Reading with Rose: Three Queens for BB

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Bernard Berenson in 1887 courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London.

Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) was an art critic and historian whom some believe was the definitive art historian in America during the 20th century. Born in Lithuania, Berenson and his family moved to Boston in 1875. Bernard, or BB, as he was later called, attended many of this city’s most enduring schools: Boston Latin School, Boston University, and Harvard University. Upon his graduation, patrons such as Isabella Stewart Gardner supported his definitive Grand Tour of Europe. Berenson continued to travel throughout his life, learning and observing art on an international scale. Eventually, patrons solicited his opinion on Renaissance art in particular–his area of expertise. Today, Berenson is considered (by some) a controversial figure for his secret partnership with Joseph Duveen (1869-1939), an international art dealer. Upon his death, Berenson bequeathed his estate and works to Harvard University. (1)

 

 

Less renowned for her art collecting than her impressive activism, landscape architect and fellow world traveler Rose Standish Nichols became friends with the legendary art connoisseur. The two Bostonians shared an admiration for the Italian Renaissance in particular.

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Raphael’s “Madonna of the Tower;” postcard from Rose Standish Nichols’ collection.

As a friend and an admirer of his work, Rose’s library at the Nichols House Museum contains no less than four books by the art historian: Lorenzo Lotto; An Essay in Constructive Art Criticism, The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance (1894), The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance (1897), and Echi E Riflessioni (Diario 1941-1944); the last of which Berenson personally inscribed to Rose.

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Letter from Bernard Berenson  to Rose Standish Nichols, December 7, 1954.

 

Another friend of Rose’s provides us with a particularly humorous glimpse into Rose and Bernard’s friendship. In 1995, Polly Thayer Starr–whose portrait of Rose, you might recall, hangs in the Nichols House Museum library–gave an interview to Robert Brown for the Archives of American Art. Starr was the daughter of Rose’s friend Ethel Thayer. In 1927, Rose reluctantly agreed to sit as Starr’s subject, which she writes about here. With no shortage of anecdotes about Miss Rose Standish Nichols, Starr tells Brown one story about our matriarch which has become a favorite among the museum’s staff:

“There was one other story of Miss Nichols, that interested me because she had the Crown Princess of Greece come and stay with me. She was great friends with Bernard Berenson, the critic and writer, and one day she took a carriage out from Florence to see him, and the servant came to the door. She said she wanted to see Bernard Berenson, and the servant said she was very sorry, but Berenson was indisposed and couldn’t get up–wasn’t feeling well. “Well,” she said, “tell him I have three queens that have come to see him,” and wrote it on her card. The servant, quite impressed, took it up to Berenson, who looked out the window, and there he saw Queen Sophie of Greece, the Queen of Italy–Margarita, I believe her name was–and the Queen of Yugoslavia. So he said he’d be right down. [laughter] But she knew all the politicians, crowned heads and prime ministers that she could contact, and they were all amused by her. So when I went to Spain I went with her, and it was great fun.” (2)

 

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Letter to Rose Nichols from Queen Sophie.

*A note about the queens: if the Queen of Italy Thayer is referring to is Queen Margarita (reigned 1878-1900), she would likely not have been Queen at the time of this story. The above photograph, part of the Nichols Family Photograph Collection, shows Queen [H]elena, daughter-in-law of Queen Margarita, wife of Victor Emmanuel III, with whom she reigned from 1900 and 1946. Queen Sophia of Greece served from 1913 to 1917, then again from 1920 to 1922. Queen Maria of Yugoslavia reigned from 1922 and 1934. The photograph of Queen Olga Constantinovna of Russia shows that Rose was fascinated by many queens!

(1) Margaret Moore Booker“Berenson, Bernard.” Grove Art OnlineOxford Art OnlineOxford University PressWeb18 Jul. 2017.

(2) Oral history interview with Polly Thayer, 1995 May 12-1996 February 1. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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A Grand Tour

Untitled bronze ibex, by Giorgio Sommer
Untitled bronze ibex, by Giorgio Sommer

Animal Figurine (Untitled)

Giorgio Sommer, foundry of (1834-1914)

Created: Naples, Italy, late nineteenth to early twentieth century

Material: bronze

Dimensions: 6.5″ x 5.25″ x 1.938″

On display at the Nichols House Museum

To see this object in the Nichols House Museum online collection, search for 1961.493 here: http://nicholshouse.pastperfect-online.com/36637cgi/mweb.exe?request=ks

Rome, June 5, 1931

The [boat] landed us at Naples on June 1st.  The afternoon of our arrival we three at the S. Lucia took a motor drive and tea at the Bertoline high above the Brittanique [sic]…  The next day Aunt Nourse went with us to Herculaneum and Pompeii.  After seeing a little of the best in both places + lunching at Sorrento we returned to Naples in time for Miss Jones and her maid to catch the five o’clock train to Rome.  My last day in Naples I took the boat to Sorrento, where Giuliana Benzoni met me at the dock and motored me to her mother’s quaint villa remote from the town and with a superb view of the Bay of Naples… After that I shall go to Venice to stay until the last of June. For July I have made no definite plans.

-Excerpted from a letter from Rose Standish Nichols to her sister Marian Nichols, Collection of the Schlesinger Library, Harvard University

Rose Nichols loved to travel, as did many Americans of the nineteenth century with the means to do so. Europe was a favorite destination of hers, and she would stay for months at a time. These trips would be both for pleasure and for work, as many of the manor homes and gardens she visited found their way into travel articles for publications such as House Beautiful, and also served as inspiration for her commissioned garden designs. Her three books exclusively feature European gardens, thus elevating her travel to more than a vacation.

The tradition of visiting Europe for educational purposes began in the late 16th century when young, wealthy gentlemen traveled with a tutor throughout Europe on what became known as “The Grand Tour.”[i] The Grand Tour served to complete a classical education with the ultimate experience of seeing in-person ancient art and ruins. By the nineteenth century, it became easier for more people to travel to Europe due to advances in transportation and the increasing broad interest in ancient cultures and Renaissance art.[ii] As the twentieth century opened, Rose Nichols was one of the pioneering women who traveled to Europe to further her artistic and professional career, as so many men had done before her.

In addition to inspiration and education, another tradition of The Grand Tour was returning home with souvenirs, such as antiquities or pieces of fine art. However, a booming business in reproductions of ancient pieces catered to those who could not afford the originals.[iii] Giorgio Sommer, a well-known photographer, also ran a bronze foundry in Naples, Italy, which created replicas of famous ancient and Renaissance works- see his descriptive 1922 advertisement here.[iv]

The small figurine of an ibex at the top of this post was one of these so-called “Grand Tour Bronzes,” bought as a souvenir by the Nichols family after a trip to Italy. Rose must have particularly enjoyed this particular piece… not only did she own this small replica, but she incorporated a pair of much larger ibexes in her garden design for The House of the Four Winds in Lake Forest, Chicago.[v] This garden itself was inspired by the Generalife Gardens at The Alhambra in Granada, Spain.[vi] Rose’s European travels made a lasting impression, informing her of the broader world and providing inspiration she and her clients appreciated.

House of the Four Winds, c. 1908. Smithsonian Institution, Archive of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection
Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archive of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection

[i] The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. “The Grand Tour” http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/grtr/hd_grtr.htm

[ii] Indiana University Art Museum. “The Grand Tour: Art and Travel 1740-1914.” http://www.iub.edu/~iuam/online_modules/grand_tour/index.html

[iii] Holman, Thomas S. “Souvenirs of The Grand Tour: The Collection of Thomas S. Holman.” http://www.skinnerinc.com/news/blog/souvenirs-of-the-grand-tour-thomas-s-holman-collection-auction/

[iv] Cook, Thomas. Cook’s Traveller’s Handbook,  Naples and Environs. “Giorgio Sommer,” 1922. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t2c82g388?urlappend=%3Bseq=162

[v] For information on garden design in American, visit Smithsonian Institution, Archive of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection: http://gardens.si.edu/collections-research/aag.html. For more on Rose Standish Nichols gardens, please visit our website for more images and a listing and description of all known gardens attributed to her: http://www.nicholshousemuseum.org/rose_nichols.php.

[vi] For comparison, view the image for the Generalife “lower gardens:” http://www.alhambra-patronato.es/index.php?id=31&L=2

By Assistant to the Director Ashley Jahrling Bannon