How do you explain connoisseurship?

June 14 2013

Image of How do you explain connoisseurship?

Picture: British Museum

Answer - with great difficulty. In a must-read article, however, Neil Jeffares has had a go on his blog. He concludes that it is almost impossible to explain the workings of the connoisseurial mind, for:

[...] the lightbulb in a single [connoisseur's] head is invisible to the rest of us, and indistinguishable from self-delusion (except by inference from that expert’s track record).

A good track record is always the best way to measure a connoisseur. And remember the crucial difference between a 'nein-sager' and a connoisseur: it's no good just listening, as many do, to those who do nothing but reject attributions. The exclusionist has to prove himself by saying yes to things too.

Update - I've updated the earlier post I linked to above, but the point is important, so I'll mention it here as well. The German art historian Max Friedlander (1867-1958) is often cited as a proponent of instinctive connoisseurship. He 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.”

Art history's verdict on Friedlander, and his connoisseurial method, has not been overly kind, because it is considered that 'only half his attributions' have stood the test of time. However, this may be unjust criticism, for I found in Brian Sewell's autobiography an intriguing reference to Friedlander stating that only his pre-1933 and post 1945 attributions should be taken seriously. After that, when Germany was ruled by the Nazis, he was obliged to give optimistic attributions to Nazi collectors. He also helped Jewish families raise funds, he said, by issuing certificates that would make their art more valuable. 

Update II - a reader writes, most usefully:

The problem Friedlander had is the lack of documentation (at the time and since) regarding the Flemish 'primitives' - for example, the only documentation on Mostaert is van Mander (known to be suspect as mostly recorded via word of mouth) and a handful of references to works in collections - there are no signed works apart from a suspected signed work in Rome, so Mostaert's entire oeuvre is pretty much guessed from titles of works mentioned by van Mander and an Ecce Homo listed in Margaret of Austria's inventory. There's certainly no conclusive evidence that any works are actually by Mostaert. The same goes for most early Flemish - so essentially Friedlander had a ton of photographs that he had to arrange into some sense, and that for me is a good basis that early Flemish art historians can work from. I'm sure given databases, science etc that Friedlander would have been more than happy to revise many of his attributions. Putting a name to a group of iconographically/compositionally similar works was in a way better than leaving them all as anons. It was a fascinating period for art history and Friedlander was in the enviable/unenviable position of having the reputation of a connoisseur and having pretty much everyman and his dog that owned an old master sending him photographs on a daily basis after an opinion.

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