Rosamond Bernier, the impresario who transformed the art lecture, turning it into an involving, even entertaining form of education, has died at 100. Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic for the New York Times, confirmed the news today on Twitter.
Over the course of her life, Bernier gave lectures about Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti, Louise Bourgeois, and many others at such museums as the Centre Pompidou, the Louvre, the Grand Palais, and many others. By the 1960s, Bernier had become a fixture of the Paris art scene, and even its fashion scene, thanks to her tenure at Vogue magazine, as the first European features editor. (She left the publication in the mid-’50s, but continued to hold sway long after, and would later return as a contributing editor.)
In 1971, Bernier achieved fame in New York, where she began to do lectures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Audiences were immediately impressed, and the composer Leonard Bernstein wrote, “Madame Bernier has the gift of instant communication to a degree which I have rarely encountered.” Over the course of her life, she gave some 200 lectures at the Met.
At her last Met lecture, in 2008, Bernier bid farewell in style. She decided to talk about fashion and what it does for society, noting, “Fashion is theater. It has its authors, it has its directors. It has a public that can be very large. It is poetry at its best.” As she finished, she thanked her husband, the art critic John Russell, for “writing some of her best lines,” and received a standing ovation.
Over her long career, Bernier had earned renown in the fashion world for her work looking at the connections between haute couture and modernism. In some cases, those connections were literal. Bernier recounted, in her 2011 memoir Some of My Lives, that Matisse gave her fashion advice, suggesting, before one lecture, that she match a yellow scarf with an orange coat.
As an editor in Paris for Vogue, Bernier befriended many famous artists, among them Picasso and Matisse. But her editorial career was hardly limited to mainstream publications. In the mid-’50s, Bernier left Vogue to found the arts journal L’OEIL, which published noted arts writing at a time when it was still being formalized as a critical medium.
Bernier was born in Philadelphia in 1916. After studying in England and France, and at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, she lived in Mexico, where she met the composer Aaron Copland and even started a private zoo. In 1947, she moved to Paris after Vogue sent her there.
She went on to receive many accolades, and was in 1980 made one of France’s Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 1999, France made her an Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
Bernier’s fashion-forward sensibility and art-historical intelligence were perhaps most impressive because she made them look effortless. Bernier, on the other hand, thought what she did wasn’t particularly special. As she told the New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins in 2008, “You can really talk to anyone about anything if you’re interested in it yourself.”
Below, a conversation between Bernier and the artist Alex Katz.