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The case for old-fashioned connoisseurship

The stifling of expert opinions is like having fully trained doctors who can’t make a diagnosis, says the art historian Bendor Grosvenor

Spot the difference: the painting (left), an untitled 1956 work said to be by Mark Rothko, sold to Domenico de Sole for $8.3m, and had allegedly been examined by experts. It was later uncovered as a fake. The painting (right), No. 9 (Dark over Light Earth/Violet and Yellow in Rose), 1954, is a genuine work by Rothko

Suddenly, connoisseurship seems to matter again. It always mattered to me personally, as someone who earns a living sniffing out misattributed pictures. But now interest is growing on a wider level and, amazingly, even among academic art historians. I’m asked to speak about it often, most recently at a conference at the Paul Mellon Centre in London. The pendulum is at last swinging away from the “authorship doesn’t matter” brigade.

There are a number of reasons for this reassessment, but the most important is that people (the museum-going, art-aware public) really do want to know who painted what, no matter how many times art historians tell them it’s irrelevant. By some distance, the highest-rated art programme on the BBC (with up to 6m viewers) is “Fake or Fortune?”. It sounds like a game show, but in fact it’s all about finding attributions for lost pictures, usually based on connoisseurship.

Needless to say, some art historians are cynical about such a cheesily named programme. They resent the idea that somebody outside the closed ranks of academics and curators is able to attribute paintings.

But happily this sniffy elite is being left behind. The explosion of online collections means that access to art has now been democratised in an unprecedented way. The public no longer have to accept a curator’s view of what they should be looking at, and can explore (in the UK at least) the staggering 80% of our national collection which is not on display via the website of the Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF), Your Paintings. And because one in five of the works on Your Paintings either has no attribution or an uncertain one, there is a growing interest in finding out more about these “unknown” works.

The latest website created by the PCF, called Art Detective, invites both the public and a network of enthusiastic experts to help identify these art historical orphans. It’s the world’s first professionally created art historical crowd-sourcing project, and it seems to work. To pick a recent example, user Toby Betteridge recently identified an unattributed picture in the National Museum of the Navy as being a study by Arthur David McCormick for a larger picture, Valve Testing, 1919, in the Imperial War Museum. Art Detective is modern connoisseurship in action.

Yet perhaps we must count ourselves lucky that connoisseurship is still practised at all. Professor Liz Prettejohn of York University spoke recently (at that Mellon conference) of the growing “crisis” in art history over connoisseurship’s decline. Her analysis is that “new art history’s” quest for contextualisation and its eschewal of connoisseurship has gone too far, and that we may even have thrown the baby out with the bathwater (the cliché is mine). Of ten highly qualified candidates for an art history post at York, Professor Prettejohn told us, only two could recognise a well-known etching by Rembrandt. Most couldn’t even place it in the right century. That’s scary.

In fact, “crisis” may not go far enough. I’m continually amazed by how few art historians are able to recognise the artist of a particular painting, and how they blindly rely on the connoisseurship of previous generations, as if it is infallible. I’m surprised that one can look at the online collection of a major British museum and see a painting demonstrably by, say, George Romney called simply “Circle of Romney”. I’m puzzled too that many museums seem still to revel in the safe catch-all of “English School”, and show no curiosity at all about the artist. It’s like living in a world where doctors are all fully trained and can write diligent papers on diseases, but can’t make a diagnosis.

That’s why I believe that the basic lack of connoisseurial skills we are faced with in art history is weakening the foundations of the discipline. I may be selfishly delighted when major US museums accidentally de-accession works by Van Dyck or Rubens (it happens more often than you might think), but for the public’s trust in an institution it is a disaster. It upsets me to open a handsomely printed monograph only to find basic errors of attribution, and thus see our understanding of that artist’s oeuvre set back for a generation. I despair at seeing a picture over-cleaned through a conservator’s basic misunderstanding of how an artist worked, and the removal of an original glaze in the belief that it is either dirt or over-paint (the Sistine Chapel is the most depressing example of this). Such calamities are what happens when those involved in art history, be they students, teachers or curators, spend their days looking at illustrations in a book, and writing impenetrable and impossible to prove theories on social context.

Art historians and museums are in danger of becoming detached from two of the fundamental purposes of their job—to help preserve our heritage, and to accurately inform the public about the works of art they’re looking at. If, as an institution, you refuse to closely study the object you are charged with preserving, here is what happens: you’ll end up with many of your best pictures in storage; you’ll display pictures without any form of explanatory label; you’ll sack leading specialists on individual artists, leaving a vacuum in the study of that field of art; and you’ll put on misguidedly political exhibitions nobody goes to see. You also won’t pay your curators enough.

We need to stop being so anxious about the term connoisseurship. It need have nothing to do with class, taste, or gender, and it shouldn’t matter much whether it’s practised by someone in the art trade. At its basic level, it is simply about closely observing objects until you can recognise certain features about them. Its basic process can help us learn so much more than simply who painted what when. But if we don’t get that right first, then everything else art historians do, from contextualising to interpretation, falls apart. That’s why connoisseurship matters so much.

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4 Dec 14
15:35 CET


Hear hear!

13 Jun 14
18:55 CET


As an accredited professional fine art appraiser I have encountered questionable works with great frequency. The decorative art market has been flooded with copy prints and out right pastiche fakes that uneducated buyers pay top dollar for constantly. It is my belief that the removal of art education from our schools is one of the biggest problems at a fundamental level. I have potential clients calling me every week with a "painting" which is frequently an offset lithograph or giclee copy print of an original painting. The inability to discern and properly identify an image is pathetic. Uneducated adults become dealers believing they are selling art which is basically a big transfer print laid on canvas like a prize we used to find in a cracker jack box. It is criminal to have such ignorance driving that segment of the market. On the other hand I have had collectors with a Diego Giacometti table given a fabricated provenance. There were hundreds of unauthorized copies of his work sold

9 Jun 14
15:24 CET


Well put Bendor. As you note, the word "connoisseurship" has become problematic for many, and this is for reasons I believe to be peripheral to the core idea. You hit the nail on the head with regard to what the fundamental meaning should constitute: " is simply about closely observing objects until you can recognise certain features about them". That's it, and anyone with decent eyesight and a committed interest can do it. New and better use of technology is making this abundantly clear.

9 Jun 14
15:26 CET


Well it's everywhere. But in Australia because of the very small size of the art world it's a real problem. No new ideas are even looked at if they don't come through "accepted" academic channels and academics are the most conservative, peer judged, group. Also the 'faith' blindly placed in contemporary Identity art in Australia just ignores quality at all. If it's by a supposedly 'repressed' minority quality is irrelevant. And anyone daring to say this is deemed racist. In many ways the situation in Australia has seen the End of Art as we knew it. The National Gallery of Australia is the very worst. Millions of dollars wasted on looted Indian artefacts that have to be returned to India and the NGA happily announced that an unauthorised totally remade work of mine they purchased was in their opinion by me and I was lying! The absolute arrogance of certain academics is a blight on art and basically who needs them?

6 Jun 14
17:30 CET


Connoisseurship certainly has got a bad name for some of the reasons noted above. However, as an art historian I agree that there has been a disturbing lack of interest in recent years in investigating authorship. The detective work process should be of interest to all of us, after all, authorship/connoisseurship underpins most of art history, like it or not. This is a valid component of art historical research. I also don't believe technical analysis can be relied on 100% of the time and there will always be need of aesthetic judgments. While there have been major blunders with expert opinions, and no doubt will be more in the future, there is a necessary place for connoisseurship in the form of knowledge of an artist's body of work that includes technical expertise and in depth knowledge of the artist and their working life. Put this in the historical context and we have a multi-faceted view of our cultural history.

6 Jun 14
14:53 CET


I once took a drawing by Paul Helleu into a major auction house that i found at an estate sale and was told by the secretary it had to be seen by "God" well "god came out and declared in a minute that it was a "fake".Years later my brother took it to another prominet auction house when their "God"came out he said it was real.wound up selling for 16k.I guess "God" does pick and choose.So much for those expert eyes.I believe that the end of "the visual Gods" are about to get rained on by a smarter new generation of scientists.

6 Jun 14
14:52 CET


Well put Bendor. As you note, the word "connoisseurship" has become problematic for many, and this is for reasons I believe to be peripheral to the core idea. You hit the nail on the head with regard to what the fundamental meaning should constitute: " is simply about closely observing objects until you can recognise certain features about them". That's it, and anyone with decent eyesight and a committed interest can do it. New and better use of technology is making this abundantly clear.

6 Jun 14
14:52 CET


Any discipline that does not teach ethic's is not worthy of ethic's I was an Art Student at the University of Tennessee and professors bought my work. I painted all of the paintings for one of the biggest law firms in Knoxville Tn. I am in one of the Galleries but I never ask anyone to hang my worlk but I was so happy once I saw that others thought I had tallent. I was called the Jackson Pollach of UT because I painted an 18 ft long canvas just like Pollack and I know I can take any ten art students and have them to do this type of art but they would own it because it would ne their own marks and signature, I am not trying to pat my self on the back but what I am saying is this any degree that does not have ethic's is not a degree worth having in the first place. If a class is taught at a University than that class should have a level of ethic's and respect for others and all students should feel welcome Art is being use to suppress certain people at the university level and it is evil

5 Jun 14
20:17 CET


Focused in Modigliani: OK I accep your point, but then what shall we do with elements like Parisot, Patani, Pffanstiel, Lanthemann and so on, dont you think they all require to have a bigger authority called science based on science not in wisdom,witty or medium crap. as long as I remeber the point is to protect the oeuvre of the artist not the way of living of the connosi...

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