Anna Tummers, The Eye of the Connoisseur: Authenticating Paintings by Rembrandt and his Contemporaries, , University of Amsterdam, 2011, published in the U.S.A. by J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2011, 349 pages.
A Significant Deattribution.
For many members of the general public, the ways of curators and museum professionals remain as inscrutable as the workings of the divine. As Anna Tummers confides in her introduction, many paintings are attributed and de-attributed out of the public eye. And it was such a clandestine demotion at the National Gallery Washington during 2004-5 that sowed the seeds that became this book. During her time working on an exhibition of the 17th century Dutch painter Gerard Ter Borch, cleaning revealed the signature of another artist, Caspar Netscher who was imitating Terborch’s style. This revelation resulted in the painting immediately loosing meaning to the exhibition, and it was quietly removed by the curators. Though no stranger to attribution culture, this case struck Tummers hard, and she became increasingly drawn into research about attributions in 17th century “Netherlandish” art.
“This book deals with the methodology of connoisseurship in the field of Dutch and Flemish seventeenth-century painting and on the criteria connoisseurs use in making attributions.
As a curator of old masters at the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, as well as studying attribution issues and connoisseurship in the 17th century during her doctoral research, Tummers is well placed to define the profile of connoisseurship at the present time. Is this profile sharp and clear, or is it slightly obscured by the shadows of arcane theories and scholarly dispute? In order to assess the status of current connoisseurship, Tummers tracks back through to the Van Meegeren scandal where a distinguished art historian Abraham Bredius authenticated one of the forger’s concoctions, Supper at Emmaus (above) as an autograph Vermeer, which is to say that the art historian believed that Vermeer himself had painted it without the hand of anybody else. This embarrassing attribution resulted in scepticism towards connoisseurship, a turning point since from that moment onwards, evidence rather than intuitive hunches and non-quantifiable evaluations were demanded. What really changed the landscape of Dutch art history, however, was the Rembrandt Research Project in the 1960s and its use of scientific methodology to drastically prune the master's oeuvre, though subjective criteria wasn’t completely eliminated from the process. However, there were problems with their procedures since the system of classification of Rembrandt's paintings was based on the assumption that Rembrandt never collaborated with his pupils. This culminated in some de-attributions, downgrading of Rembrandts to works produced by his pupils, decisions that still divide scholars to this day.
Connoisseurship and Art Theory
Van Meegeren and the RRP will not be unknown to the general reader, but Tummers probes the implications of the forger’s antics for the direction of art history which is dependent on anachronistic modes of thought, an unexplored tangent. The Van Meegeren affair may have been beneficial in the long run because it alerted scholars to the need to understand painting techniques, appreciate master-pupil relationships and learn about the role seventeenth- century art theory played in the origins of connoisseurship. It is the last that is the most essential strand of Tummer’s book because she identifies the impact of the treatises of seicento critics like Roger de Piles (above), Guilio Mancini, Abraham Bosse and Samuel van Hoogstraten on the practice of making judgements about paintings. I’m trying hard to avoid the word “attribution” in this context because early modern experts simply didn’t approach art in that way. Tummers closes her first chapter with a 1677 dialogue between two connoisseurs, a piece written by de Piles, one of the rare cases where there is a discussion on the dating and attributing of paintings in the seventeenth-century. In that century, connoisseurs, theorists, art lovers, experts, or whatever you want to call them, didn’t sit around and squabble about who painted what; they were engrossed in debates about quality rather than attribution.
Copies and Originals.
Tummers further explores the origins of connoisseurship in 17th century Europe, pointing out that distinguishing between copies and originals may have followed precepts in art treatises, a scholarship angle that some modern connoisseurs tend to neglect. Some 17th century theorists and authors of art treatises had sound technical knowledge of paintings, so early experts had a good eye for damaged originals or over painted pictures. Then there is our understanding of the status of the copy which needs re-visiting. There were some copies that were admired such as Andrea dal Sarto's celebrated copy of Raphael's Portrait of Leo X. This case is well-known, but a more obscure, and telling example is the case of a copy of a Caravaggio by the minor Flemish artist Louis Finson. The Middleburg art dealer Charles de Coninck had to guarantee that a painting he had sold for 600 guilders was a copy after Caravaggio by Finson, otherwise the sale would be invalidated. Other painters like Rembrandt’s teacher, Pieter Lastman, were brought in to adjudicate on Finson’s copy, but note in this case it was the attribution of a copy, not an original. Copies after famous originals could occasionally be valued more highly than an original by a lesser master. The Dutch art theorist and painter van Hoogstraten said that whilst bad copies harmed a master's reputation, good copies increased the master's fame.
The Paradox of Seventeenth-Century Connoisseurship.
The crux of Tummer’s argument in this this book is something she calls the “paradox of seventeenth-century connoisseurship.” Research reveals that guild statutes suggest it was routine for master painters, the heads of workshops, to sell work made as a result of collaborating with their studio assistants. Rubens for example, is known to have sold retouched student copies for cheaper prices than his good quality pictures. And there is mention in a 1656 inventory of Rembrandt’s pictures of “six retouched paintings” which may indicate that Rembrandt produced cheaper pictures like Rubens. The other side of the paradox is that early modern treatises that deal with “attribution” indirectly or explicitly encourage art lovers to look for brush marks that “seem distinctively individual.” This paradox has impacted on at the highest levels of Dutch art history, and there is nothing more momentous than ruling on the status of Rembrandts, with the head of the RRP Ernst van der Wetering wondering if the project’s search for “the master’s hand” could not be anachronistic. There is a lot at stake here. Scholars who argue that modern connoisseurship is anachronistic come up against the brute economics of the art market since distinguishing Rembrandt from his pupils can mean millions of dollars. But if there was greater collaboration amongst artists and students, and if Rembrandt's workshop practice (above) was so diverse, as to even permit re-touching of student copies, than what are the implications of that for what Tummers calls “the holy grail of present day connoisseurs” who pursue the autograph work. In the Italian context, the concept of "fatto di suo manno" has been analysed by Richard Spear in Guido Reni and his associates, but one wonders if modern connoisseurs are aware of these debates, let alone their implication. From my interaction with old master dealers and connoisseurs in seventeenth-century art, it clear that they are aware of these debates and recognise the implications for authentication and for judging pictures. I’m not so sure about the large auction houses though.
Tummers has many useful insights on signatures, manners, styles, which all affect the perception of individuality and the problem of autograph work in the seventeenth-century. I found her discussion of “transitional styles” interesting especially as she neatly brought in Poussin’s comment “I am not one of those who always sings in the same key,” a warning to art lovers and connoisseurs to appreciate an artist’s variation in style. Poussin’s comment was his response to his patron Chantelou who had declared in disappointment that the Baptism (above) painted for him was “trop doux” or “too sweet.” Though there is a scarcity of comments on stylistic change over time within the literature of art appreciation, those that we know are revealing. The French theorist Abraham Bosse claimed that three paintings would be enough for a connoisseur to judge an artist's work, "provided the artist hadn't changed it." But Roger de Piles criticised connoisseurs for judging matters of attribution from just three or four pictures of that master's oeuvre. This kind of strategy features heavily in Poussin scholarship where his art is divided into groups of pictures on the basis of variations of style, or transitions in style, Blunt’s “blonde pictures” group comes to mind. Style variation could also be keyed to pricing; a painter could adjust his manner to the expected price as with the Italian baroque painter Lanfranco who dashed off mediocre works if he anticipated small financial returns. Getting back to Rembrandt, Tummers claims that his manner and stylistic variation may reflect gender oppositions derived from art theory or treatises on style. Did Rembrandt deliberately choose to render male subjects with a loose brushwork in a “rough” manner whilist treating women differently, in the “smooth” or “fine” style? I’m not qualified to answer this question, just a keen Rembrandt fan, but I feel Tummer’s point about how modern connoisseurs ignore these considerations arising out of 17th century art theory is a valid one. Modern connoisseurs and the compilers of catalogue raisonnés could pay more attention to debates about seventeenth-century style and function, variation and virtuosity.
Who Judges? Painter or Connoisseur?
“The connoisseur’s increasingly important role on the art market coincided with the increased importance attached to his opinions in city descriptions and its publications on art theory.”
In the 17th century theorists assigned the skill of judging paintings to artists, and it was not until the following century that the advice of the amateur was sought. We learn that Van Mander used the term “art expert” to distinguish them from actual painters, since the former indulged in claims of Ideal judgements and made pretentious comments. In France, Bosse (“Roger showing Two Cardinals around a Gallery”, above) highlighted and criticised phrases like “well-touched,” “of the grand manner” by “art experts” who didn’t understand art. At least three 17th century art theorists, Binet (A Jesuit theorist), Bosse and van Hoogstraten made it clear that only artists were qualified to discuss paintings. For van Hoogstraten, both theorist and practicing artist, most of these experts in his wonderful phrase were “name-buyers” who didn’t rely on their own expertise, but bought on the advice of somebody who considered the painting autograph. A lot of “name-buying” goes on these days as the epidemic of “discoveries” makes abundantly clear. However, some art lovers thought non-painters were equal to the artists themselves, and this development paralleled the art market where connoisseurs took on the role of dealers, auctioneers and those who adjudicated officially in disputes about attribution. The modern era of connoisseurship had arrived.
A Rembrandt Case Study.
“This case study demonstrates, therefore, the importance of having a better understanding of seventeenth-century perceptions in the assessments of paintings from that period. It underscores the main thesis of this book, namely that knowledge of seventeenth-century views on style, authenticity and artistic quality is indispensable in attributions. These insights can greatly sharpen the insights that expert’s use- either consciously or unconsciously- when deciding how to label paintings from this period.”
Tummers finally ties all the main themes of her book together in a discussion of a Rembrandt case study in an epilogue to her book. The 1642 painting, David and Jonathan, in the Hermitage, St Petersburg (above) was considered a Rembrandt until the RRP de-attributed it in 1989. Reasons given were that the brushwork was “superficial”, the spatial construction “weak” and they were not convinced that the colour combination was typical of a Rembrandt product of the 1640s. What made this demotion so high-profile is that it had been championed by Ernst Gombrich in his famous Story of Art which has sold millions. To cut a long story short, Tummers explains that, amongst other things, the RRP did not entertain the possibility that “more than one painter could have executed the work.” Comparing the RRP with Gombrich’s 1950 assessment (which has appeared in all subsequent editions), Tummer’s offers this parting thought. In his discussion of Rembrandt’s David and Jonathan, he spoke more as a seventeenth-century connoisseur might have done. In 1950 Gombrich wrote:
“We can see that Rembrandt was as great a master in conjuring up the effects of these shiny textures as Rubens or Velasquez. Rembrandt used less bright colour. The first impression of many of his paintings is that of a rather dark brown. But these dark tones give even more power and force to the contrast of a few bright and brilliant colours. The result is that the light on some of Rembrandt’s pictures looks almost dazzling. But Rembrandt never used these effects of light and shade for their own sake. They always serve to enhance the drama of the scene.”
Sir Ernst Gombrich, Story of Art, cited in Tummers.
A New Paradigm for Connoisseurship?
Gombrich did not live to see the David and Jonathan re-attributed to Rembrandt by the RRP which happened shortly after Tummers had completed her epilogue. The doyen of art history wrote his enormously popular book for the general public, but, except for the opening foray into Van Meegeren, Tummer’s volume is less accessible to a general audience. Published by the University of Amsterdam and in America, the Getty Museum, it is therefore aimed at scholars and art historians involved in this debate, though it can be read with profit by scholars working in other fields like French and Italian art. A more accessible book covering similar themes is Jonathan Brown’s Kings and Connoisseurs: Collecting Art in Seventeenth-Century Europe which is more orientated towards the non-specialist, and which is referenced occasionally in Tummers’s volume. Despite that caveat, Tummers does write clearly, avoids theoretical jargon and takes the trouble to explain some terms used in attribution issues early on. Her original unravelling of Gombrich’s unconsciously mediated views of seventeenth-century connoisseurship, in an art history book that has sold millions is brilliant, and suggests ways of bringing the “paradox of connoisseurship” debate closer to the general public. She has written an important book here which is very successful at identifying the assumptions upon which modern connoisseurship is based, as well as calling for fresh thinking on attributions. One can feel the tectonic plates shifting in this world Tummers wants where artists’ oeuvres are meticulously probed, over-hauled and presented afresh in re-written catalogue raisonnés to take account of the connoisseurship paradox. This would entail nothing less than a complete paradigm shift in connoisseurship which is unlikely to happen since so many fortunes, reputations, fellowships and careers depend on the old model. In an aside, Tummers discloses that she contacted a representative of Sotheby's Amsterdam who advised that a "good" Rembrandt studio is valued 5-10% of an authentic Rembrandt..According to Tummers, “this means that a Rembrandt studio picture tends to fetch a price in the range of a six figure sum, while paintings considered to be entirely autograph Rembrandts start at $5 million.” How might Sotheby’s pricing structure work if the connoisseurship paradox were applied to cases of attributions today?