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Dr. Ihor Holubizky

The Unvarnished Truth: Exploring the Material History of Paintings project began as a modest but focused transdisciplinary examination of nine paintings from the McMaster Museum of Art collection. The prime objective was to explore specific and precise material conditions: how were these artworks made and what was the material history, including changes and alterations over time. The information gleaned from these explorations then allowed reflection on why these objects were made in relation to ascribed meanings, interpretation, and the history of art. The why is no more stable than the material condition. Eighty years ago, art historian Ludwig Goldscheider wrote, “in reality the past changes as rapidly as the present,” an observation that has been expressed by others.[i] But if the past is never static, how does this concept relate to what we know and believe to be true.

In practical terms, the paintings for this project were chosen for their broad range of supports and mediums, from historical to the modern period, and for their dimensions, which could be accommodated by the available technical equipment. Early on, one of the project’s contributors, Dr. Spronk, commented that a key to knowing more is posing good questions. Therefore, another factor in the selection process was intuition, choosing works that might offer interesting questions and problems to address. Over the course of the project, questions developed and shifted from the specific to the general and back again. Testing was modified, adjusted, and refined because of uneven—and unexpected—specific findings and results.

From the outset, the limits of the eye was an implicit governing principle; that is, not accepting the visible (the surface) as the primary way of looking and thinking about art. By the same token, deferring to the established schemata of art history, although essential in comparing the known with the unknown, can be a habit of mind—to leave well enough alone, and to consider “minor” works of art as a means to serve “merely” as illustrative examples. While this project did not have an explicit objective to prove or disprove attribution (authorship), through imaging data, diagnostic examinations, and project team discussions, some attributions shifted, as noted in the catalogue entries and throughout the essays in this volume.[ii] Science alone cannot provide an answer, but in tandem with an inquisitive, art historical methodology, new avenues of inquiry are opened up with the understanding that the work of a museum does not end with the acquisition of a work of art. David M. Wilson, a former director of the British Museum, stated that “a good museum curator is above all things curious about all objects, whether they be in his own subject or [an] entirely different area [of expertise].”[iii] Indeed, the very act of removing works from their position in the collection and hence, art history—even if temporarily—creates an opportunity in which the engine of curiosity functions.


146,000 Days and Counting


The topic of collecting and collections is not exclusive to the museum, but inside the museum it takes on a weight and responsibility, even for the most basic question of how did this get here, and why? (There is an accountable museum due process, which is rarely communicated to the public.) We can also ask, why do we collect? Historian Herbert Read rightly noted, “the pursuit [of collecting] is ambiguous because in the first place it does not necessarily serve any rational purpose,”[iv] yet we invest meaning in objects and works of art that is not wholly quantifiable or measurable—what we call intrinsic value. Susan S. Pearce wrote, “objects are not inert or passive; they help to give shape to our identities and purpose to our lives.” And as George Kubler stated, “the only tokens of history continually available to our senses are the desirable things made by men [and] to say that man-made things are desirable is redundant, because man’s native inertia is overcome only by desire, and nothing gets made unless it is desirable.”[v]

Collecting is a foundation of museum activity,[vi] although the process is complicated: “policy, accident and serendipity all play their part.”[vii] Private collectors, however, are not obliged to justify their choices, but can exercise the impulse to share personal interests and passions with the public through loans to exhibitions, gifts that have been the foundations of now major museums, and the establishment of private museums.[viii]

By happenstance, five of the nine works selected for this project were part of a donation made to the McMaster Museum of Art in 1984 by the late Herman Levy, a Hamilton collector. This gift dramatically altered the scope and magnitude of the Museum’s collection. These nine works represent an arc of five hundred years, or one hundred forty-six thousand days (and counting), without a typical curatorial assertion. Other questions formed: What is the relationship between private and public collecting, as one impacts on the other? How does a focused and intense examination of works of art “in isolation” relate to what is often called and inevitably accepted as “the canon”?[ix] Can these works return to the collection “changed”?

There is another important aspect to a work of art. Even though it is a prime document of singular authorship, it can also express and convey a complex array of aesthetic and social (political and religious) values that speak of the times; these are all the elements of culture and history. Yet, as with all historical texts and documents, the further away we are from the moment of creation or inception, the more likely it is that specific references will be weakened because society and culture is ever-changing. What may have seemed obvious three hundred years ago can become obscured or cloaked. Kubler expanded on this flux:

Historical knowledge consists of transmissions in which the sender, the signal, and the receiver all are variable elements affecting the stability of the message. Since the receiver of a signal becomes its sender in the normal course of historical transmission…we may treat receivers and senders together under the reading of relays. Each relay is the occasion of some deformation in the original signal. Certain details seem insignificant and they are dropped, [while] others have an importance conferred by their relationship to events occurring in the moment of the relay and so they are exaggerated.[x]

Rather than a flaw in our thinking, what Kubler mapped out is an inherent, human condition, the implicit personification of art history; great artists make great art—hence, the “canon.” Less fortunate artists are relegated to the position of journeymen and can remain unknown and nameless, a case in point for two of the paintings in this project. In the schemata of art history, the artist without a name “characterizes” and points to more important artists and works.[xi] Context rules the story of art, but connoisseurship—as the authoritative voice—as well as taste, fashion, and desire (all subjective areas) dominate the inherent or intrinsic merit of any given object.


Connoisseurship, Taste, and Fashion: Collections, Collectors, and the Museum


Connoisseurship emerged in the nineteenth century as a critical device in the assessment of artistic merit and authenticity. The key figures in its development—essays and books published between 1880 and 1942—include Giovanni Morelli, Bernard Berenson, and Max Friedländer. This “classical” approach can be understood (if not wholly defined) as the refined and informed eye registering and comparing compositional factors. Bernard Berenson defined his methodology as the examination of formal characteristics in order to determine an artist’s stylistic “fingerprint”:

Connoisseurship…proceeds, as scientific research always does, by the isolation of the characteristics of the known and their confrontation with the unknown [and to] take all of [an artist’s] works of undoubted authenticity [in order] to discover those traits that invariably recur…but not in the works of other masters.[xii]

Although Berenson invoked science, he left the penultimate verification to the subjective, what he named and defined as “The Sense of Quality [which] is indubitably the most essential equipment of a would-be connoisseur.”[xiii] Connoisseurship, therefore, cannot be wholly separated from taste and fashion—taste as the objectification of preference, and fashion as a currency that comes and goes.[xiv] “Taste,” as Stephen Bayley wrote for a formative exhibition on the topic, “derives its force from data that is a part of culture rather than pure science.”[xv] Art historian Francis Haskell explained:

Taste, however capricious, always depends on more than taste. Any aesthetic system, however loosely held together, is inextricably bound up with a whole series of forces, religious, political, nationalist, economic [and] intellectual.[xvi]

Max Friedländer’s different (or adjusted) view questioned the assertion of a “universal validity.”[xvii] He proposed an informed “intuition and the first impression”[xviii]: “[The] inner certainty [of authorship] can only be gained from the impression of the whole; never from an analysis of the visible forms.”[xix] However, Friedländer also raised a caveat: “Intuitive judgment may be regarded as a necessary evil. It is to be believed and disbelieved [and] intuition resembles the magnet needle, which shows us our way whilst it oscillates and vibrates.”[xx] In other words, in the reach for eternal or universal values, one step forward can be two steps back.

Connoisseurship, regardless of the contested debate on methodologies or recipes for connoisseurship, has had a significant impact on collecting in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, and particularly in the United States where major collections of European historical and modern art were being assembled.[xxi] The cult of connoisseurship, however, also blurred the lines between the art historian (as connoisseur-advisor), the art dealer, the private collector, and the museum.[xxii] In a (capitalist) market economy, there is an ever-present monetary and exchange value that can exaggerate worth and create desirability in the same breath. [xxiii] The transfer of a private collection into the public realm (and trust) validates it, along with the aggregated values that can include ownership power and prestige. Arguably, connoisseurship continues to operate within the contemporary art world, but under different terminology. We can also say that the acquisition of privately held works by major public galleries cements reputations through validation and legitimacy. (The lines between private and public can also blur depending on the insistence of the private collector as a museum stakeholder.)

“What a wonderful collection” is a phrase that may be uttered by a museum visitor. It can mean one of two things, or a blend of both: what I see reflects and reinforces what I know and admire; or, what I see has broadened my understanding and appreciation. For some, the dutiful visit to a museum is akin to an annual check-up—never pleasant, but “good for you.” The argument that good art makes good citizens sits at the core of many museum mission statements, as if an unassailable principle.

The easiest and the most radical thing is not to collect;[xxiv] not to be held accountable for the vicissitudes of history and ever-changing tastes. The rise of the temporary exhibition space reflects that view—the kunsthalle or institutes of contemporary art.

Case Studies – Knowing and Framing

As noted earlier, science alone does not offer a complete answer, which leads to ruminating on a hypothetical “dream” instrument capable of determining everything; “When was it made? Who made it? Where was it made? How was it made? Of what material was it made?”[xxv] Each work studied in the McMaster project generated different forms of data, rather than equal and cumulative research; different ways of thinking came forward.

The infrared reflectography image of the painting attributed to Jan Gossaert delivered perhaps the most distinct and remarkable image from a curatorial point of view. Chalk lines on the oak wood support were revealed. Here was tantalizing evidence of the formation of composition—a “day one” (or thereabouts), as if we are looking over the shoulder of the artist, and an aspect of the work unseen for five hundred years (excluding, of course, examples of unfinished or abandoned works). To leave this as mere foundation in the how of art is to disregard the miracle of art. Through the habit of mind and the imprint of authoritative connoisseurship, too often only the outcome is judged and admired, and not the process. Process as “idea and concept” is equated with art of the modern age and contemporary times. Yet the reflectance transformation imaging for the Alexej von Jawlensky, a modern painting, presented evidence of process that has not been expressed in considerable extant writing about the artist and interpretations of his work.

Can we dismiss process for pre-modern art where it is too often relegated to the enchantment of the eye (the limits of the eye), a craft of the art rather than the art in the crafting? Formal elements are not the only way to understand and know art of the past.

The Rubens painting fragment is another and different case. It was acquired by Herman Levy fifty years ago from London dealer Henry Roland, who had purchased it at auction and believed that it was a Rubens sketch rather than a work by the Spanish painter Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo (active during Rubens’s time), as described in the auction catalogue. There is dual connoisseurship at work; while there must be a degree of trust between collector and dealer, Levy did not merely accept at face value Roland’s assertion that the work was a Rubens, but drew on his own study and knowledge of art to make his own assessment. Nevertheless, much was left unexamined. The Rubens has been in the McMaster collection for a quarter of a century with the generalized description, “head of a man with grey beard and white ruff.” This is a common titling strategy for historical portraits of unknown sitters, and over time it becomes the de facto title. Why was the sitter not uncovered when it seemed “so simple”? A different version of an image of the same sitter is in the Rubens catalogue raisonné, published in 1987, three years after the donation to the Museum. If curiosity is a driving force in acquiring knowledge, a lack of curiosity is too often acceptable, to leave well enough alone. A portrait is always of someone, and in this instance—though certainly not in all—the name of the sitter was recoverable: Maximilian III, Archduke of Austria (1558–1618).

The Venetian painting, in the manner of Tintoretto, was a different scenario. In his purchase discussions, Herman Levy did not accept the dealer’s Tintoretto attribution, yet agreed to buy it if it was sold as “Venetian,” and with the appropriate discount in price. Levy was expressing his connoisseurship through a belief in the “Sense of Quality,” even if artist and sitter remain unknown. [xxvi] Another critical condition was revealed in the technical examination, pointing to taste and fashion. The painting had been altered several times in order to conform to what undoubtedly was a market for Venetian paintings, and not to adhere to custodial principles or ethical practices for the work. That history of change (who did what, when) may never be known. This is also likely true for the Rubens fragment. It may have been more readily saleable as a face-only portrait (“of the period”) than as what it may have been originally, a three-quarter portrait of an Austrian Archduke.

From another perspective, we can take imperfect condition for granted, and even celebrate it. The Winged Victory of Samothrace is an apt example. Although missing the head and arms (other parts have been discovered, but not reattached), this statue is nonetheless admired as a masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture and, for many stands for classicism and beauty.[xxvii] It has been displayed prominently at the Louvre in Paris since 1883, with the exception of its removal for safety during the Second World War. However, it is only goods “damaged” by time. Are we celebrating the passage of time and the miracle of survival?

The issue of painting frames was not a consideration for The Unvarnished Truth, but came forward because of the necessity of removing the works from their frames for a complete examination. The Adriaen Brouwer painting had been mounted in a rebate frame, a practical and conventional way of securing paintings. The rebate, however, compressed the composition by concealing the edges. In a small work that is painted to the edge, every centimetre counts. The decision was to “float” the panel so the edges could be seen, but not so easily reached. There was a compromise in revealing bits of framing felt that had transferred to the painting’s edges over time. Through discussion and consultation, the attempt to remove or restore the frame was not advised. It meant living with this “flaw” in order to see the whole painting. Ironically, the felt residue left on the edges of the painting had been noted in a conservator’s examination in 1986, yet the painting was returned to the frame.

The paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Aert van der Neer had been framed in the taste of the time, a seventeenth-century Baroque style that spoke of value and importance. This style of frame is an anachronism for both works: Van Gogh painted in the late nineteenth century; and, while he lived and worked during the Baroque period, the governing principle was to change the frame for a style sympathetic to a Dutch genre scene.

What We Can Never Know

Ironically, what was learned in the project underscored what we can never know. As noted at the outset, the objective was not to establish attribution where there was uncertainty; the examination of materials, condition, and changes beyond the limits of the naked eye was the primary task. And indeed, due to a lack of time to dedicate to research as well as an absence of absolute information or consensus, there will remain works we will never know, as W. McAllister Johnson observed:

What emerges from [extant] literature is the constant flux of attributions and provenance [and that] the number of works that can be identified at any one time and that lend themselves to discussion are few indeed. Faced with this uncertainty, it is the apparatus of criticism and connoisseurship that permits at least the educated guess, proposes likelihoods [and] offers documentation” [or, opinion].[xxviii]

We can never know the creative act, and attempting to do so through descriptive language and analytical terms enters into the persuasiveness of erudition. Likewise, science cannot “unmake” and reveal the act—the creative moment—or reverse its arrow of time. If the creative act and impulses of the past may never be fully known or recoverable, the active engine of curiosity—and understanding our limits (of the eye)—keeps art alive. Not knowing—and acknowledging that—is as important as claiming to know everything, the conceit of an empiricism without the “shred” of doubt. Much has been written on the not-knowing in positive terms. Here is one example, from curator Bryan Robertson (I have interjected the term “compelling” where he has used “great”), citing the contradictions that may be unavoidable in the creative act:

A [compelling] painting or sculpture denotes forces in our imagination, which transform life.

A [compelling] work of art proclaims that two plus two equals five: this truth cannot be rationally communicated, only imaginatively apprehended, and it needs time to grow.

The first task of a museum is to give maximum life to a work of art…untrammeled…and thus to grow in the imagination of visitors.[xxix]

[i] Ludwig Goldscheider, foreword to Art Without Epoch (Vienna: Phaidon Press/New York: Oxford University Press, 1937), np. Art critic Lawrence Alloway wrote, “The past is always interpreted according to present knowledge and topical interests; it changes as quickly as our comprehension of the present changes,” in “The American Sublime” in Topics in American Art since 1945 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975), 39. (The article was originally published in 1963.)

[ii] In 2007, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria (Australia), Dr. Gerard Vaughn, stated with respect to the tip-over of a Van Gogh attribution in the collection, “The reattribution of paintings is part of the daily life in any major gallery with a large and complex collection. We regularly change the labels to reflect new research and scholarly opinion.” “It’s tough to canvas an opinion,” Sydney Morning Herald, December 29, 2012, www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/its-tough-to-canvas-an-opinion-20121228-2bz6m.html. In the same article, Jaynie Anderson, professor of fine arts at the University of Melbourne commented, “No one should be frightened of real knowledge.”

[iii] David M. Wilson, The British Museum: Purpose and Politics (London: British Museum Publications, 1989), 41.

[iv] Herbert Read, introduction to Niels von Holst, Creators, Collectors and Connoisseurs (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons/London: Thames and Hudson, 1967), 3.

[v] George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1962), 1.

[vi] There are variations of the museum foundation “pillars.” Five responsibilities are cited by Joseph Veach Noble: “to collect, to conserve, to study, to interpret, and to exhibit,” in Stephen E. Weil, “Rethinking the Museum: An Emerging New Paradigm” in Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift, ed. Gail Anderson (Oxford: AltaMira Press, 2004), 74. Weil in turn cites Peter van Mensch who proposed that the “essential functions of museums [can be] reduced to three: to preserve…to study…to communicate.” Ibid., 74–75. This, however, is a parlour game of terminology, or the impulse to assert “new paradigms.” Fundamentally, the roles remain the same and, as Weil noted, are closely intertwined.

[vii] Wilson, The British Museum , 24.

[viii] The founding collection of the National Gallery, London, England, in 1826 was the bequeathed collections of banker John Julius Angerstein and painter-collector Sir George Beaumont. See “Collection History,” National Gallery, accessed February, 27, 2014, http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/history/collection-history/. Among the renowned private collection museums in the United States are the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, founded in 1903; the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, established in 1922; and the Frick Collection, New York, which opened to the public in 1935. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney established the Whitney Studio to present exhibitions of living American artists. When her offer to donate her collection, with an endowment, was refused by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she formed The Whitney Museum of American Art in 1930. See “History of the Collection,” Whitney Museum of Art, accessed February 27, 2014, http://whitney.org/About/History. There is a similar private collection beginnings story for the Guggenheim Museum. See “History,” Guggenheim Foundation, accessed February 27, 2014, http://www.guggenheim.org/guggenheim-foundation/history. See also Pierre Cabanne, The Great Collectors (London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1963), a study of collectors from Catherine of Russia to Peggy Guggenheim.

[ix] Among the earliest and most celebrated visualizations of a canon is Raphael’s fresco School of Athens (1509–1511), which depicts Greek philosophers in a hierarchical order, the embodiment of knowledge and learning. It was a model for Paul Delaroche’s Hémicycle mural commission at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Delaroche depicted the seventy-five greatest artists of all time. While such conceits and fabrications are discredited as an expression of taste and fashion, strategic position continues today in published anthologies where the term “great” is replaced by the word “today.”

[x] Kubler, The Shape of Time, 21–22.

[xi] In his paper on the university museum and collections, John R. Spencer touches on the dilemma of the “equivalent” in “Cross stands for Seurat, Giampietrino for Leonardo, a Rembrandt etching for a Rembrandt painting,” in Museums in Crisis, ed. Brian O’Doherty (New York: George Braziller, 1972), 139.

[xii] Bernard Berenson, Rudiments of Connoisseurship (New York: Schocken Books, 1962), 123–124. Berenson’s book was written in 1902, and he notes in the preface that the rudiments chapter was written eight years before.

[xiii] Ibid., 147.

[xiv] Francis Haskell noted that “the eighteenth century was deeply—almost obsessively—concerned with the problem of Taste, and the possibility of determining fixed canons whereby it could be established.” Haskell, Rediscoveries in Art: Some Aspects of Taste, Fashion and Collecting in England and France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976), 5.

[xv] Stephen Bayley and Stafford Cliff, Taste: An Exhibition about Values in Design (London: Boilerhouse Project, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983), 14.

[xvi] Haskell, Rediscoveries in Art, 23.

[xvii] Max J. Friedländer, On Art and Connoisseurship (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), 169–170.

[xviii] Ibid., 172.

[xix] Ibid., 173.

[xx] Ibid., 175.

[xxi] See W. G. Constable, Art Collecting in the United States of America (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1964).

[xxii] See Dictionary of Art Historians, accessed February 27, 2014, https://dictionaryofarthistorians.org/berensonb.htm.

[xxiii] See Gerald Reitlinger, The Economics of Taste: The Rise and Fall of Picture Prices 1760–1960 (London: Barrie and Rockcliff, 1961). Much of this continues in the current contemporary art market, both for historical and contemporary works. The notion of collecting has become a sociological topic of study too. See Susan M. Pearce, On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition (London: Routledge, 1995).

[xxiv] “Initially, the Gallery had no formal collection policy, and new pictures were acquired according to the personal tastes of the Trustees. By the 1850s the Trustees were being criticised for neglecting to purchase works of the earlier Italian Schools, then known as the Primitives.” From “Collection History,” National Gallery, accessed February 27, 2014, http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/history/collection-history/collection-history/*/viewPage/2.

[xxv] Victor F. Hanson, “The Curator’s Dream Machine,” in Application of Science in Examination of Works of Art (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1973),18.

[xxvi] McMaster Museum of Art files, letter from Herman Levy to Brod Gallery, 14 March 1967. The original sales invoice drops the attribution to “by a Venetian master…attributed to Tintoretto.” Yet at the same time, Levy accepted the Collier attribution for a “manner of” work. In a letter sent to Mr. Levy a year later, Brod Gallery persisted in the Tintoretto claim, and cited that Bernard Berenson had seen the work and declared it to be a Tintoretto. McMaster Museum of Art files.

[xxvii] H. W. Janson, History of Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1986), 146. The Winged Victory of Samothrace is illustrated on the dust cover of the book.

[xxviii] Johnson, 39.

[xxix] Bryan Robertson, “The Museum and the Democratic Fallacy” in Museums in Crisis, 87.