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Stephanie S. Dickey

“Hello. It’s me.” You hear the voice on the telephone, and with just four syllables you recognize the caller immediately. If asked to explain how or why, you might mention qualities such as pitch, cadence, or accent, but ultimately, the distinctively personal character of the voice may be hard to define. That flash of recognition happens before you have even realized it, a product of intimate familiarity with the speaker.

The practice of artistic connoisseurship can depend on a similar process of instinctive recognition, especially when it comes to attribution, the process of determining who created a given work of art. In visual terms, this instinct has often been compared to recognizing the handwriting in a letter. As with listening, it can be easier to experience such a perception than to build a rational argument in support of it. Nevertheless, this goal has long been central to the practice of art history. In keeping with our exhibition, this brief essay considers the application of connoisseurship to painting, but similar observations could apply to the appreciation of many other products of human creativity, from music to fine cuisine.[i]

The term “connoisseur,” deriving from the French verb connaître, describes a person who possesses the ability to evaluate and render critical judgments about a given cultural product. While there may be an element of natural talent, this ability is usually cultivated through a long process of study and direct experience: in this case, knowledge of art history combined with first-hand visual analysis of paintings. Within the European tradition, the self-conscious practice of connoisseurship developed during the Renaissance and was codified in art theoretical writings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Treatises by authors such as Giulio Mancini, Abraham Bosse, Roger de Piles, and Jonathan Richardson aimed to educate not only artists but also collectors wishing to make a judicious purchase in an art market that was rapidly expanding to include a new clientele: middle-class consumers.[ii] Empowered by the growth of mercantile capitalism and other economic factors, but not necessarily brought up in traditions of cultural patronage, these new art buyers sought to develop their own critical faculties while also turning increasingly to experts for advice.[iii]

When attribution adds significantly to market value, the ability to determine who created a painting is more than an intellectual exercise. In today’s market for historical paintings, where prices rise into the millions of dollars, the fame of the artist plays a key role, perhaps stronger even than intrinsic aesthetic quality. In the case of the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn, for instance, statistics show that a painting from his workshop can sell for as little as five percent of the price fetched by one securely attributed to Rembrandt himself.[iv] The origins of this trend can be traced in part to Rembrandt’s own milieu, seventeenth-century Amsterdam, where hundreds of artists competed in an open market of unprecedented diversity. In a treatise of 1678, his former pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten contrasted true art lovers with what he called “name buyers”: ignorant consumers who purchased a work of art not for its aesthetic appeal but simply because it carried the name of a famous artist.[v] The power of name recognition has continued to impact the art market even as a range of historical factors have conspired to complicate the assignment of extant paintings to specific masters.

Prior to the sixteenth century, much of European art was produced on commission, and elite art patrons, or their agents, often interacted directly with artists. As the art market expanded to include an increasingly broad range of products and consumers, these links grew more tenuous. Buyers began to acquire luxury goods of all kinds on the open market, through dealers, auctions, or other intermediaries. As trade developed internationally, the geographic scope of the art market broadened as well. Concurrently, easel paintings replaced more stationary works, such as frescoes and altarpieces, as the central and most prolific element of the market. As portable objects, paintings on panel or canvas could be shipped, traded, and passed from one collector to another, often without much documentation to verify authenticity.

Meanwhile, to serve the growth in demand, artists devised methods for efficient production, often generating multiple versions of the same composition or copies of works by celebrated masters. The growing taste for secular subject matter, such as landscape and still life, produced a market for subject types that were relatively uncomplicated to design and lent themselves to generic variations on a theme. For instance, Dutch landscape painters like Aert van der Neer specialized in painting the placid local terrain. While some artists became known for a particular niche within this market, such as winter or night scenes (Van der Neer’s specialties), the basic formula of land, sea, and sky was not difficult to replicate.[vi]

Then, as now, unscrupulous artists and dealers sometimes passed off copies as originals, even finding methods for making a canvas look older than it was. Yet, not all copies were intentionally deceptive. A large portion of the market for decorative luxury goods has always been happily served by well-crafted imitations. The most discerning collectors may still prefer an original work—a product of the master’s mind as well as hand—over a copy or imitation, but determining the difference can be challenging. While a signature might seem like a guarantee of authenticity, it is the easiest feature of a composition to fake. More importantly, many artists did not sign their works, while others treated a signature more like a brand, affixing their names to products that were largely the work of assistants trained to paint in their style.

Taking all these factors into account, early handbooks for connoisseurs consistently identified three requisite aspects of expertise: the connoisseur must learn how to judge quality, to identify authorship, and to separate an original from a copy. A number of early theorists were painters themselves, and although they addressed their remarks to art lovers, they asserted that only a practicing artist could truly judge the work of his peers. Others, however, maintained that amateurs could also learn the skills of connoisseurship if they were willing to dedicate themselves to intensive study—indeed, art lovers might be willing and able to devote more time and effort to this than working artists could afford.[vii] In this way, connoisseurship contributed to the professionalization of art dealing and to the rise of art history as a discipline distinct from the practice of art. For art historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, connoisseurship became an essential skill developed through intensive training of the eye in first-hand observation and visual analysis.

Today, very few of the historical paintings still in existence can be unequivocally traced back to their point of origin. This has given rise to the specialized field of provenance research, which reconstructs the historical record of ownership. This approach treats the painting as a material object whose authenticity is verified by documentary evidence without regard to its aesthetic character. Connoisseurship, conversely, begins from the intrinsic qualities of the object itself, aiming to discern characteristics that identify it as the product of an individual creative agent, or, at least, of a specific historical milieu. Some authors have asserted that results can be produced through methodical examination of style according to a prescribed set of criteria. The nineteenth-century theorist Giovanni Morelli, building on the ideas of earlier writers, such as De Piles, and on his own training in anatomy, argued that the touch of an individual artist can be recognized in the consistent treatment of familiar details (a curl of hair or a fingernail) that the artist repeats by rote.[viii] Yet, however systematic or even scientific the approach, the connoisseur’s conclusions remain hypothetical, a matter of judgment rather than fact.

Early modern art lovers enjoyed sharing and discussing their collections in the private setting of the home, but the emergence of public exhibitions (most famously the Salons sponsored by the Académie des beaux-arts in Paris beginning in 1725) also turned art appreciation into a popular pastime. Those who could not afford to purchase works of art for themselves could still be amateurs, cultivating familiarity with artists and art movements by studying works on public display. When we visit an art museum today, and especially when we share with others our observations and judgments about the works we see, we continue the tradition of connoisseurship as a form of sociability. The aggregate of our judgments creates a sense of period fashion or taste. Artists, in turn, may respond either by adapting their styles to prevailing tastes or by deliberately challenging expectation.

As an aspect of art appreciation, attribution to a particular hand has always mattered more for painting than for many other products of material culture such as ceramics, furniture, or textiles, which may be judged by the style of a period or workshop, but are seldom expected to be unique. In addition to the idiosyncrasies of touch (the analogy to handwriting is apt here), the fact that painting conveys not only abstract formal properties but also imagery constitutive of meaning—like the content of a novel or poem—plays a role in separating the creative masterwork from the copy: the artist, like the author, is expected to communicate with an individual and recognizable voice. In reality, thousands of artists have built productive careers as craftsmen whose gifts lie in faithful transcription or creative interpretation of the ideas of others. Yet, it is those masters whose voices strike us as original who most capture our imagination and esteem. Some, such as the Flemish Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens, were lucky to find validation of their efforts in their own time. For others, such as the Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh, recognition came too late for the artist himself to benefit.

The concept of quality as assessed by connoisseurs is typically comprised of excellent facture and satisfying approach to content, often spiced with a modicum of inventiveness, but it is also conditioned by cultural expectations. What is admired as beautiful or significant in one era may be denigrated in another. Even connoisseurship itself has been subject to the vagaries of fashion: by the mid-twentieth century it began to be dismissed by some scholars, those more engaged with questions of iconographic content and cultural context, as being too superficially concerned with appearances.[ix] For historians tracing societal trends, a work of art, as the product of its milieu, can serve as visual evidence for shared cultural values irrespective of individual authorship. Critics of connoisseurial methods have also argued, with good reason, that the evidence on which aesthetic judgments are based is often flawed and fragmentary.[x] Of the millions of paintings produced in early modern Europe, perhaps fewer than one percent exist today.[xi]

In spite of these challenges, the continuing value of connoisseurship can be claimed on both intellectual and practical grounds. Broad historical theories that build on works of art as evidence fall like a house of cards if assumptions about the authenticity of those works prove incorrect. Furthermore, the appraisal of an artist’s methods is not a superficial exercise. It involves the assessment not only of aesthetic elements, such as colour or brushwork, but also of how the artist deploys this visual language to convey meaning as well as to offer visual delight. Thus, as early writers like De Piles and Dezallier D’Argenville argued, the connoisseur must strive to understand the artist’s thought process as well as his techniques.[xii] In the marketplace, it seems likely that the high value of name recognition will also continue to drive efforts to identify authorship and originality, as well as to appraise quality.

While theoretical writings on connoisseurship have been concerned primarily with questions of style, authors have also paid attention to the material properties of paintings. For instance, the seventeenth-century French writer Abraham Bosse observed that copies sometimes fail to deceive because the copyist is unable to duplicate the original materials.[xiii] Given that writers like Bosse had nothing to rely on but their own faculties of sight and memory, their refined understanding of individual styles and artistic movements is truly remarkable. Today’s art historians, in contrast, have the benefit of a wide range of observational tools, from high resolution digital photography to infrared reflectography, as well as scientific methods of examining the materials of which paintings are made. Several of these methods are demonstrated in the present exhibition. Digital archives also allow us to compile, compare, and contrast data from diverse sources.

These objective methods would seem to render traditional connoisseurship obsolete. For instance, in 1997, the conservation scientist Karin Groen discovered that Rembrandt primed the enormous canvas for his famous group portrait The Night Watch with a medium that included an inexpensive filler, quartz. Since then, this mixture has been detected in numerous paintings by Rembrandt and his followers, but not in those of other Dutch artists. Thus, its presence may provide objective proof that a given painting came from Rembrandt’s atelier.[xiv] However, Rembrandt mentored dozens of other artists, and even chemical analysis may not be able to separate the hands of painters working in the same studio, on the same day, with the same materials, as associates in large workshops must often have done. This is where the connoisseur’s knowledge of an artist’s characteristic approach to style and facture can be brought to bear: even using the same materials, the brushwork of one artist may be discernibly different from another. So, too, may the interpretation of a familiar motif (the Morellian method), or the treatment of a formal problem such as perspective or shading. In assessing these features, intuition and experience, although theoretically contrasted, go hand in hand: the knowledge that enables a trained eye to recognize minute differences is built up over time through close acquaintance with the work of a given artist or movement until it becomes a matter of instinct as well as rational judgment.

In October 2014, the prominent art historian Mina Gregori made headlines with her discovery of what she believes to be an authentic painting by the Italian master Caravaggio. Although it is one of several close replicas of a well-known work depicting Mary Magdalene in ecstasy, Gregori is absolutely certain of its attribution to Caravaggio himself. In recognizing the subtle characteristics of the artist’s personal manner, she called upon what she terms the “memory archive” that seasoned art historians carry with them. “I have become a connoisseur,” the ninety-year-old Gregori told a reporter for the Guardian, “and I know a Caravaggio when I see one.”[xv]


[i] This brief summary is indebted to histories of connoisseurship such as Carol Gibson-Wood, Studies in the Theory of Connoisseurship from Vasari to Morelli (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1988); Enrico Castelnuovo and Jaynie Anderson, “Connoisseurship. I. Western World,” Oxford Art Online, accessed November 3, 2014; Anna Tummers, Koenraad Jonckheere, eds., et al., Art Market and Connoisseurship: A Closer Look at Paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens and their Contemporaries (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2008); and Anna Tummers, The Eye of the Connoisseur: Authenticating Paintings by Rembrandt and his Contemporaries (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011).

[ii] See Giulio Mancini, Considerazioni sulla pittura (1620), A. Marrucchi, ed., 2 vols. (Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 1956–7); Abraham Bosse, Sentimens sur la distinction des diverses manières de peinture, dessein, et graveure, et des originaux d’avec leurs copies (Paris, 1649); Roger de Piles, Conversations sur la connoissance de la peinture et sur le jugement qu’on doit faire des tableaux (Paris, 1677) and Abrégé de la vie des peintres, avec des réflexions sur leurs ouvrages, et un traité du peintre parfait, de la connoissance des dessins, et de l’utilité des estampes (Paris, 1699); Jonathan Richardson, Two Discourses. I. An Essay on the Whole Art of Criticism as It Relates to Painting, Shewing I. Of the Goodness of a Picture; II. Of the Hand of the Master; and III. Whether ’tis an Original, or a Copy. II. An Argument in Behalf of the Science of a Connoisseur, wherein is Shewn the Dignity, Certainty, Pleasure and Advantage of It (London, 1719).

[iii] The history of cultural consumption, artistic production, and the development of the art market has been the subject of much recent study. See, among others, John Brewer and Roy Porter, eds., Consumption and the World of Goods (London: Routledge, 1993); Michael North and David Ormrod, eds., Art Markets in Europe, 1400–1800 (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1998); Richard Spear and Philip Sohm, Painting for Profit: the Economic Lives of Seventeenth-Century Italian Painters (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

[iv] Tummers, The Eye of the Connoisseur, 265. This statistic was borne out in my own research for a forthcoming article, first presented as a conference paper, “Rembrandt on the Market: A Case Study in the Value of Attribution,” at the Universities Art Association Annual Meeting, Toronto, October 25, 2014.

[v] Samuel van Hoogstraten, Inleyding tot de Hooghe Schole der Schilderkonst (Rotterdam, 1678): **3; see also Tummers, Eye of the Connoisseur, 183, 232.

[vi] See Eric Jan Sluijter, “On Brabant Rubbish, Economic Competition, Artistic Rivalry, and the Growth of the Market for Paintings in the First Decades of the Seventeenth Century,” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 1:2 (Autumn 2009), accessed November 3, 2014, http://www.jhna.org/index.php/past-issues/volume-1-issue-2/109-on-brabant-rubbish. On the situation in Italy, see Spear and Sohm, Painting for Profit.

[vii] Gibson-Wood, Studies in the Theory of Connoisseurship, 84.

[viii] Giovanni Morelli, Italian Painters: Critical Studies of their Works, trans. Constance Jocelyn Ffoulkes, ed. A. H. Lanyard (London: J. Murray, 1892–93). See also Richard Wollheim, “Giovanni Morelli and the Origins of Scientific Connoisseurship,” in On Art and the Mind: Essays and Lectures (London: Cambridge University Press, 1974): 177–201; Jaynie Anderson, Collecting, Connoisseurship and the Art Market in Risorgimento Italy: Giovanni Morelli’s Letters to Giovanni Melli and Pietro Zavaritt (Venice: Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, 1999).

[ix] See, among others, Max J. Friedlander, On Art and Connoisseurship (London: B. Cassirer, 1942); Edgar Wind, “Critique of Connoisseurship,” in Art and Anarchy: The Reith Lectures (London: Faber and Faber, 1963): 32–51; Jacob Rosenberg, On Quality in Art: Criteria of Excellence, Past and Present, A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964); Gary Schwartz, “Connoisseurship: the Penalty of Ahistoricism,” International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship 7 (1988): 261–68; Gérard Mermoz, “Art History. III. Contemporary Issues,” Oxford Art Online (accessed November 14, 2014).

[x] Schwartz, “Connoisseurship.”

[xi] This statistic, proposed for Dutch seventeenth-century painting, seems plausible for the European market as a whole; see John Michael Montias, Vermeer and his Milieu: A Web of Social History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989); Montias, Art at Auction in 17th Century Amsterdam (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2002).

[xii] Discussed by Gibson-Wood, Studies in the Theory of Connoisseurship, 68, 73.

[xiii] Bosse, Sentimens, 64; Gibson-Wood, Studies in the Theory of Connoisseurship, 54.

[xiv] Rembrandt, The Night Watch, 1642, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum; Karin Groen, “Investigation of the Binding Medium Used by Rembrandt,” Kunsttechnologie und Konservierung 2 (1997): 207–27; Groen, “Earth Matters: The Origin of the Material Used for the Ground in the Night Watch and Many Other Canvases in Rembrandt’s Workshop after 1640,” ArtMatters 3 (2005): 138–54.

[xv] Lizzy Davies, “Italian Art Historian Claims Magnificent Caravaggio Masterpiece Found,” Guardian, October 24, 2014, accessed Nov. 2, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/24/italian-art-historian-claims-caravaggio-masterpiece-found.