"How to write a catalogue raisonne"

August 29 2014

Image of "How to write a catalogue raisonne"

I've just come across these guidlines on how to write a catalogue raisonne, from the website of a recent 'Authentication in Art' conference held in The Hague:

I - Preparation: creating favourable conditions

  • Degree in art history or command of basic art historical research skills.
  • Review historiography and recent scholarship on the subject.
  • Join professional groups, such as the Catalogue Raisonné Scholars Association.
  • Contact specialists on the subject/ check for other CR projects on the artist.
  • Explore the possibility of collaborating with other specialists as a CR calls for a multidisciplinary approach.
  • Obtain permission to reproduce the artist’s work and try to have fees waived or reduced.
  • Set up a computerized database to file images, data and correspondence, and establish protocols for naming images and files.
  • Train your eye by examining first hand major repositories of works of undisputed authorship. Obtain relevant broader connoisseurship by inspecting first hand large quantities of works by similar artists of the sameperiod.

I suppose I should be glad that connoisseurship is mentioned at all, and not worried that it is the last thing on the list, rather than the first. Surely, the most important pre-requisite in compiling a catalogue raisonne is not a degree in art history*, but the confidence that you will be able to know for certain that your chosen artist really did paint the picture that some label/institution/scholar says they did. 

The guide also goes into great detail about all the other things you need to write a catalogue raisonne, but gives no further advice on how to 'train your eye'. Now, I haven't written a catalogue raisonne**, but I have (and I hope this doesn't sound too much  like boasting, but there's no other way of saying it) a proven track record of having a good 'eye'. So for the benefit of any budding connoisseurs out there, I would add the following three crucial tips (obviously, this is all mostly relevant to Old Masters, and not modern and contemporary catalogues).

1 - Starting with 'undisputed' works in major collections is fine, but just as important is getting to grips with lesser works, studio pieces, copies and imitations. For me, the most useful weapon in my connoisseurial armoury is also the most straightforward; the ability to make simple assessments of quality. Looking at the rubbish stuff and knowing its weaknesses (for example, in the drawing of anatomy, or the creation of texture in drapery), makes it easier to recognise the good stuff. So spend just as much time looking in minor museum collections, their reserve collections,  and especially auction rooms, which are excellent training grounds.

2 - Look closely. I mean really, really closely. Sniff the canvas, take a torch, and invest in a good pair of binoculars (and take off the lens caps). First, this will help you develop a far better feeling for an artist's technique than admiring the composition as a whole, from afar. But more importantly, you will be able to discern signs of originality, those crucial indicators that a work of art is the first example of its type, and not a copy or a studio variant. These may include pentimenti (though beware; sometimes minor pentimenti are just evidence of a bad copyist) or, more helpfully, evidence that the picture has been painted from back to front, so to speak, with all the spontaneity one would expect to see when an artist gives free rein to their creative impulses. A copyist, seeing only the finished product in front of them, will invariably paint only what he sees in the top, finished layers of a painting.  

3 - Understand condition. Is that 'dodgy' eye in a portrait the result of bad painting, or simply the work of some ham-fisted restorer who didn't know where the pupil should end and the iris begin? The great majority of discoveries I've been lucky enough to make have involved cases where a painting looks, superficially, to be a bad painting because it is in bad condition (or more accurately, appears to be in bad condition). Nothing obscures the true underlying quality of a painting more than over-paint, dirt, or old varnish. And because no single group of people have done more damage to paintings over the centuries than those tasked with their 'conservation', more pictures that you would imagine have been interfered with, badly over-painted, or scrubbed to death. Sadly, not enough art historians understand how the condition of a painting can alter one's perception of its quality. So (and this last piece of advice is really a combination of points 1 and 2 above) spend time closely looking at pictures in bad condition as well as good, and if possible spend time in a conservation studio (now that conservators have, by and large, worked out ways to safely clean paintings). The sooner you can spot over-paint and learn to see through old varnish, the better.

Now, that's enough trade secrets... 

* Actually, I'd be tempted to argue that a degree in history is more useful, as it gives a better training in how to evaluate evidence.

** Though that might be about to change!

Update - a reader writes:

Having typed out the words 'catalogue raisonné' several times already today, I can vouch for the usefulness of having this character somewhere close at hand if it isn't on your keyboard: é

Alas my new Mac doesn't seem to have that 'ctrl 'e'' function.

Update II - but another reader adds:

My mac does,...     I  =>  O =>  P  =>   shift  éééééééééé ,

or,  non shift      èèèèè.

I 'm sure you'll get an 'eye' for this stuff.

Update III - art historian Dr Matt Loder tweets:

Interesting post on CRs, but full of circular reasoning (the fundamental flaw in most connoisseurship). You're basically engaging in a massive game of confirmation bias. "This artist is good, therefore this can't be by him".

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