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Museums and Galleries

Art Market

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« Sancho Panza, David Hume and Wine Connoisseurship. | Main | Thomas Bernhards Old Masters and the Unbearable Pain of Looking. »



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Interesting idea that one should look at a painting in short bursts rather than for an extended time. Reminds me of the effect of having prints of paintings or drawings I'm working on up around my desk and the way I might suddenly suddenly spot a new detail just on a glance.

David Packwood

Katrina- Thanks for that.

It's interesting to think about this mode of seeing within the desk environment, and the working habits of scholars generally.

Francis DeStefano

Friedlander's opinion seems like it's straight out of the Romantic era but, for what it's worth, my interpretation of the Tempest as the Rest on the Flight into Egypt began with my first look at a black and white reproduction in a book. Also, when I first saw the Sacred and Profane Love in the Borghese Gallery, I turned to my wife and said, "It's Mary Magdalen."



Interesting excerpt that David, thanks, and one that critics have used (justly I think) to highlight the idiosyncrasies of connoisseurship. Friedlander's description makes connoisseurship appear too personal, too 'I can do it, you can't', and too mystical. It is telling that only about half his attributions have stood the test of time.

For what it's worth, I find that nothing is as rewarding as looking at a painting closely, and for a long time. I'm often asked by people in galleries, 'why are you looking at the picture so closely?'. And when I get the binoculars out, people think I'm not quite right. But the fact that most people think it's enough to look at pictures only from afar, and in the case of many art historians, only from reproductions, tells us a great deal about why connoisseurship, that is, the close study of an object, is so misunderstood today.

Graeme Cameron


Likewise kind thanks for this interesting excerpt. I tend to agree with Bendor's comments above. In an recent comment I also noted that many of the so called 19thC "Connoisseurs", especially Berenson, Friedlander and Richter, grossly overated themselves and made scores of disastrous assessments. They have given those with a far more reliable innate gift of the skill a bad name, even today. Conversely, others such as Langton Douglas, Charles Eastlake,Gustave Waagen, John Smith, etc. were more gifted and dependable.

On the topic of close examination of the actual surfaces of paintings, likewise in another comment in this series, I recalled my 1973 experiences studying at the Galleries of Europe over 6 months, getting up "close & personal" with the great masters works, to build an indelible mental frame of reference of all their subtle nuances, which still serves me well today.

Unfortunately today due to past problems with cranks attacking artworks, when you try to do this now a Guard will quickly put you straight, in case you may have an ulterior motive.
I must confess I had never thought of Bendor's clever "Binoculars" solution to this problem. Bravo for a common sense approach to vital closer viewing of works, if this is what it now takes to achieve.


David Packwood

Bendor- Thanks. Binoculars in the gallery- that's a new one. I have a pair, so must try it in the NG sometime.

The close looking problem fascinates me; people just aren't trained, or encouraged, to engage with art like that. I think the practice of moving away from pictures must date from the early 19th century, especially the growth of the professional museum;it was a kind of reaction to the connoisseurship of the 18th, an era in which looking closely at, and even touching pictures was accepted.

Graeme, your up close and personal tour obviously stood you in good stead.

Agree with you both about MJF. His attribution record wasn't that great- this from a man who produced a multi-volume catalogue of Flemish art.

I've been reading a book where modes of looking at art is a topic- I'll say more about it on the next post.


David, let's blame Godfrey Kneller! To a close observer of his works, he said, 'my pictures are not made for smelling of'.

Francis DeStefano


I also like to get up close to a painting especially with my poor vision. Even though I try not to get involved in attribution issues, I can understand the importance of close and even scientific analyses for questions of attribution.

However, I think that we must try to respect the way in which a painter or patron saw a painting--what they tried to communicate. We must respect the finished product. Titian's Assunta or Sacred and Profane Love were not meant to be viewed with noses practically touching the canvas.

It is true that Renaissance artists paid great attention to every detail but often scholars miss the forest for the trees. Few paintings have been subject to such detailed examination as Giorgione's Tempest. Yet until I identified it as a belladonna (with the help of my botanist brother), no one had ever attempted to make an identification.

In the same way, John Fleming identified the prominent animal in Bellini's St. Francis as an Onager, or wild ass of the desert, when for 500 years most thought it was just the domestic donkey that carried Francis.

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