I was going to do a post of my own on the connoisseurship debate, but then I thought I’d incorporate it into post containing the debate that has been flourishing in the comments thread of this blog.
People don’;t always read comments, so I thought it would be a good idea to rescue the debate from comments oblivion and put some of it up here.
What's emerging from this debate is the complexity of the connoisseurship issue. I and AHT’s commenters don’t promise solutions here; but we can suggests topics for further debate.
Many thanks to the contributors, and feel free to join in by leaving comments ON THIS POST. I’ll incorporate them into the post itself if everybody is OK with that.
“It may be an appropriate time to add a few facts/points to the current topical debate.
"Connoisseurship" is a unique individual gift of enhanced qualitative discernment and instant artist recognition. It is a personal faculty one may possess, having of itself no elitist or social agenda.
A few very fortunate individuals today possess it. Saliently, many great artists of the past also possessed it.
It's an innate, instinctive skill one either has or doesn’t. It cannot be taught or acquired despite how long one studies, their rank, or how much their art knowledge. It is a truly unique and art attributional skill, with tangible results.
Unfortunately Berenson, Friedlander, and many current PhD & Profs wrongly believe they possess it but don't. Their many poor past and present misattributions have disparaged its true worth in identifying an artist's genuine works.
The current debate includes many misinformed statements wrongly defining this rare individual skill on past elitist/false prophet’s failures, instead of acknowledging its legitimate place in the advancing truth and knowledge in art.
This lack of actual connoisseurship has exacerbated the current crisis in accurate art attribution, especially for that of Leonardo’s and Raphael's original works
The greatest disservice to any artist is to deny their original works, whilst lauding the versions of others.
Accordingly the few actual “Connoisseurs” existing today should be duly encouraged and acknowledged,for their tangible "art restitution contribution" to posterity, rather than the present bias to less material forms.
Actual "Connoisseurs" can be judged by their "record of rediscovery and restitution", in the interests of their public, the artist and its future benefit to art history.”
“I have been scratching my head over one of your statements regarding “connoisseurship” (I personally prefer the term “visual analysis”, but that is neither here nor there.):
“It's an innate, instinctive skill one either has or doesn’t. It cannot be taught or acquired despite how long one studies, their rank, or how much their art knowledge. It is a truly unique and art attributional skill, with tangible results.”
I cannot imagine that you mean to say that a connoisseur does not need organized visual experience in order to make attributions and other related judgements—developing a personal knowledge base of images and (more generally) artistic characteristics and possibilities, related to various individuals and various times and places?
I do not practice “connoisseurship” and/or “visual analysis” myself but I have known several of the leading exponents of the present and recent past. What they all had in common was an intense course of training that lasted their entire lives—learning from other connoisseurs, but especially on their own. Spending endless hours working through art museums, drawing collections, photograph archives and so on…
If you mean to say that there are certain personal traits or qualities like visual memory or acuity of visual perception that different people have in greater or lesser degrees, I would agree with you. It is rather like saying that someone is “very musical” or has “an excellent ear”. Some people do and some people don’t, but even the ones who do still have to work fiercely hard to become accomplished musicians!
In regard to older generations of magisterial connoisseurs, they were all formed in an age when secondary visual material (photographs, etc.) were far less accessible than they are today. (One made the humorous observation to me—gosh, thirty years ago, “Connoisseurship is not so much fun today because it is much easier to be proven wrong!”) And that was before the internet!
The same is true with technical information—imaging technologies, chemical analysis and so on… There is far more scientific data available today and we do not have the luxury of picking and choosing the information we like while ignoring the rest. The real test today is whether “connoisseurship” can become a truly collaborative process. There are more relevant skills than most individuals can master and we need them all! And I have not even mentioned documentary evidence, which is my own specialty.
There are a lot of complicated issues here, which we will certainly be discussing for a long time to come!”
“What a most balanced and refreshing response to my comments on Connoisseurship, for which I pass on my sincere thanks and regards. It is well worth expanding on some of those astute observations. In answer to your considered suggestion of the term “visual analysis”, Yes, it would describe the phenomenon in a general sense. However everyone has such “analytical” faculty, it’s to what degree. Perhaps, stretched as it is, a more accurate term would be, “uniquely enhanced degree of visual perception/acuity”, as a more accurate description of what is presently termed “Connoisseurship” .
Your comment is also quite valid that it also needs in tandem “an organized visual experience in order to make attributions and other related judgements—developing a personal knowledge base of images and (more generally) artistic characteristics and possibilities, related to various individuals and various times and places?”- which here was gained through accompanying pictorial and documentary knowledge, through long, intense documentary study, and since viewing of millions of actual works, which combine with that innate faculty. Also in my case, from 1979, comprehensively assisted with advanced technical research, when this aspect of art historical research was viewed as “unfashionable”, amongst the actual “elite” of the profession, and in its infancy, with Infra-reds just beginning.
For me, its early signs came in 1973 in a 6 month study tour of the great galleries of Western Europe, (sadly the “Cold War”precluded the Eastern Bloc Galleries). That’s when full evidence of this fortunate capability much emerged, when closely perceiving artists original productions insitu with all their subtle highly individual nuances. Perhaps then, like a computer,all this important “actual surface” visual information imprinted indelibly within the mind for future use through that inherent gifted skill.
Moreover your interesting note that “but I have known several of the leading exponents of the present and recent past. What they all had in common was an intense course of training that lasted their entire lives—learning from other connoisseurs, but especially on their own. Spending endless hours working through art museums, drawing collections, photograph archives and so on…”. Likewise here and also as noted above, but in my case it was solo, against all the “experts” esp of Auction houses. (restituting “sleepers” for posterity)
“If you mean to say that there are certain personal traits or qualities like visual memory or acuity of visual perception that different people have in greater or lesser degrees, I would agree with you. It is rather like saying that someone is “very musical” or has “an excellent ear”. Some people do and some people don’t, but even the ones who do still have to work fiercely hard to become accomplished musicians!” Precisely! Believe it or not I actually had used the phrase “akin to music” but removed it. As you rightly note, there are indeed “degrees of”. For example Beethoven was a musical “Connoisseur”, in that he could create an entire symphony within his mind. ( I suppose as some ill-informed latter day commentator suggests, he too must have been hit by the same thunderbolt). This does not preclude others creating reasonable symphonies, but they take much longer and are of different degrees of accomplishment. However the “naturally gifted Connoisseur/naturally gifted Composer” fortunately possesses the ultimate degree of that skill. Interestingly, Paul McCartney is perhaps the modern day naturally gifted equivalent. (There must be something in that “Merseyside” water). Further, despite countless words, another prominent arts blogger just recently admitted to only his first true epiphany of a “Connoisseurship ,experience, admitting it to be an almost inexplicable phenomenon to convey in words to others. That said. of course some degree of connoisseurship is eminently teachable/learnable, but not its ultimate manifestation, as the naturally gifted Connoisseur, like Beethoven. If that was indeed the case we could all be taught to write music like Beethoven, and that’s just not the fact!
The noted Raphael “Connoisseur” Konrad Oberhuber, who unfortunately went a little “off beam” in his later years, nevertheless cited his concept of “Connoisseurship” to the effect of being a unique phenomenon coalescing all one’s whole being and mental senses/ faculties/Knowledge, totally focused on perceiving/judging the image before one eyes, - in an extrasensory way ( my words)
Likewise Prof Seymour Slive conceded there are very few Connoisseurs and the gift is extremely rare.
“The same is true with technical information—imaging technologies, chemical analysis and so on… There is far more scientific data available today and we do not have the luxury of picking and choosing the information we like while ignoring the rest. The real test today is whether “connoisseurship” can become a truly collaborative process. There are more relevant skills than most individuals can master and we need them all! And I have not even mentioned documentary evidence, which is my own specialty”.
In an ideal world It should be acknowledged and welcomed as it is an important complimentary skill to the advancement of knowledge and truth for the advancement of Art History, and above all for the artist himself’/herself’s benefit,. Unfortunately human nature and egos/status/turf boundaries being what they are, with few exceptions, if you are not part of the prevailing cliques , no collaboration is ever forthcoming or indeed welcomed, even when actively sought. This exemplifies the present crisis in attribution failures. Hence the necessary self-publishing of my 40 year research findings for art’s sake. Likewise your documentary based art research makes a vitally supportive contribution to the knowledge advancement process
As the recent Leonardo Exhibition amply demonstrated, even Leonardo’s important “La Belle Principessa” restitution was spurned, unjustifiably, for various other less worthy contenders,. A cogent example of “Connoisseurship” in action in that case, is that within 10 secs of viewing the first image on line, Leonardo’s hand was immediately discernible, before anything else was known, other than the claim of it being a “possible” Leonardo. Another close linked scholar admitted it was a full year before he finally reached that same conclusion. Lately one of the earlier doubting Leonardo scholars has since likewise fully reversed his view. Regrettably, there in stark recent reality is the crux of the crisis today!
Perhaps another example in the present context is when the convenors/organisers of “Symposiums, Colloquiums, and like forums are approached, they are averse to countenancing the presentation of significant findings/evidence, ( including infra red scans, revealing some of the most profound creative underdrawing pentmenti yet witnessed, proving its original creation), if only for informed “scholarly discussion/debate”, of an important signed and dated Raphael reassignment of, “The Judgement of Paris”. Fortunately, this prototype masterpiece, with its multiple copies and versions, and Raphael’s directly related engravings, has been long admired by millions for over 500 years, even as a “Giorgione”. and will prevail through art history, long after that forum is forgotten.
It was likewise acclaimed by such past great Connoisseur/Artists as Sir Charles Eastlake, Dr. J D Passavant , Sir Martin Conway, Prof Gustave Waagen, Carlo Ridolfi,; and exhibited at every major 19thC “Art Treasures” and notable Royal Academy Renaissance Exhibitions in Britain, and in the Louvre in Paris, and will continue to be viewed and highly treasured by legions of future art lovers.”
Edward and Graeme,
Thanks for staying objective and taking the debate to a much more interesting level than our previous contributor.
For me the kind of “visual acuity” mentioned here reminds me of gestalt process: standing in front of works of art, a pattern or configuration seems to emerge. That in itself doesn’t make me a “connoisseur” unless as Edward says I possess this informational/ personal databank garnered out of learning, experiences, memory, historical awareness etc. The musical analogy fits very well with this gestalt idea- all notes in harmony- except with paintings there’s greater complexity- light, colour, form, shape, even symbol, though not for all “connoisseurs”. The only problem with the gestalt idea is that it suggests a sort of identikit methodology which doesn’t allow for spontaneity, the random factor, imaginative thinking about the art work which I think is a part of visual analysis/connoisseurship too. Seeing something in a book or even an incident in daily life might spark off some new insight. This isn’t simply about matching- see Gombrich’s Art and Illusion.
Oberhuber is very interesting for anybody who wants to study modern connoisseurship. Graeme’s paraphrase of Oberhuber’s seems to accord with the gestalt approach, although it went much further than that. Oberhuber actually saw “connoisseurship” as a way of developing what he called “reflexive thinking” applicable to everyday situations. Years before our agonising discussions about the meaning of connoisseurship, Oberhuber was seeking to stretch the definition- with predictably disastrous results given the conservative nature of the field, which sadly remains the same. In his catalogue to the Poussin Fort Worth exhibition of 1988 Oberhuber actually admits that his work on Raphael grew out of his early work on Poussin; the combined projects found their way into his later thinking on Poussin in the 80s. If you were to ask me if I consider Oberhuber a connoisseur based on the terms of this discussion, (visual acuity, ability to see a pattern of correspondences etc) I would have to say yes; if you were to ask me the same question based on the success of his Poussin attributions, I’d have to say no. I’ve never been able to work out the reason for this contradiction in this scholar’s case. Nevertheless I continue to read him and admire his inventive approach to the subject.
Finally, though I’ve been putting scare quotes around the word “connoisseur”, I’m not sure that I want to discard the word. Visual analysis could be used- but it seems so vague that it could mean anything. Perhaps we’ve reached a point where we’re forced to qualify the word when we use it- that might be more acceptable than jettisoning it.
Considering this in the context of Dr Goldberg's response, we can surely agree that the process of lengthy exposure to "the works of the artist and the era" are the necessary visual training required here?
While a practitioner may get to the point where they feel such a familiarity that nuances are instantly discernible, surely the way forward is for these findings to be openly communicated. The literature is replete with contradictory statements made by practitioners looking at the same painting, same X-ray and same infrared scan etc.
This factor is openly controlled and quantified in scientific research - an element known as "inter observer reliability". With practitioners so commonly disagreeing, and failing to describe what they see in an instructive manner, the mystification that has surrounded this branch of study can not be overcome.
The same goes for terms of reference. We presently have three posts on "connoisseurship" across three of the web's most prominent art history blogs. Intriguingly, each represents a distinct voice on the topic - with Dr Grosvenor's having an art market skew, Dr. Packwood's having more of an institutional/academic focus and my own post looking in as a member of the interested public and someone used to a transparent discourse of method due to my clinical background.
I can only wonder how this all looks to passers by, with these three posts being in such disunity. Rather than collaborating and using our web presence to clarify and instruct, the age old rivalries and adversarial mode of discourse persists. At Art History News - Dr. Grosvenor treats his sizeable audience to a personal catharsis on social art history ; here at AHT, we seem stuck considering the problem in a semantic sense, and over at 3PP I scratch my head and wonder if we can all call it "visual analysis" and hopefully move forward!
We can only wonder if this field of study can progress from its current adversarial nature, with its centuries of emotional and social baggage. Perhaps the first step is revising the existing constructs, keeping the good (a regimen of detailed analysis and description), and jettisoning the bad (the combative attitude, the regularly encountered inability to say "there is insufficient data to state conclusively")?
As for the original topic: Leonardo, the Yardwinder etc - I would also refer readers to the 2011 publication by Artakt/Zidane "The Madonna of the Yardwinder - A Scientific and Historical detective story link: http://goo.gl/Oc5ma by Professor Kemp and Thereza Wells ; and the very useful comparative study by Professor Marina Wallace, also published in 2011 by Artakt/Zidane "The Lives of the Paintings - Seven Masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci" link: http://goo.gl/0zgwE
We can only hope the the "new connoisseurship" panel at CAA next years begins to envision the step forward from what is happening right now.
After all the above comments I'm still not sure about the meaning of connoisseur. Allow me to offer an example. One of my favorite films is "Swing Time" the great Astaire/Rogers musical of the 1930s. I'm sure that there are many people who wouldn't like it, but at the same time there must be millions, like myself, who are charmed by the beautiful music and dancing.
However, a couple of years ago I watched a DVD version that was accompanied by a running commentary. It soon became obvious that the commentator had seen things in the film that I had never seen. His analysis of the dance sequences was particularly fine. He must have seen the tim countless times, studied all the Astaire/Rogers films, and used modern day technical equipment in his analysis. I suppose he could be called a film expert or a film scholar but why not connoisseur? I don't think there is a good equivalent in English.
I don't think a connoisseur has to be a professional scholar but that does not mean that he or she does not need to put in the hard work required. At the same time I don't believe that Fred Astaire could be called a connoisseur of dance. He was a dancer, a real artist, something that connoisseurs and ordinary viewers can only look upon with admiration and awe.
“It's a good point Frank. Connoisseurship can extend across most fields of human endeavor including cinema, dance; but it's always been associated with us lot. The general public perceive us as standing in front of paintings and sipping wine. Well I have done that. The wine is deliberately chosen because connoisseurship always has that air of refinement, hence Fine Arts, Fine Wine.
Good point about the effort involved too. Connoisseurs/scholars or whatever do work hard, although historically the idea has been associated with a certain desinvoltura, sprezzatura, giving the impression that there's no effort in learning about pictures, who painted them etc. But looking intently at pictures can be physically tiring as I often find in museums.”
“The most important reason for Connoisseurship is the Artist himself/herself!!!
What has almost been overlooked in much of the debate which is being rightly expounded on “Connoisseurship”, that vital subject/skill to art and art history, is actually what is in the best interests of the artist himself/herself,
Nothing is more important than the fundamental "best interests of the artist/creator" of an artwork. It is not true nor sustainable, that any artist would ever support such misguided, “fatally flawed dogma” that presumes their hard won, creative productions should not be recognised, no matter how long ago they were produced, to remain in ignominy for posterity.
This gross distortion/misinformation, recently evolved has been allowed to flow unchallenged for decades, under the false epithet of “The New Nrt History”, peddled by the “academic elitists”, who then hang their shingles on those very artists names, and on whose legacy, their very existence relies. They have assumed roles greater than the artist, including gatekeeper/arbiter of authorship of their work, often demonstrably without possessing that necessary gifted connoisseurship skill, as the recent Leonardo situation has proven.
Two prime examples whom art history forgot, being little acknowledged in their lifetimes, but are now acclaimed masters, are Vermeer and Van Gogh, thanks to Connoisseurship. It is certain that each would be “turning”, especially the latter, should their works instead of duly bearing their actual names be respectively deemed by the “Connoisseurship Deniers” as – “ That painterly 17thC Dutch master of tranquil domestic interiors” or for the latter, “ That spontaneous 19thC Dutch master of wild distorted colours
Moreover, it could likewise never be seriously contended that neither Leonardo nor Michelangelo would object to any of their profoundly important compositions, not proudly bear their names, as “The New Art History” acolytes would deem appropriate, authorship being of little relevance to the work itself.
Actually, Leonardo and Michelangelo would both undoubtedly be “Connoisseurs”, along with their other extraordinary, “god given natural talents”.
Thus unlike these passive wordsmith’s retrograde theories, this active rare skill, possessed by a fortunate few in its ultimate manifestation, contributes the greatest possible service to the artists themselves, to art history and to posterity.
This will be will be tangibly demonstrated when ten rediscovered major master’s works will be soon revealled, together another five in public institutions , including in Britain and Italy, who will gain five masterpieces they are unware they already possess!”
“I’ve been following the connoisseurship debate with interest, and while I don’t really have much to add about defining or debating the term itself, it has got me thinking about why I became interested in it and how it has figured in my specialist area- Poussin.
I suppose its importance was impressed upon me during my Phd on at the Barber Institute at the start of the last decade. I can recall an eminent Poussin scholar – now retired- writing on my drafts “X rejects, Y rejects.” Thus it was that it was made very clear to me that there were opposing views about who painted or drew what, something that I’d taken for granted before. Later on, said eminent personage gave me a lecture on basing arguments, mounting theories on works that he thought were not executed by Poussin. I learnt two things here; firstly, how adversarial connoisseurship could be; X might reject, but Z might accept; second, the importance of knowing your field, especially attributions. From that moment onwards I always tried to get on solid ground, discover all sides of the case before making a judgement. If you want to test yourself as a Poussin connoisseur, it’s a good idea to study his drawings because there are so many copyists, The second volume of Prat and Rosenberg’s catalogue raisonné of drawings is devoted to rejects- it’s about three times the size of the first autograph volume.
As connoisseurship is in decline generally, it’s no surprise that it doesn’t feature much in Poussin studies anymore. There are various reasons for this: the death of eminent Poussin connoisseurs like Denis Mahon and Konrad Oberhuber; the marginalisation of the practice due to other more contextual approaches. For the record I’ve never had a problem with these initiatives at all, and even think that in some ways they represent a form of visual analysis that has echoes of connoisseurship. These engagements are characterised by close reading of the surface of the picture, attentive and sensitive appraisal of the artist’s physical presence in the form of his paint and brushstroke. In the last decade there have been some interesting books that employ this method of tracking the artist through the materiality of the painting and trying to get inside his mind by re-constructing his painting practice. I can think of several including T.J. Clark’s Sight of Death, an analytic journal that records close reading of Poussin’s surfaces and compositions over time. By no stretch of the imagination is this traditional connoisseurship. For one thing Clark isn’t concerned with attribution; for another his method seem to me deliberately slow and laboured, slowing down his analytic speed to ponder on artistic decisions that Poussin has made. It strikes me that connoisseurship is about the instant snap decision, the almost supernatural ability to see at one glance, which encourages this mystical view of it. By contrast Clark is measured and deliberative as he slowly opens Poussin’s art to its social and cultural situation. There’s a good debate about connoisseurship which mentions Clark over here.
Perhaps we need to slow things down. Everyday I’m assailed by claims of Caravaggio’s, Rembrandts- and it’s got to the stage where I can’t bear to look. No more! Mercifully, “new” Poussins don’t crop up much. I only know of one sighting of a rediscovered Poussin this year- and in that case it was beyond doubt. I’ll tell you about it sometime. Perhaps we need more quality control in connoisseurship, -the traditional, attribution driven variety- otherwise the whole thing risks becoming something of a joke. Obviously the web is partly to blame for the state of things today.”
Good debate here. I must, however, disagree strongly with this statement:
"It's [connoisseurship] an innate, instinctive skill one either has or doesn’t. It cannot be taught or acquired despite how long one studies, their rank, or how much their art knowledge. It is a truly unique and art attributional skill, with tangible results."
Nothing could be further from the truth. One might as well suggest that a baby, never having looked at a painting, could pronounce on the work of Leonardo.
Your statement on Connoissership was actually further qualified above, in my response to Dr. Edward Goldberg’s kind comments, on the same point you raise, please see above. It is therefore important to restate that there are in fact “Two Types of Connoisseurship”, just as in Music there are “Naturally Gifted” Composers like Beethoven and “Acquired/Taught” composers who are taught and/or who cumulatively acquire their skills. And yes, contrary to your belief, Beethoven could indeed from completely within his mind, create and then transpose onto paper an entire symphony, due to that first type of “Naturally Born Gift”.
Likewise in Fine Art Connoisseurship there are “Natural Connoisseurs”, with “Naturally Gifted” form of faculty, (as in your words - "The Purist Form”), being the ultimate degree of this skill. Some very fortunate people naturally possess that form innately. There is also the “Acquired/Taught Connoisseurs” faculty of the skill, (the most common form), which is the Acquired/Taught manifestation, resulting in varying degrees of proficiency. By a remarkable coincidence of timing, you have on your Blog actually related from your own personal experience, that “rare epiphany” of the ultimate degree of the “Naturally Gifted” First Type of the faculty, occurring within your customary “Acquired/Taught” Second Type daily practicing of the skill. Likewise a “Naturally Gifted” Connoisseur also further enhances their innate born skill through time, by additional intensive study and experience, etc. –
Kindly quoted from your article - “Connoisseurship - a brief demonstration “ - August 23rd. 2012
"And it is still possible to make attributions based purely on looking at a painting - that is, connoisseurship in its most traditional and purest form. The portrait above is an interesting example. It came up for sale in a minor London auction last year, described as 'Circle of Joseph Highmore'. The sitter was unidentified. I had seen the picture in the catalogue but it was only a small thumbnail, and I paid little attention to the illustration. However, the moment I stood in front of the picture my reaction was; 'that's by Ramsay'.
The problem is, I cannot entirely explain why".
"That is, beyond the fact that it reminded me of other portraits by Allan Ramsay that I have studied over the years. It was an instinctive reaction (though it rarely happens like that). And therein lies the connoisseur's Achilles Heel, for this is what makes critics of connoisseurship uncomfortable. Today's world demands instant proof and irrefutable verdicts. But explaining a judgement based on what we might call old-fashioned connoisseurship is exceedingly difficult, no matter how articulately one sets out comparisons of brushstrokes, colour and composition. Just saying, 'because it looks like a Ramsay', won't really do".
In closing, despite our differences on various matters, had I been back in the UK I would most gladly accompany your defence of the skill at the coming conference, against the farrago of past misinformation, with facts and many case histories of the faculty of “Natural Connoisseurship” proven in action, perhaps as a “Sancho Panza” in that quest.
Thanks Graeme - but here's the key phrase in explaining my reaction to the Ramsay sleeper:
"it reminded me of other portraits by Allan Ramsay that I have studied over the years."
Without repeated study of Alan Ramsay's works, I would not have been able to make the link. So although, like all judgments, there was an element of instinctive reaction, that reaction was not possible without a great deal of study first. Therefore, it is not tenable to hold that connoisseurship is something that "cannot be taught or acquired."