Contextualizing Connoisseurship

Bendor Grosvenor, the English art historian and art dealer has stated ‘that connoisseurship is learned by looking at paintings and cannot be taught in the classroom. He believes that it has become unfashionable in the world of art history and as a result, activities such as producing a catalogue raisonné are undervalued by the art history establishment’[1]

His observations remind me of the credibility and importance of connoisseurship in attribution as practiced by the late Thomas Hoving, former director of The Museum of Modern Art in New York. On being asked on camera, his opinion as to the authenticity of a painting, supposedly by Jackson Pollack, in a film about Jackson Pollack by Harry Moses, Hoving famously stated, on seeing the painting for the first time, that ‘its superficial and frivolous and I don’t believe it’s a Jackson Pollack’.[2] Hoving stressed the importance of immediacy, first impressions and intuition as well as experience and expertise in making his comments and I as an art historian agree with his methodology and his attribution. It is important to note that as documented in the film by Moses, Hoving, his face turned slightly to one side, entered an empty room except for the painting on an easel and immediately turned to gaze directly at the painting. His engagement with the visual was immediate and intense, as looking at paintings should be.

I don’t want to argue here about the psychology of looking at paintings as a means of bestowing some arcane knowledge on the anointed few, tasked with determining authenticity, only to say that yes, connoisseurship can be learned and looking at paintings is the best way to teach connoisseurship. I will otherwise suggest an equally important alternative relationship between science and sociology as elements of determining authenticity, for an argument favouring the importance of connoisseurship.

Bruno LaTour’s ‘social description of scientific practice’[3] suggests that to secure the validity of scientifically evidenced truth, the approval of society is, required, truth is therefore contingent. That is to say that scientific practice is dependent upon acknowledgement of its validity by a society. By acknowledging the necessity of approval of what is essentially a social behaviour, (scientific practice) to gain authenticity, science is defined as a sociologically descriptive behaviour, subject to all the anomalies and foibles of other human behaviours.

Zygmunt Baumann has stated that scientists ‘will not have to compete with narratives construed outside the world limited by the walls of the laboratory or research institute’[4] to expose the monopolistic tradition of scientific practice as a socially unacceptable behaviour and the hypocrisy of absolute scientifically determined truth.  Baumann appears to reject absolutism of scientific practice in determining truth as a socially unacceptable behaviour and thus opens the door for alternative socially accepted practices to determine truth, one of which is connoisseurship: what a novel idea, connoisseurship as a socially accepted practice to determine truth.

I know that physical evidence with regard pigment availability, materials availability, use of specific colours and occupational preferences are essential facts hard to ignore in the face of connoisseurship, however I must champion that socially sanctioned practice because I believe it also has validity as a socially acceptable behaviour. What evidence do I have for this? Well only my own experiences which tend to corroborate the practice.

Recently I was asked to appraise a painting attributed to Rembrandt, for the purposes of securing insurance, whilst the painting was in transit to be analysed by a world renowned institute for art historical research tasked with determining its authenticity.Over the course of many years various members of the family who owned the painting had intermittently performed art historical research on the work; however no definite conclusions as to authorship had been established and needless to say the quest for definitive authorship had become an ongoing family enterprise.

As part of the appraisal I was required to develop an opinion as to authenticity as this obviously has a direct bearing on appraised value. My initial reaction on seeing the painting was that it was not by the hand of Rembrandt,because it did not look like a Rembrandt. I realize that this statement may appear somewhat simplistic and ill-informed however I must stand by it as a valid determination of authorship.

Rembrandt’s works especially, have a visual signature which identifies them as being authentic and by the hand of the master. Unfortunately this particular work was not illustrative, in my opinion, of Rembrandt’s work.

In order to try to establish a more probable, plausible origin of the painting I undertook a detailed visual inspection of it out of the frame and documented my observations as follows. These subjective observations were based on visual evidence and were without scientific corroboration and as such were considered to be reasoned critical assumptions informed by analytic connoisseurship. My reasoning in doing this was to document complimentary physical evidence to support authorship based on connoisseurship. I needed to do this to offer my client a reasoned explanation as to why I thought it was not by Rembrandt, because I was not a famous expert on Rembrandt and my determinations based on connoisseurship alone would not be believed.

My observations were based on art historical attributes one would expect to find, contiguous with a particular period, informed by reasoned connoisseurship, contemporary with the period.  In other words the painting did not look like a 17th century work by Rembrandt or his studio. I have often said that the painting tells you what it is and all you as the viewer need to do is to listen to what it is telling you; that is to accept the visual language that presents itself and to interpret it accordingly. This acceptance of the visual language and its interpretation is what Grosvenor refers to when he defines connoisseurship.

There was some suggestion that the painting may have been contemporary with Rembrandt’s studio, having been painted in the 17th century. It may also have been much later, perhaps a late 19th century copy of a painting known as Portrait of a Young Man, currently in the Louvre, formerly thought to be by Rembrandt, but since attributed to a follower or studio of Rembrandt, as the work bore a very close resemblance to the Louvre painting.

Attributed to Rembrandt               


Rembrandt or studio of Rembrandt Louvre

Physical Attributes.

The painting had been restored, in-painted, cleaned and re-varnished at some point in its history, which may have accounted for the absence of any noticeable craqueleure. (craqueleure or allegatoring is the result of the surface layer of paint shrinking over time to form cracks in the paint surface.) It had been re-lined and placed on the stretcher from which it was removed prior to relining. There was strong evidence in the form of creases in the canvas matching identical locations on the stretcher, to suggest that the original canvas was attached to this stretcher. The stretcher was machine made and of late 19th century or early 20th century date of manufacture, it was quite thin and without wedges.The painting was unsigned, which would suggest that it was executed by a student, possibly painted after the Portrait of a Young Man, in the Louvre. The painting was very close to the same size as the Louvre painting, a choice of canvas size which would aid a copyist in the correct placement, orientation, proportionality and mimetic rendering of the image. The choice of colour closely mimicked that in the Louvre painting.

If this painting had been painted contiguously from the same model in Rembrandt’s studio, as the Louvre painting, it is highly unlikely that two artists would have been able to position themselves to paint from the same point of view to yield the same image. The absence of any gallery or exhibition labels was troubling as one would have thought that a painting of this quality and celebrity would have some exhibition history. It is usual practice when a painting is relined to remove any labels attached to the back of the canvas and to re-attach them to the back of the re-lined canvas.

The provenance was very week, it was said to have been purchased from a dealer in 1980. One would think that a painting of this quality and celebrity would have been thoroughly documented especially if it came from Rembrandt’s studio. The absence of a conservator’s report was also problematic; usually any restoration undertaken is documented in a report which accompanies the painting.

Visual Attributes.

The face was extremely well painted however the areas other than the face, that is the bonnet, the tunic, the chemise etc. had been tentatively laid in with little attention paid to detail. The gold chain seen in the bonnet and the gold buttons of the Louvre painting were absent. This may have suggested that the painting was unfinished as the primary focus of the student artist was to capture a facial likeness.

The face to my eye appeared to have been painted by a person of Spanish or Mediterranean extraction. I say this due to the slight elongation of the face when compared with the Louvre painting and I allude to the propensity of some artists to, when painting portraits of others, subconsciously incorporate aspects of their own facial physiognomy. To my eye the Louvre painting was one of many studio portraits done of Rembrandt’s son Titus, the work under consideration does not look like Titus.

Based on the physical and visual attributes, I made the determination that this painting was a late 19th or early 20th century copy of the Louvre painting.

Several weeks after performing the appraisal my client sent me an email with the report authored by the investigating institute attached and in reading the report I was pleasantly surprised to find that my conclusions had been scientifically corroborated.

I note that in Thomas Hoving’s case the Jackson Pollack was scientifically analysed and the propensity of the forensic evidence suggested that it was painted in Pollack’s studio; however no definitive authorship has as yet been established.

[1]  Grosvenor, Bendor (2010-12-08). “On Connoisseurship”. Retrieved 2015-03-18.

[2] Who the Fuck is Jackson Pollack. Film by Harry Moses.

[3] Viveiros, Eduardo. Back leaf comment. On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. By Bruno LaTour.

[4] Baumann Zygmunt. Intimations of  Postmodernity. Routledge 1997 pg 72.