Connoisseurship - a brief demonstration

August 23 2012

Image of Connoisseurship - a brief demonstration

Picture: Philip Mould & Company

My piece yesterday on connoisseurship and art history has sparked a lively debate, which is excellent. Readers may have noted that I was careful not to overly define connoisseurship (and nor to say that it was the be all and end all of art history, far from it), so here I want to say a little more about what it means in practice. Connoisseurship today is a very different discipline to that practiced in Bernard Berenson's era, which to this day has left a bad taste thanks to his involvement with the dealer Joseph Duveen. Modern technology has also enlarged the connoisseur's armoury. Here's an excerpt from an article I wrote last year on how connoisseurship has changed, in the appropriately titled Fine Art Connoisseur magazine:

[...] modern technology is an increasingly useful tool for today’s ambitious connoisseur. High-resolution digital photography allows the close comparison of works many thousands of miles apart. New methods of scientific analysis are also an aid to connoisseurship. It is now possible to determine what type of pigment or canvas a particular artist favored. Before, connoisseurs relied too heavily on their “instinct” to attribute paintings, giving the practice a bad name. In 1939 the noted art historian Max Friedlander wrote, “The way in which an intuitive verdict is reached can, from the nature of things, only be described inadequately. A picture is shown to me. I glance at it, and declare it to be a work by Memling, without having proceeded to an examination of its full complexity of artistic form.” Unsurprisingly, only about half of Friedlander’s attributions have stood the test of time. Now, science can help us be far more accurate.

Often, those who claim to be connoisseurs can disagree dramatically over paintings. It is therefore easy to be sceptical of connoisseurs, and even to poke fun at ones like Friedlander. The ballooning Rembrandt oeuvre is a good example of the extremes of connoisseurs' views - over a thousand works were attributed to him in the 19th Century, but that fell to about 350 at one point in the 20th Century. However, we need to make a distinction between connoisseurship (a useful art historical tool) and connoisseurs (who are often self-appointed, and often wrong) - though I would point out that there are good connoisseurs and bad connoisseurs, just as there are good and bad doctors. One just has to find, and rely, on the good ones, those whose record can be proved over time. 

And it is still possible to make attributions based purely on looking at a painting - that is, connoisseurship in its most traditional and purest form. The portrait above is an interesting example. It came up for sale in a minor London auction last year, described as 'Circle of Joseph Highmore'. The sitter was unidentified. I had seen the picture in the catalogue but it was only a small thumbnail, and I paid little attention to the illustration. However, the moment I stood in front of the picture my reaction was; 'that's by Ramsay'.

The problem is, I cannot entirely explain why. That is, beyond the fact that it reminded me of other portraits by Allan Ramsay that I have studied over the years. It was an instinctive reaction (though it rarely happens like that). And therein lies the connoisseur's Achilles Heel, for this is what makes critics of connoisseurship uncomfortable. Today's world demands instant proof and irrefutable verdicts. But explaining a judgement based on what we might call old-fashioned connoisseurship is exceedingly difficult, no matter how articulately one sets out comparisons of brushstrokes, colour and composition. Just saying, 'because it looks like a Ramsay', won't really do.

Still, I believed in my hunch and so did my employer, Philip Mould. We bought the picture. Cleaning further reinforced our belief that it was by Ramsay, and in time we found that other Ramsay experts agreed with us. The pleasingly irrefutable evidence, however, only emerged some time later, and indeed after we had sold it (to a US museum), in the form of a preparatory drawing by Ramsay for the head in the Yale Center for British Art (below), which Philip found online.    

And yet, had we not found the drawing, should we have laid claim to finding a lost work by Alan Ramsay (an early work, incidentally, dated to about 1750, and a rare case of an early painting with a related drawing)? Those who do not believe in connoisseurship would surely have to argue no - and in doing so not only falsely restrict Ramsay's oeuvre, but the evolution of art history itself. 


Update - a reader writes:

Interesting follow up. What you haven't explained it why it matters that's by Ramsay.

There's no pleasing some people...

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