This is the second in a series of posts that considers different aspects of connoisseurship. Previously, the relationship between connoisseurship and science was looked at; this time I want to think about connoisseurship in the context of public museology- that branch of museum studies that examines the role of the public in the construction of display spaces. The question of connoisseurship and the public wasn't far from my mind on my recent visits to the stunning British Museum Italian Renaissance Drawings exhibition, and the so-so Close Examinations show at the NG. During moments of looking at the drawings and paintings, not to mention dodging the leakage of information from audio-guides, my mind turned to the origins of the public in the museum: how certain cultural and factors brought about changes in the way the public saw art; the appearance of the public eye.
There's no doubt looking at the crowds delighting in close study of old Master drawings at the British Museum, V& A and those closely inspecting the art works in the NG that connoisseurship is becoming a public experience. Where did this phenomenon originate? According to Jonathan Conlin in his comprehensive history of the NG, a bid to wrest control from connoisseurs on behalf of the public can be traced back to 1749 when the architect John Gwynn urged a creation of "a public art academy". Later in the 19th century, the transition from art in private galleries to art in a building purpose built to admit the public begins in earnest. Specifically, in this period we're looking at a struggle between connoisseurs, principally members of the British Institution, who wanted to keep art in private galleries and who believed that the public did not have the expertise to make value judgments about art. They were right, but certain connoisseurs like the future director of the NG, Charles Lock Eastlake, considered it their duty to acquire art from private galleries in order to educate the public in art history, so that they could gain the skills needed to judge and value works of art. Eastlake, the subject of a forthcoming 2011 show at the NG, acquired 139 paintings for the gallery, most of them Italian renaissance paintings. Despite his intellectual vision and his unwavering conviction in the NG, he did drop horrendous clangers. For example, in 1845, he allowed the "bad Holbein" to be purchased for £630. This painting- in the Close Examinations show- has now been re-attributed to Michael Coxcie.
To give Eastlake his due though, when he became embroiled in disputes about so- called Raphaels, he made the correct decision- to reject. Had he not, there would have been even more "Raphaels" to accompany the dubious Madonna of the Pinks in the Sainsbury Wing. There were other misses by Eastlake, but one of the reasons why Eastlake is such an important figure is that he recognized the role of connoisseurship in the building up of a gallery for the public. With his trusty lieutenant Otto Mündler, the NG's travel-agent, Eastlake hunted pictures on the continent, assessing their artistic merit, while keeping a sharp eye on the budget that dogged his footsteps. Despite financial constraints, Eastlake and Mündler, combined with the formidable connoisseurial fire power of German art connoisseur Gustav Friedrich Waagen, broadened out the renaissance holdings of the NG. To this curatorial team, we owe the purchase of gems like Giovanni Bellini's Madonna of the Meadow, Veronese's mammoth The Family of Darius and Alexander and Uccello's 'Battle of San Romano', not to mention a brace of neglected paintings from the school of Brescia.
Eventually, Parliament would cancel Mündler's salary- and hence his job- shades of conflicts between NG personnel and the government that continue to this day. Another dispute between politicians and curators concerned the proposed merging of the collections of the British Museum with that of the N.G. which held implications for educating the public in the arcane ways of connoisseurship. One of the participants to this debate was the Pre-Raphaelite supporter John Ruskin who believed that the "sister arts" should be shown under one roof, all the better to instruct the public. Ruskin had a good point. Painting is merely part of the artistic process and in order to appreciate and understand an artist, you need to be familiar with his or her drawings. There is another angle on this. If the drawings of artists are in one location and their paintings in another, it requires great visual memory to recall the drawings in the journey from one location to another. This point about connoisseurship, the public and memory was made by C.T. Newton, an officer of the B.M:
"..the comparison of objects in contiguous compartments or galleries is a very different thing from the strain on the mind which takes place when we attempt to transport, in our memories, through the thoroughfares of a crowded city, those fine shades of distinction on which classification mainly depends. The trained student of art can with difficulty do this, even with the help of elaborate drawings and notes; the general public would doubtless, in passing from one museum to another, endeavour to institute comparisons ; but these comparisons, appealing to recollections half obliterated, would be partial and inexact; the public would cease to observe resemblances no longer forced upon their attention; their minds would no longer be in a state to receive those ennobling impressions which are suggested, even to the most careful observer, when, by the felicitous combination of the monuments of many races, a vast scheme of historical relations is suddenly disclosed and demonstrated."
The final part of Newton's statement is interesting. When moving from one museum to another, members of the public become fatigued which affects their memories, which in turn impairs their ability to make comparative judgements between works of art in different locations, when they are only in one museum. The publics' memory of what they saw in the museum becomes crowded out by the sights and sounds of the city; so, in order for the public to function as efficient connoisseurs in a modern urban setting, they must develop strong powers of mental concentration, or have the image before them so that they are less liable to make mistakes unlike the trained connoisseur who can work from memory despite the many distractions around them.
Newton was mainly concerned with antiquities and he says nothing about the drawings in the British Museum, which if reformers like Ruskin had had their way would have been in the NG, alongside the paintings. In retrospect, the decision not to house the BM drawings- and the Raphael cartoons in the V& A for that matter- in the N.G. or to at least to have had a building containing the drawings/prints next to the paintings in the NG was misguided. Why? Because exposure to paintings in the vicinity of drawings would have sharpened the public's powers of visual analysis and probably accelerated the science of public museology. These days, the public don't need a visual memory; they can buy catalogues of exhibitions – when they are not too expensive- or guide books containing images of paintings in galleries, but in the mid 19th century, catalogues were in their infancy and highly specialized at that. Like today, some visitors could not afford them. This led William Ewart to suggest to Parliament "that there should be affixed or appended to the paintings, statues and other works of art, to specimens or illustrations of science, antiquities, public monuments, and historical memorials in our public institutions, explanatory inscriptions, giving a brief account of the subject, date, history and author of the work so as to afford some general instruction to the public, and to spare them the expense of purchasing a catalogue." This meant that where the public were concerned, connoisseurship disappeared. As Christopher Whitehead points out, labels were a declaration that the individual did not need to know the work on sight when visiting the gallery- they were aimed at non-connoisseurs, in other words. Labels evolved parallel to catalogues, both building on scientific connoisseurship, and by introducing labeling, the museum was turned into a monumental catalogue; its paintings were its "book" illustrations and its corridors and halls were its "pages."
How comfortable do connoisseurs and art history professionals feel in these living catalogues? The answer would seem to be not very, due to the number of visitors who attend and break the concentration of the connoisseur.
Is that a viable view these days? I used to believe that the only place you can really practice true connoisseurship was in the secluded print rooms of museums, or in provincial galleries undisturbed by the tread of the madding crowd, or in the study in your own home with the world at bay. With loupe or magnifying glass in hand, or you'd pour over the lines and shadings of renaissance drawings, oblivious of the teeming hordes outside. Now, I don't feel the need to rise above the crowd like the contortionist connoisseurs in the Punch cartoon. Instead, I rejoice in the numbers of people coming to scrutinize Raphael, Parmigianino, Michelangelo, Verrocchio et al and practice my art history rituals in the midst of the crowd. In these days of mass marketing, the insatiable thirst for exhibitions and art and the explosion of the image across cyberspace, the loupe of the connoisseur has turned into a large public eye.
Leading on from that last sentence, I'll probably do a third installment- on connoisseurship and technology, in the not too distant future. It's a popular topic on the blog.
Richard Wiatrek, The Connoisseur, date unknown.
Attributed to Michael Coxcie, Portrait of a Man with a Skull, about 1560 or later. ("The Bad Holbein")
Photograph of Sir Charles Lock Eastlake.
Giovanni Bellini, Madonna of the Meadow, 1500, bt 1858.
The British Museum
'The Advantages of the Practice of 'Athletic Exercises' by Young Painters, as recommended by a Great Critic', Punch cartoon, 25th May, 1861.
Jonathan Conlin, The Nation's Mantelpiece: A History of the National Gallery, London, 2006.
David Robertson, Sir Charles Eastlake and the Victorian Art World, Princeton, 1978.
Christopher Whitehead, The Public Art Museum in 19th Century Britain: The Development of the National Gallery, London, 2005.