary Costelloe)

Placci and Cook accompanied me to [Moise de] Camondo’s yesterday morning. I found a number of new Degas, and Manet’s “Port du Boulogne”, the one real night scene. He has annexed another floor, and hung one large room with the best Japanese engravings. Degas exquisitely illustrates my theories — not only his execution but the choice of his motives is entirely determined by feeling for tactile values, for pressure and movements. Both Cook and Placci seized hold of him as maternal pap. Camondo reports Degas saying “il faut peindre faux pour paraitre vrai.” I still like the Monets, but not quite so much. Degas and Manet overtower everybody. Camondo by the way is going to leave all his things to the Louvre.

25. London, July 30, 1896 (Bernhard Berenson to Mary Costelloe)

There are very few Raphaels at Windsor. Among odds and ends I discovered a drawing by Mansueti, a fine head of a monk by Montagna, and a large and impressionistic Sodoma. Then we refreshed ourselves looking at the Holbeins. There is a master of the line, and he uses black and buff like the best Japanese.

26. Fiesole, October 22, 1896 (Entry in Mary Costelloe’s diary)

I am horrified with the way I let flowers be arranged in this house. An article on Japanese flower arrangement has opened my eyes to the possibilities of this as an art.

27. Florence, May 15, 1898 (Entry in Mary Costelloe’s diary)

In the evening we had a long, long discussion wherein Horne maintained that no European could enjoy Egyptian and Japanese art as he enjoyed his own, nor Nature as he enjoys art. He isn’t much of a thinker — this is the first real talk we have had, and he got hopelessly muddled.

28. Florence, June 11, 1898 (Entry in Mary Costelloe’s diary)

Bernhard’s dealer from Rome (Cesare Magni, by name!) came bringing a lovely Rembrandt he bought, and some Japanese bronzes. Later came Torini with a Sienese portrait, which Bernhard also bought.

29. Paris, June 28, 1898 (Entry in Mary Costelloe’s diary)

Louvre in the morning. Bernhard went there with Herr von Seidlitz, and then to Rouart’s Japanese collection.

Biographical Notes

  • Mr. Bing, mentioned in Mary’s diary entries for Deember 15, 1894, September 26, 1895 and June 23, 1896, was apparently an art dealer in Paris, perhaps the father of Henry Bing (1888-1965), who founded the Galerie Bing in Paris in 1925.
  • Moise de Camondo (1860-1935) built a mansion on Parc Monceau in Paris in 1911. Modelled after the Petit Trianon in Versailles, it housed his art collection, bequeathed in 1935 as the Musée Nissim de Camondo, named in honour of his son who died in 1917. Camondo's family had owned the largest bank in the Ottoman Empire.
  • Sir Herbert Frederick Cook, 3rd Baronet Cook of Richmond, 1868-1939, educated at Harrow and Balliol, was a collector and connoisseur, one of the founders of the Burlington Magazine, and a donor to the Courtauld Institute. From 1895 to about 1900 he and Bernhard were great friends.
  • Archibald Cary Coolidge, ’87 (thus Bernhard’s class mate), 1866-1928, was the son of Jack Gardner’s sister Julia. From 1887 to 1893 he studied in Paris and Germany while serving in various capacities in the U.S. diplomatic service. In 1893 he began to teach in the Department of History and from 1908 until his death he was a professor of History at Harvard College. He was also the first director of the Harvard University Library from 1910 until his death and guided the building of Widener Library. Coolidge was a founder of the Council on Foreign Relations and the first editor of Foreign Affairs. Coolidge built Randolph Hall in 1897 and continued to live in his suite there until his death — its features were luxurious even by Gold Coast standards; the building is now part of Adams House. 
  •  Maud Cruttwell, 1860-1939, kept house for Mary in Villa Rosa in Fiesole, 1894-1897. She worked closely with Bernhard and thanked him in her various books on painters for his help. In 1900 she acted as witness to the Berensons' marriage.
  • Ernest Fenollosa, ’74, was born in Salem, Mass., in 1853 and died in London in 1908. An art historian, he was a professor at Tokyo University and later served as curator in the department of Oriental Art at the Museum of Fine Arts from 1890 to 1896.
  • Pierre La Rose (better known as Pierre Chaignon de La Rose), ’95, was born Peter Ross in 1871 and attended Phillips Exeter. An especially flamboyant member of Santayana’s circle, he had become the editor of the Harvard Monthly in October 1894, when Berenson met him on his return to Cambridge. From 1897-1902, he was instructor in English at Harvard College. He later turned to interior decoration, including the Signet Society House and the Faculty Room in University Hall, and armorial research, designing the coats of arms of Harvard’s graduate schools.
  • Mr. Marquandt, a rich collector who lived in a ‘tremendously luxurious and beautiful’ mansion in New York in the 1890s, is mentioned in a letter from Bernhard to Mary dated Nov. 4, 1894.
  • Denman Ross, ’75, 1853-1935, a painter and a collector, was professor of art at Harvard. He made donations of Japanese and Chinese art to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, of which he was a trustee.
  • Woldemar von Seidlitz, 1850-1922, an art historian, was born in St. Petersburg.
  • Quincy Adams Shaw, ’45, 1825-1907, one of the richest men in Massachusetts, married Pauline Agassiz  in 1860; she was the step-daughter of Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz, 1822-1907, who in 1894 transformed the “Harvard Annex”, set up in 1879, into Radcliffe College. Mary Whitall Smith, Bernhard’s future wife, attended the Harvard Annex in 1884-1885.
  • Jonathan Sturges, 1864-1911, a Princeton graduate, was a writer. His book of stories, The First Supper and Other Episodes, was published in 1893. Sturges first met James McNeill Whistler around 1895, possibly in Paris, although he lived mostly in England. He and Whistler shared a number of mutual friends including Henry James, George Washington Vanderbilt and the Pennells. Sturges was depicted as Little Bilham in The Ambassadors (1903) by Henry James. Mary saw Jonathan Sturges in Paris in November and December 1894 and again in September 1895, and then in London in the summer of 1896; he was a friend of her brother Logan.
  • Jens Thiis, 1870-1942, an art historian and director of the National Gallery, Oslo. Awarded the honorary citizenship of Florence for his books on the Renaissance in Florence.
  • Robert Trevelyan, ‘Trevy’, 1872-1951, the son of Sir George Trevelyan, Macaulay’s biographer. A poet and translator, he was a follower of Mary’s brother, Logan Pearsall Smith, and close to the Bloomsbury group. He attended Trinity College Cambridge, where he studied classics and was elected to the Apostles. Among his friends were George Santayana, Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, E. M. Forster and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson. In the 1890s he was Bernhard’s favourite visitor to Villa Kraus and Il Frullino.


Michael M. Gorman's most recent book is Grammatical Works attributed to Peter of Pisa, Charlemagne’s Tutor, Hildesheim 2014. He is preparing an edition of the letters and diaries of Bernhard and Mary which date from before 1901. Email: michael.gorman@unimi.it