Half a century ago, when I was a graduate student, art scholarship largely boiled down to connoisseurship; even iconography was considered over-interpretive (and the case can still be made that within museum culture, such priorities still dominate, albeit with sophisticated contemporary dialogues between curators and conservators). Our role models, both in the US and the Netherlands, were renowned connoisseurs: Rosenberg, Slive, Haverkamp-Begemann, Gerson, and van Regteren-Altena, among others. Their Pelican volumes also provided our definitive surveys, complementing their single-artist, life-and-works monographs. Meanwhile, those of us who trained in earlier Netherlandish painting were still digesting Erwin Panofsky’s opus magnum, duly criticized in famous long reviews by Julius Held and Otto Pächt, at a time when Max J. Friedländer’s foundational volumes were being translated. Today, ever more “scientific”-minded scholars often turn to archives and documents or to aided technical studies along with visual analysis and comparison of objects themselves. Even cognitive neuroscience increasingly plays a role.
Now, however, after an intervening period of controversy, even of dismissal, the knowledge aspect of connoisseurship is revisited in this stimulating and topical NKJ volume. One must certainly know what artwork one is observing and how it has altered – or been altered – over time. Art history thus necessarily remains a branch of material culture. Experience with originals and visual memory are still essential tools, abetted in the first instance by photographic reproductions, both of details and of comparative images or objects, and complemented by the scrutiny of conservators as well as scientists, using ever-evolving technologies.
The Introduction by the editors, Perry Chapman and Thijs Weststijn, provides both a survey of attitudes toward connoisseurship and an appraisal of its current role to the discipline. The diverse essays that they have gathered range widely, even extending to the current art market in Early Netherlandish painting. The final note of the Introduction also raises a question about important decisions made in the long shadow of the current, overheated art market: what portions of overpaint should be removed by restorers, especially if a (near-)contemporary or current collaborator altered a core work (an issue which comes up in Rubens or Cranach paintings, but even in Rembrandt pictures)? Or, what experts get to decide the authorship of a newly discovered painting? Debates about exclusions concerning Bosch or Rembrandt and the ongoing, inclusive Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard epitomize our current status quaestionis.
Those of us who have followed the entire unfolding course of the Rembrandt Research Project and its sometimes casual relationship toward the use of presented evidence, both technical and archival, in relation to the pictures under scrutiny (not to mention its later revisions of earlier opinions as the composition of the group shifted), might have our own concerns about current connoisseurship, either as art or as science, or some combination of those skills. After all, as conservators will freely concede, scientific analyses also still require human interpretation, even as such crossover scholars as Molly Faries, Maryan Ainsworth, and Melanie Gifford epitomize the virtues of combining approaches to objects. Unfortunately, all verdicts about authenticity, especially around famous names like Rembrandt, can have tremendous market consequences.
Identification and attribution have had a long history in the Netherlands, perhaps exemplified best in the seventeenth-century Flemish collaborations between artists and in the unique composite gallery pictures – discussed in this volume by both Alexander Marr and Tiarna Doherty (pp. 107–44, 147–73), also in relation to non-artistic liefhebbers. Marr discusses “Ingenuity and Discernment” in the exemplary Cabinet of Cornelis van der Geest for both collectors and liefhebbers who are pictured as present there. Doherty focuses on artists’ studios visited by such liefhebbers rather than the grander galleries of Flemish collectors, and she also notes how such pictures of the studio appealed in turn to collectors as insiders. Moreover, skillful imitations, even forgeries (one thinks of the classic analyses by Spicer and van Leeuwen about naer het leven drawings and landscapes by the Savery brothers, after Bruegel) show how artists themselves could be consummate connoisseurs. These discoveries inform Melanie Gifford’s insightful essay on “Pieter Bruegel’s Afterlife,” including later landscape artists (pp. 43–69). Scholars also have used period-based touchstones, including Elizabeth Honig and, especially, Anna Tummers. Jan Blanc’s discussion about art theory in relation to connoisseurship during the seventeenth century, “Mettre des mots sur l’art” merges Netherlandish and French discussions about proper vocabulary for art. This essay pits the likes of Franciscus Junius against Samuel van Hoogstraten, theory against practice as the basis of understanding, with the polymath Gerard de Lairesse as the juste milieu.
Connoisseurship of exotic imports, akin to the appreciation of tulips in Anne Goldgar’s Tulipmania (2014), informs Angelo Ho’s essay on pronk porcelains (1734-39), a line briefly imported by the VOC and produced by local Dutch artist Cornelis Pronk (nomen est omen); these works intended to be “Exotic and Exclusive” for sophisticated consumers (pp. 175–210). Of course, connoisseurs produced the earliest scholarship about leading artists, especially Rembrandt. Thus Antoinette Friedenthal discusses the convergence of both expertise and profit in the work of John Smith, an early nineteenth-century London dealer who developed the first catalogue raisonné for Rembrandt paintings (pp. 213–247), although she also notes at the outset that another dealer’s work, Gersaint’s unfinished catalogue of Rembrandt’s prints (published 1751), remains an earlier landmark. Also acknowledging Gersaint and the continuing scrutiny of Rembrandt’s prints during the nineteenth-century etching revival, Catherine Scallen focuses on Seymour Haden, as an etcher in his own right and collector of Rembrandt prints, but primarily as a scholar-critic of the artist (pp. 249–78), who wanted to reduce the authentic oeuvre on aesthetic grounds. Scallen’s sketch complements her earlier work on the later, pioneer Rembrandt painting catalogues around the turn of the twentieth century, and she reinforces assertions by others, especially Gifford, namely, that artists quite often are the most sensitive connoisseurs.
The remaining essays address contemporary issues. Suzanne Laemers uses the Werl Altarpiece from Groupe Campin as a case study for evaluating Friedländer in light of infrared examination (pp. 281–310), observing that even underdrawings must be evaluated with judgment and that they actually complicate the authorial overlap between Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden. She quotes David Bomberg’s astute, insider observation: “New school connoisseurship is old school connoisseurship with technology.” (p. 305)
In a surprising essay about Clement Greenberg on Mondrian (pp. 313–36), Marek Wieczorek reveals that the critic could actually be a sensitive close observer of individual works and not just a theorist of formalism, as he is generally, and reductively, regarded. I would contend that this is sensitive viewing, more like insightful criticism, than connoisseurship per se, but it remains the indispensable foundation of true connoisseurship. Finally, Anne-Sophie Radermecker (pp. 339–72), using statistical data and graphs, examines incisively the demand for “originals” and autograph works by named artists, especially for Early Netherlandish paintings in the modern art market. At the same time, the era of what she terms “new connoisseurship” has complicated the presentation of their original period production process, increasingly revealed by scholars as workshop collaborations and period copies.
Thus this volume teaches us that today’s connoisseurship must address various period concerns – not only the pressing assumptions of modernism and of sole authorship, which might distort earlier periods’ original notions of making, but also the art market’s emphasis on branding and name recognition, which began as early as the seventeenth century, but then already depended upon narrow reliance on experts as authorities – both for potential collectors and for other consumers in museums and galleries.
University of Pennsylvania