Beyond the Sea

Rosamond Bernier, a Life Lived for Art

In The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s latest movie, Tilda Swinton plays J.K.L. Berensen, an eccentric, erudite writer openly inspired by Rosamond Bernier (1916-2016). The film offers the chance to take a closer look at this journalist and lecturer who, in the name of art, built bridges between the United States and France, her native country and her adoptive home.
Rosamond Bernier in a dress created by Parisian designer Madame Grès, 1968. © Horst P. Horst/Condé Nast Archives

Rosamond Margaret Rosenbaum was destined by her heritage to connect the Old and New Worlds. She was born in Philadelphia on October 1, 1916, to an American father from a Jewish Hungarian family who had converted to Protestantism, and an English mother. After being raised by a French governess, she split her time between school in England and Philadelphia, where she spent her vacations with her siblings and her father, a high-profile lawyer. The young Rosamond was also taught the harp by French composer Carlos Salzedo. Music was a shared passion in this multicultural family, and they would think nothing of crossing the ocean to attend a concert by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Rosamond began studying musicology at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, but decided to leave for Mexico after falling in love with Lewis Adams Riley Jr., a handsome, 22-year-old New Yorker who had moved to Acapulco to do business. The pair were wed on May 25, 1937, and the young woman, barely 18, began a peaceful, easy life. She amassed a small, private zoo and learned to fly to make it easier to travel to and from Mexico City. While in the capital, she met painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who became her friends. These encounters would prove to be decisive, and a new world of colors and emotions opened up to her.

Rosamond Bernier in Matisse’s studio in Vence, 1948. At this point, she lived in Paris, worked for Vogue, and wrote about art. © Condé Nast Archives/Rosamond Bernier Archives

Rosamond made contact with MoMA in New York, hoping to promote her country’s contemporary art across all of Latin America. She became an exhibition curator and traveled with her husband to Bogotá, Caracas, and Havana with contagious enthusiasm. But her marriage did not make it past World War II. Riley was connected to Hollywood circles, and left her to marry Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio. In 1946, Rosamond then moved to Paris where Vogue asked her to coordinate the magazine’s editorial projects for Europe. Three years later, she tied the knot with Georges Bernier, a French journalist who had fled to New York during the German occupation of France. Together, they founded a publication devoted to their shared passion: art.

And the Berniers Created L’Œil

The very first issue of L’Œil, the magazine founded by Mr. and Mrs. Bernier in Paris, was published on January 15, 1955. The publishers championed their manifesto on the cover, showcasing a painting by Fernand Léger, with the tagline “Every art form, every country, every month.” They could have added “For everyone.” While other art magazines of the time were reserved for a specialist and scientific readership, L’Œil appealed to all lovers of art in the broadest sense of the term. This explains the affordable price, fixed at 200 francs (around 5 dollars) for the first issue. The richly illustrated magazine hoped to maintain a constant dialogue between the most modern forms of art and works from the past. As a result, it featured everything from articles on the School of Fontainebleau to interviews with Braque, Moore, Tobey, and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Picasso’s art dealer.

The first issue of L’Œil was published on January 15, 1955, its cover showcasing a detail of Fernand Léger’s The Great Parade. © Rosamond Bernier Archives
Picasso and his wife Jacqueline reading L’Œil, 1957. © Rosamond Bernier Archives

Rosamond and Georges Bernier were unique in that they knew just about every artist of the day and enjoyed a privileged access to them. This was also true of the design and interior decoration world, and they regularly featured this field in their writing. The editorial concept of L’Œil was a storming success. In December 1955, an American edition comprising 48 color plates was released under the title The Selective Eye, offering English translations of the most remarkable articles published in the Parisian magazine throughout the year. This dual distribution solidified the Berniers’ worldwide reputation and standing.

The couple were also popular with collectors thanks to their increasingly large group of artist contacts and friends, including Max Ernst, Giacometti, Picasso, and Joan Miró. But in 1968, after 19 years of marriage, the Berniers bitterly divorced. Rosamond returned to the United States, leaving Georges to manage the magazine they had founded 13 years earlier. However, at 52, Rosamond was not the sort of woman to remain idle. A new career as a public lecturer presented itself and set her on the path to independent greatness.

A Lifetime Triumph

In 1970, upon a suggestion from a friend, Rosamond agreed to give a conference on Surrealism in Hartford, Connecticut, then in Houston. After all, she had known André Breton personally! The event was a revelation. The most French-American woman won over her audience through her erudition, grace, vivaciousness, and personality. Her deliberately colorful, extravagant outfits, purchased from the finest designers in Paris and New York, contributed to the awe she inspired.

Tilda Swinton in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, where she plays a writer openly inspired by Rosamond Bernier. © Searchlight Pictures
Rosamond Bernier gives a lecture on sculptor Henry Moore at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972. © Rosamond Bernier Archives

The Metropolitan Museum then hosted four evening events in her honor in 1971. Soon, the public came not only to learn about Matisse and Diego Rivera, but also wore their finest evening attire to attend an astonishing and educational performance. Rosamond’s secret was to reveal her knowledge in a conversational manner, with enthusiasm and spirit. Never conceited or dogmatic, and often very funny, she peppered her presentations with countless anecdotes to portray the artists’ daily lives, contradictions, and even their private and sex lives.

Rosamond Russell (the name of her last husband, whom she married in 1975) died at the age of 100 on November 9, 2016, in New York, having given more than a thousand conferences in the United States and Europe from 1970 to 2008. Perhaps passion is the secret to a long life? In any case, L’Œil is still being published in Paris today.


Article published in the February 2022 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.