Bernard and Mary at Friday’s Hill

(BH.I.2) Bernard and Mary, 1901

Jonathan K. Nelson, Exhibition Curator

Long before Bernard and Mary Berenson transformed the study and appreciation of Italian Renaissance art, before they married and moved into a villa outside Florence called I Tatti, they arrived separately as students at Harvard in 1884.  Bernard Berenson (1865-1959, fig. BB.II.1) and Mary Whitall Smith (1864-1945, fig. MS.I.2) only met in 1888, after they had both left the United States, though in the draft for her biography of Bernard (cat. MS.IV.2), Mary recalled that, “he had been pointed out to me at one of the University concerts, as the most brilliant member of the then Sophomore class.”[1] A similar appraisal appears in a 1932 letter of Edith Wharton. After reading Mary’s “A Life of Bernard Berenson,” she encouraged her friend to enrich the first chapter with more details “about his Harvard days, when he was ‘stupor mundi’ to undergraduates and professors.” [2]

Part online exhibition and part electronic catalog, Berenson and Harvard: Bernard and Mary as Students provides multifaceted images of the future art critics through photographs, documents, early writings by Bernard and Mary, and eleven essays by modern scholars. [3] Two new studies—Rachel Cohen’s “Bernard Berenson at Harvard College” (cat. BB.I.1) and Tiffany Johnston’s “Mary Whitall Smith at the Harvard Annex” (cat. MS.I.1)—and two chapters from Ernst Samuel’s celebrated biography of Bernard (cat. BB.III.2, BB.IV.2) offer portrayals not only of the two students but also of the institutions they attended. Bernard’s nineteen articles published in the Harvard Monthly, and never before reprinted, reveal his remarkable erudition and wide range of interests. [4] Among the unpublished material is the first chapter of Mary’s “A Life of Bernard Berenson” (cat. MS.IV.2), the most important source of information about the Harvard years of both students, Bernard’s detailed application for a Parker Fellowship (cat. BB.II.3), and his senior thesis on “Talmudo-Rabbinical Eschatology” (cat. BB.IV.1). The exhibition includes sections dedicated to the “Academic Record,” “Intellectual Interests,” and “Writings” of both students. Though most of their courses and readings touched only marginally on art history, the university years of Bernard and Mary had a profound impact on their later scholarship.

Read the Complete Essay