Previous Posts: August 2012

#Eastwooding in Art History

August 31 2012

Image of #Eastwooding in Art History

Picture: National Gallery

The Cecilia Prize

August 30 2012

Image of The Cecilia Prize


This is fantastic - you too can have a go at restoring the famous Ecce Homo. Can you do a better job than Cecilia Gimenez?

Why connoisseurship matters, ctd

August 30 2012

Before I write a more considered defence of why connoisseurship matters, let me see if I can get away with this reductio ad absurdum - how would art history work if we didn't know who painted anything?

Update - some interesting reaction to this. Art historian Dr Matt Loder tweets:

Isn't there a marked difference between "knowing who painted something" & "connoisseurship"?

I don't want to read too much into Matt's tweet - but perhaps here we see the extent to which connoisseurship has acquired its extensive baggage - be it to do with taste or whatever - which in turn has helped make the word controversial. I define, or perhaps should say, want to re-define, connoisseurship at its most basic level, that is a close examination of the object. From this can come the skill of getting to know the work of artist well enough to be able to tell, with the aid of science and documentary evidence where relevant, whether or not they made the work in question. Therefore, in order to certainly know who painted something, we must exercise a degree of connoisseurship. Or, we may have to rely on the connisseurship of someone else before us. Art historians may all now know that Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window is by Vermeer, and one of his most famous works. But once it was thought to be by Rembrandt - and that is why connoisseurship is a vital and basic skill in art history. I make no greater claims for it than that.

However, another reader writes:

As a medievalist I'm frequently confronted by works which have no clearly attributed artist. Some artists are distinctive by particular stylistic traits and can be termed "the master of such and such", but many remain anonymous. Although this restricts our knowledge of artistic development, it does not diminish our appreciation of the works that have been produced.

If anything, might it liberate our perception of each work in its own right, rather than as part of an overall body of work related so significantly to personality? Surely the world would breathe a sigh of relief if we could remove the attribution from Damien Hirst's dot paintings?

Just a passing thought!

Now that's an interesting thought on our friend Damien, but alas even for him I would always be interested to know who painted the spot pictures (ie, not Damien!). The fact that Hirst did not paint them, but merely came up with the concept, tells us a great deal about him, his art and the society that buys it, exhibits it and appreciates it. It is, if you like, a form of inverse connoisseurship - but still the key question is - who created the work and how did they do it?

Turning to the medieval point, although I certainly agree with the 'we can still appreciate them' line of argument for anonymous works of art, I don't think that should stop us trying to find out more about the artist. The desire to move away from 'personality' is where modern art history has taken its cue from much of modern history. Here, if I may, I'd like to repeat an argument I made in our recent 'Finding Van Dyck' exhibition catalogue at Philip Mould & Company:

From about the late 1970s onwards, art history as a discipline saw a considerable reaction against connoisseurship, and by extension the whole question of making attributions based on visual evidence. In essence, the study of the object, be it a painting or a sculpture, became less important than the study of its context. Some art historians went so far as to declare the very notion of authorship irrelevant, their thesis chiming with the growing trend amongst historians to turn away from the study of the individual (not to mention the rise of literary criticism). As a result, both art history and history as disciplines increasingly focused on identifying other elements that determined historical and art historical ‘outcomes’, be they economic, social, or gender based, in a headlong quest for generalisation. And since connoisseurship inevitably involves a detailed biographical study of an individual artist, connoisseurship as a skill became less valued. The shift of emphasis in both history and art history is best reflected in their respective historiographies – modern historians wrote fewer biographies, and art historians wrote fewer catalogue raisonnés.

Some art historians may not like a personality-led approach, and some may. I fall unashamedly into the latter group, just as in my work as a historian I am happier focusing first on the actions of individuals. To explain why, I can do no better than to quote one of my heroes, Kenneth Clark, who said when revealing himself to be a 'stick-in-the-mud'; 'Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.' If that's what a stick-in-the-mud is, then count me in.

On this point, a reader writes:

As a lifelong  art “appreciator” but no connoisseur, my favourite game is to go into a gallery and see what I can recognise – and then of course read up on the info to learn from my mistakes: I have to know who created everything.  And yes Gombrich has helped to educate me.  

Also having fun with a book I ordered accidentally on Amazon (trying to find another by same author) “Masterpiece” by Thomas Hoving where the curators of the Met. have shared their game of bringing along a small detail of a painting and making others in the team work out where it is from (and improve their connoisseurship).  Beautifully printed too with nice scholarly essays at the end of the book, on each of the paintings from which the details are derived. 

Yes please go into lit. crit. and history teaching – I was so badly taught that it has taken me until (almost) retirement to start reading it for pleasure – shocking really.

Another reader writes:

Interesting debate and I have a partial answer to your question. As an artist I'm a big fan of Constable's sketches and the insight they give into his approach to the more 'finished' studio work. If no one knew who painted either then I for one would be the poorer for it, so in that sense I appreciate the connoisseurship behind the attributions...

Finally, art historian Edward Goldberg gives this invaluable view of the whole debate (which is really worth reading):

There has been a  recent flurry of posts on various websites focusing on the state of “connoisseurship” today.  I have been reading them with a mixture of frustration and nostalgia: Frustration at the generally overwrought tone of  the discourse;  Nostalgia because “connoisseurship vs. the new art  history” brings back so many memories.  

When I returned to the States in 1980, after finishing a D.Phil. at Oxford with Francis Haskell on Medici art patronage and collecting, I took up my first (and presumably last) university post—in the Fine Arts Department (as it was then known) at Harvard University.  And I tumbled head over heels into a raging controversy—one that I never even knew existed.

There was a fight to the death between the old-line “object-oriented” art historians (a.k.a. “connoisseurs”) and the younger  “contextual”  art historians (like myself).  It was one of the most poisonous academic environments that I have ever seen outside of Italy and there were many external agitators stirring up trouble.  (I even  received an “anonymous”  threatening  phone call  at two in the morning from a distinguished member of the Departmental Visiting Committee!)

By the time I left Harvard in 1987, however,  the “discourse” had shifted and I was dodging the political correctness commissars,  not the connoisseurs, in American academe.  “History of patronage and collecting” had been  reclassified as elitist and insufficently theoretical.  The  defining moment came when The Art Bulletin sent back a proposed article accompanied by a bizarre ideological diatribe.  What gave me the right to discern “quality” in art, thereby implying that some objects—and by implication, some people—were “better”  than others?  Etc. Etc. Etc.  (I published the article elsewhere, by the way.)  It seemed a good time for me to go back to Florence and back to the archives—where I have been ever since.

I have always been committed to the essential role of  “connoisseurship” in art history, but without silliness and mystification, of which there is far too much.  (For the record, I prefer “visual analysis”,  but the “c-word” doesn’t drive me crazy.)  For those of us who wish to rehabilitate this body of skills and practices, it seems a mistake (strategic and otherwise) to put so much emphasis on one-off identifications—attributional magic tricks, so to speak. When  someone states, point  blank, “This is Raphael because this is Raphael  (full stop).”, it trivializes a complex and subtle process –and it doesn’t do nearly enough to help us understand the work of art.

I find it far more interesting when a  “connoisseur”  says something like, “I saw your picture. It looks like Bergamo or Brescia to me, not Venice, probably a little later than your are thinking. Have you considered those two altarpieces in San Giovanni in Alto and Santa Maria in Basso? Why don’t you put your picture in the middle and see what you can do with them?”  

I personally see “connoisseurship”  (or “ trained visual analysis” ) as the engine that powers art historical research of many kinds (needless to say, I am thinking primarily of Western Art from the 13th through the 19th centuries).  It puts us on the ground in a particular place and time;  it starts us thinking about the terms of the commission and the use and meaning of the object;  it tell us where we should start looking for documentation. And so on…

A Kandinsky on the block

August 30 2012

Image of A Kandinsky on the block

Picture: Christie's

Christie's have bagged a big 'un for their forthcoming modern art sale in New York  - Improvisation No.8 by Wassily Kandinsky, which is expected to fetch up to $30m (but will surely make more). The previous Kandinsky record was set back in 1990, at $20.9m. More here.

Hogarth, and others, on connoisseurship

August 29 2012

Image of Hogarth, and others, on connoisseurship

Picture: British Museum

Here are some more responses to the vexed connoisseurship debate, the strength of which has taken me slightly by surprise. One commentator even took to behaving like a troll - AHN's first - and had to be harshly dealt with. Quite why anyone is interested in what I think on the subject amazes me - but it's perhaps a sign of how introverted modern art history has become that sites like this seem to be one of few places where people can discuss contentious issues such as connoisseurship. It seems there is a stifling consensus in much of academic art history on the subject, and some within that world seem genuinely afraid to speak out. 

Still, connoisseurship has long been a contentious topic, as one reader reminds us:

...'connoisseurs' (and I am unashamedly one, trained at the last, or until very recently, unashamedly connoisseurial art history department in the country ie. Cambridge) have always come in for a bit of stick. Hogarth famously blasted them (‘those who go to France or Italy for studies…talk of antiques in a kind of cant in half or whole Italian…and bring wonderfull copies of bad originals Ador’d for their names only…’) and rather touchingly told Hester Thrale to meet Dr Johnson: ‘whose civilization [he said] was to other men’s like Titian’s painting compared to Hudson’s: but don’t you tell them now that I say so for the connoisseurs and I are at war you know, and because I hate them, they think I hate Titian, let them!’

I particularly love this cartoon, showing the embodiment of the unmentionable c-word.

Another writes:

I am a little lost in all this "art historians vs. connoisseurs" discussion...  I am not an expert, but most of the essays by art historians I read seem to be written by people  (such as Federico Zeri, Gombrich, Bernard Berenson, Roberto Longhi) pretty knowledgeable of matters of style, and often discussing attributions....

Ah yes, those would be what we might call good old fashioned historians of art.

Another reader writes:

My reply to [Prof. Dana Arnold] would be to sidestep apologias which pay lip service to the squeamishness of those who feel uncomfortable when confronting the limits of their knowledge. Nothing is more exciting than to be pushing the boundaries of one’s ignorance by making discoveries. Enquiry and curiosity bridge the gulf of exclusion and launch one on an adventure of learning. Those who want to know will make it their business. So give them something to work on, like the excellent book by Mary Acton, Learning to Look at Paintings.

Another reader says I've misunderstood Prof. Arnold's original point:

I can't help feeling you've called this one slightly wrong. I can't see that much to object to in the offending paragraphs by Dana Arnold [...]

Each of her paragraphs introduces a distinct usage of 'connoisseurship.' In the first, it's connoisseurship as you set it out in your blog post about the newly attributed Ramsay picture. That connoisseurship such as this is elitist is beyond doubt; like any specialist expertise, it is attained by only a talented few, after years of study. What is debatable is whether elitism per se is a good or bad thing. I suspect you read her comments as implying that it was unattractive, that 'elitist' is not merely a descriptive but a value-laden word & perhaps this is how she meant it too (if so, that is unfortunate). Elitism has certainly gained a bad press in recent years.

In her second paragraph, she introduces the other historical usage of the word 'connoisseur', meaning someone who has a certain taste in works of art. Her comment that notions of taste are bound up with ideas of social class, among other social and cultural factors, is surely uncontroversial. The idea that taste can be used as a weapon of social exclusion is also surely right. For example, through history the newlly-rich have used art as a passport to social acceptance. Even today, I wonder how many have walked past your shop window and thought, wow, if I had some of that on my walls then I'd really have arrived? When mega-rich businessmen & oil-rich Arab states build huge collections of contemporary art, they are really building their social & cultural identities. This, too, is why well-brought up young men and women throw themselves at the art trade: so that they can learn - if not real expertise, then at least some of the language of 'exquisiteness', because they know that some social value attaches to the possession of knowledge of art. And quite right too: if art did not have this power, it would not... have any power!

But in your initial response to Dana Arnold's paragraphs, it seemed like you had muddled up the two distinct usages of connoisseurship and, in particular, that you read her second paragraph as describing the connoisseurship she had defined in her first paragraph. As you identify yourself as a connoisseur in her first sense, naturally you took offence at being atttacked under the terms of the second sense. For example, you asked if seeing Leonardo's Salvator Mundi was not enjoyable because 'it was the result of elitist intimidation.' But Dana Arnold wrote of elitism in the 1st paragraph, in relation to connoisseurship as a specialist skill, and intimidation in her 2nd, in relation to connoisseurship as a social marker. You ask 'if a connoisseur is a specialist, then what has this got to do with taste... with social class?' Well, not much, as her paragraphs make clear: connoisseurship as a specialism is para 1, connoisseurship in relation to taste and social class is para 2. Your defence of connoisseurship ('just because connoisseurship is a long, foreign-sounding word...') defends the first definition of the term against the accusations of the second.  Dana Arnold says that the connoisseur's world 'does not belong to art history' - she is clearly talking about the second usage of the term, not the first and, in that, she is surely correct?

On my reading, I'm entirely sure that Prof. Arnold is referring to connoisseurship as a whole throughout the two paragraphs in question, and not in the distinctly dual meanings suggested above. In the second paragraph she explicitly links the connoisseurship of 'taste' and 'class' to the connoisseurship of 'knowing who the artist is'. I also cannot help but detect, in even the most generous reading, a disdainful view of connoisseurship - 'these connoisseurs' and 'their world', with which Prof. Arnold says she wants nothing. After all, the whole tenet of her book is explicitly stated in the introduction - 'This book challenges such traditional ways of seeing and writing about art'. So I think it is fair to assume that connoisseurship is one of the traditional things Prof. Arnold wants to challenge, along with the 'chronological story about great Western male artists.' And I think to use the word 'elitist' in the same sentence as 'just enjoying looking at art' is to surely to cast it in a perjorative sense. 

Another reader reminds us (as I have been at pains to point out, but perhaps not strongly enough) that attribution is of course not everything:

I'm enjoying the connoisseurship debate, and I agree with you. That said, I think your brief comments could be interpreted as bending the stick too far towards saying that attribution is everything. To take one example among many, Jules Lubbock is in my opinion a first-rate art historian. His book on Storytelling in Christian Art is an excellent piece of art-historical scholarship. But I wouldn't see him as a connoisseur - he relies substantially on others' judgments about attribution, and focuses on other aspects of art history.  Yes, attribution is an essential basis for saying anything sensible about art, but art history would be rather arid if that were all it were. Just to be clear, I'm not attributing that view to you, and I don't think that any of this is disagreeing with you.

There's much more to be said on this, I think, and some interesting parallels with other academic disciplines - especially literary criticism.

Too true about literary criticism, and there are also parallels with the way history has been taught lately, which I may return to.

Thanks very much for writing in everyone - please keep 'em coming!

Was Van Gogh colour blind?

August 29 2012

Over on Artinfo, Kyle Chayka discusses the conclusion of one Japanese scientist that he was. 

Art engagement in the UK

August 29 2012

Image of Art engagement in the UK

Picture: DCMS

The UK government has released some interesting statistics on 'public engagement with the arts'. Of 9,188 people interviewed, 78.2% have engaged with the arts in the last year. The great majority of these, 63.3%, have engaged with the arts three or more times in the last 12 months. It's true that 'live music' accounts for most of the 'art' here, but 'art display or installation' comes quite high up on the scale. Certainly higher than ballet, anyway.

Robert Hughes on 'fast art'

August 29 2012

Image of Robert Hughes on 'fast art'

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper has re-published an article written in 2004 by the late Robert Hughes on why institutions like the Royal Academy must continue to teach traditional artistic methods:

Part of the Academy's mission was to teach. It still should be. In that regard, the Academy has to be exemplary: not a kindergarten, but a place that upholds the primacy of difficult skills that leak from a culture and are lost unless they are incessantly taught to those who want to have them. And those people are always a minority. Necessarily. Exceptions have to be. 

In the 45 years that I've been writing criticism there has been a tragic depreciation in the traditional skills of painting and drawing, the nuts and bolts of the profession. In part it has been caused by the assumption that photography and its cognate media—film and TV—tell the most truth about the visual. It's not true. The camera, if it's lucky, may tell a different truth to drawing, but not a truer one. Drawing brings us into a different, a deeper and more fully experienced relation to to the object. A good drawing says “not so fast, buster”. We have had a gut full of fast art and fast food. What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water; art that grows out of modes of perception and making, whose skill and doggedness makes you think and feel; art that isn't merely sensational, that doesn't get its message across in seconds, that isn't falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our nature. In a word, art is the very opposite of mass media. For no spiritually authentic art can beat mass media at their own game.

What a writer. What a loss.

On Latin mottos in art, and the origins of 'connoisseurship'

August 29 2012

Image of On Latin mottos in art, and the origins of 'connoisseurship'

Picture: National Gallery

I mentioned in my post 'When Art History Goes Wrong' that connoisseurship derives from the Latin 'cognoscere', which means 'to get to know'. A reader sends in this fascinating use of the word:

It appears in that famous verse from Vergil's Georgics II. 490 Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas - 'happy the man who figures out the causes of stuff,' in the context - being a good farmer means understanding the land and the seasons.

It's taken up as a motto for deductive science, but it's equally applicable to connoisseurship. 

The only thing that stops art history from being as much as science as anything else worthy of the name is periodic outbursts of inverted snobbery like the one you quote from that appalling-sounding book. 

Parallel cases are a good test of absurdity. We could sideswipe the pretentious physicist with their elitist 'quarks' and 'neutrinos.'

Quite. Some people are so hung up on the apparently elitist connotations of the word 'connoisseurship' that they want to abolish use of it altogether. But we can no more do that than cease using other antiquarian words like 'Renaissance', or 'sfumato'. They are just part of the vocabulary of art history.

The line from Virgil is, incidentally, a splendid one, and if AHN is ever granted a coat of arms, that will be its motto.

Another favourite Latin line of mine appears in a painting by Titian called An Allegory of Prudence, above, and is the perfect rejoinder to people who ask, 'what's the point of studying history?' The inscription above the three heads reads:




Which means something like, 'It is wise to take heed of the past, lest future actions go astray'. The painting is catalogued on the National Gallery's website as 'Titian and Workshop', but is surely a case of where a painting's compromised condition has interfered with the attribution. There are some excellent passages in it, and it seems unfair to demote it. 

Is it now the most famous piece of restoration ever?

August 29 2012

Image of Is it now the most famous piece of restoration ever?

Picture: Daily Mail

More famous even than the restoration of the Sistine Chapel? There's also a petition to keep the painting as it is, because it "reveals a subtle criticism of the Church's creationist theories while questioning a resurgence of new idols." Well worth signing I think! It had 21,432 signatures as of this morning.

Why connoisseurship matters, ctd.

August 28 2012

A reader writes:

I have a similar experience [to] today's contributor on connoisseurship/university. Having completed both a BA, MA and part of a Ph.D at Sussex, the only time any object handling/connoisseurship occurred was a lunch time optional course at the Barlow Collection (which is sadly no longer at Sussex) on Chinese ceramics. At that time Sussex arguably had the best Art History department in the country - Nigel Llewellyn, Evelyn Welch, Norbert Lynton, David Mellor, Craig Clunas, Maurice Howard etc. The course was heavily centered around philosophy/methods/approaches etc. Having attended fine art/antiques auctions since I was in nappies (at 32 I'm still the youngest person I ever see at auctions), I took my university friend who'd got a first (I'd got a 2:1) to Julian Dawson's saleroom in Lewes. Whilst I was busy rummaging and making notes, she asked me 'how can you tell what's a print and what's a painting?.' I expect her essays were brilliant though...

This is why I feel sorry for anyone studying what we might call 'new art history'. It can leave some students unable to cope in the real, non-theoretical world of art history (i.e., the one where most of the jobs are).

Update - a reader writes:

You've written two posts called "Why connoisseurship matters", but you haven't actually explained why it matters yet.

Crikey. Looks like I'll have to return to this in some depth, and Explain. Things. Really. Slowly.

My motorbike...

August 28 2012

Image of My motorbike...


... is called 'Anthony', which came from my new invention; art historical rhyming slang - 'Anthony Van Dyck, bike'. Geddit? (Tragic, I know, and on so many levels...) The thing is, I have recently acquired another bike, and it too needs a name. Can any readers recommend a suitable art historical one? 

Update - a reader writes:

How about 'Vincent'  (as in 'Vincent Van Gogh, I'm off'...) - Vincent is also the name of a Classic Bike - but you probably knew that - & my Dad had one. Or

the 'Duc-arti'

Sorry! Terrible I know, but I'll keep thinking…

Another reader writes:

Shame you didn't buy a foot-powered boat; 'Tiziano Vecellio, pedalo'.

More, more!

Further update - a reader writes:

I always find that when it comes to naming automobiles, they should be as feminine as possible or at least masculine but very funny or very catchy. I don’t think ‘I’m off to ride Anthony’ sounds quite right. Perhaps you should have called it simply the Dyck Bike (removing the Van as it might mislead people who don’t catch the ‘Bike’ bit).

None of this sounds quite right of course, but it's way too late for that... Mind you, there was a female portraitist in England in the 18th Century called Mary Moser (1744-1819). So, 'Mary Moser, motor' might work better?

And another - a reader writes:

  • Edward Hopper - chopper
  • Antonio Pollaiuolo - motociclo
  • Carlo Maratta - motocicletta

OK, last two a bit of a stretch!  I like the approach - I name my bicycles after Shakespearean characters, and my cats after communists (Lenin, Trotsky, Jessica Mitford - AKA Decca).

The first one is excellent - enough to make me want to buy a chopper. In fact, I fear I must have two choppers, one called Edward, as suggested above, and the other John, after John Hoppner...

More come in - I like this one, it doesn't rhyme, but:

'Triumph of Venus?'

At least its gender is clear.

And in case anyone out there wants a name for their scooter:

If you ever buy a "Piaggio" you can call it "Caravaggio".

Finally, for anyone with a Triumph Bonneville:

'Triumph Bonnardville'

Rubens acquired by the Fitzwilliam

August 28 2012

Image of Rubens acquired by the Fitzwilliam

Picture: Fitzwilliam Museum/National Gallery

In December last year I mentioned a delightful oil sketch by Rubens, The Triumph of Venus, which had been accepted in lieu of inheritance tax by the UK government. As is the system, the government invited bids in from museums as to who should be permanently allocated the picture. It has now been allocated to the Fitzwilliam Museum, but for a while was on loan to the National Gallery. I have a fantasy that somewhere, in some basement store-room, there was a curatorial cage fight over who got to keep it.  

That said, a reader points out that in contrast to the National Gallery's trumpeting of their recent tax acquisitions, the Fitzwilliam is silent. the picture is listed on their collections database, but not their news page. This is similar to the museum's lack of any fanfare for their £225,000 Bassetti acquisition last year. So, something for the new Fitzwilliam director to oversee when they're appointed - a better news section on the website!

New acquisitions at the National Gallery

August 28 2012

Image of New acquisitions at the National Gallery

Picture: National Gallery

The National Gallery in London has benefited from the government's inheritance tax acceptance scheme with the permanent allocation of two enticing pictures. The first is the above La Ferté by Richard Parkes Bonington, painted in about 1825. The second is The Samian Sibyl with a Putto by Guercino, formerly in the Spencer Collection and painted in about 1651. You can read more details in the National Gallery's press release here

In response to the latter, a reader points out that this is the NG's third new Guercino in almost as many years! The others are The Cumaean Sibyl with a Putto bought in 2011, and Elijah Fed by Ravens, bought in 2009.

Why you should give £25 to the Public Catalogue Foundation

August 28 2012

The PCF recently asked me to write a piece for their August newsletter. You can read it here - and if you are able to help support this invaluable art historical effot, please do. It's an excellent cause.

The condition of Titian

August 28 2012

Image of The condition of Titian

Picture: National Gallery

Regular readers may remember that when the National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland succeeded in buying Titian's Diana & Callisto, I wondered if we could now restore the picture. In particular, I focused on Diana's head, above, which seems to have lost an important area of shadow in the outline, causing her head to vanish into the background. As a focal point of the picture, this can surely never have been what Titian intended. As ever, it is the darker colours, those made with softer pigments, that have suffered from abrasion and over-cleaning. By contrast, the flesh tones, which are mized with lead white, a very hard pigment, have laste better. 

So I was interested to see this weekend at Knole, in Kent, a 17th Century copy of the picture by an unknown artist. The copy was hung in quite a dark room, and I could not form any firm opinion on who painted it, nor take anything other than the below rubbish photo. But the you can quite clearly see how Diana's profile should be seen in the original. The National Trust's excellent collections database has a better photo of the whole copy, and that of Diana and Actaeon, here

Update - a reader writes:

In the Museo del Prado Website you can find a High Quality Image of  17th Century copy of the picture by the spanish painter and son in law of Velázquez, Martínez del Mazo, possibly painted for Prince Baltasar Carlos chamber in Royal Alcazar of Madrid.

See what a difference that little outline makes?

Another reader writes:

One wonders how much the artist responsible for the copy recreated what was missing already.

Perhaps not as much as Rubens, whose full size version I would love to see – it’s at Knowsley Hall and may one day come into public ownership.

You can see an image of the Rubens copy here at Bridgeman, and also on the Yale Books website - where it is incorrectly labelled as by Titian! There is something unmistakeably Rubensian about some of the faces in the Rubens copy. And can I just say that the mis-labelling of a Rubens as a Titian by Yale Books is an example of what happens in a connoisseurship-free world...

Wilton House

August 28 2012

Apologies for the slow service lately - today I took the day off and went to Wilton House. If you haven't been it's well worth a trip. The picture collection, including a parade of Van Dycks, is first-class, and in most of the rooms there are no rope barriers, and it's possible to get up close to the paintings. I wasn't allowed to take photos, so I can't make a very useful report here. But I was impressed by the emphasis Wilton places on its pictures - there's a special painting guide book (a bargain at £3), and the room guides seem to know a great deal about the art. It was quite a contrast to some historic houses, where one can often struggle to find out basic artist information. 

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.

Rembrandt lost

August 27 2012

Image of Rembrandt lost

Picture: Christie's

Ok, so it was only an etching. But it's still a bad idea to put artworks in the mail.

Picasso found

August 27 2012

Image of Picasso found

Picture: Evansville Museum of Arts

A museum in Indiana has apparently found a Picasso in its store. It had been missed for 49 years following a cataloguing error. And how does the museum react to this great discovery? By opting to flog it. More here

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