Why connoisseurship matters

August 27 2012

Image of Why connoisseurship matters

Picture: National Gallery, Follower of Rembrandt, 'Old Man in an Armchair'

A reader writes:

Fascinated by the recent posts but still somewhat in the dark about the difference between connoisseurship, academic study, etc.  So I thought I would tell you a couple of stories.....

My first year of studying Art History in London was 1979-1980 and among the courses I opted for was one along the lines of an introduction to Baroque painting: the seminars taking place in front of actual paintings at the National Gallery.  The course was led by a distinguished art historian and eventually came around to dealing with Rembrandt.  There we all stood in front of a particular picture being instructed on the artist's style and approach when I ventured to suggest that, while a fine painting, this one was possibly not by Rembrandt himself. I pointed out what I thought were significant differences in style between it and other, undoubtedly authentic, pictures nearby - the technique especially seemed to me to be wholly different and inconsistent. Because the work in question was a celebrated example of Rembrandt's work, and I suppose it was not within the compass of the teaching, my views were summarily dismissed.  This was that picture [above].

Later that year I took another course on 18th C French painting, starting with Watteau and arrived at a seminar excited by something I had just seen.  I think I was almost certainly the only student who regularly went to previews of old master sales at auction houses and, having just been to Christies, I informed the group of the appearence of a version of Watteau's first Embarkation for Cythera - which was up for discussion.  Relaying details of the picture, I noted that, to me, the version generally accepted as the original at the time had major problems with it - frankly it always looked too weak even for an early Watteau and too fussy - while this new contender looked exactly like what one would expect Watteau to have painted.  Again, not a scintilla of interest even though a comparison between the two would have provided a fascinating discussion on what uniquely constituted Watteau's style of painting.  (The painting at Christies was estimated around £30K, sold for £100K more than that - [to a New York art dealer] - who sold [it] for around £500K to the Frankfurt gallery.  Last time I saw it was at the great Watteau exhibition in Paris in, I think, 1984; by which time it had been generally accepted as the original.)

I suppose what distinguished my approach from my peers was that I actually looked closely at works - and as many as possible, which was not acknowledged as an important part of the programme of study.  Detailed examination of works, and attributions, were for specialists and it was much more important for us students to concentrate on generalities - cultural contexts and so on.  Thing is though, useful generalities are based on details and without becoming as familiar as possible with those, conclusions can lie on potentially shaky ground.

More 'why connoisseurship matters' coming soon!

Update - an interesting response to this, posted above.

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