Connoisseurship is a methodology that continues to befuddle and, depending on opinions, to infuriate parties involved – art dealers, collectors, curators, and researchers. Representing an inexact science whose reputation faired rather poorly during much of the twentieth century, even the work of the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) has not been immune to various controversies. Against this backdrop Anna Tummers, a curator at the Frans Hals Museum, asks the reader to reconsider how we approach connoisseurship. Based on her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Amsterdam, The Eye of the Connoisseur: Authenticating Paintings by Rembrandt and His Contemporaries examines how the seventeenth-century art world dealt with issues of attribution by defining the terminology and practices then in use. In doing so, Tummers adds an important new voice to a discussion that may pay rich dividends for the next generation of connoisseurs.
According to Tummers, it is highly important “to reconstruct the ideas of seventeenth-century painters and connoisseurs concerning issues of authenticity.” Consequently, contemporary assumptions about authorship need to be vetted against a thorough grounding in what Rembrandt’s countrymen (and others) thought about style, quality, and authenticity. In addition, she asks us to consider who was best equipped to make these judgments: “How can one identify hands if master painters signed works that they had not executed single-handedly?” Tummers sees this dilemma as the paradox of seventeenth-century painting.
The rush to judgment by twentieth-century connoisseurs to identify fully autograph pictures by masters such as Rembrandt continues to be problematic. Tummers considers such an approach as running counter to how seventeenth -century workshops actually functioned. The six chapters of her book take the reader from the twentieth century, where she identifies the parameters of the century’s attribution battles, to the seventeenth century and a close look at various source documents. Turning to writers, theorists and artists, and gleaning additional information from inventories, auction records and other data, Tummers should be commended for her careful attention to detail, her useful translations, and her thoughtful arguments. In her epilogue, she returns readers to the present by cleverly (and convincingly) putting her conclusions into practice.
Chapter one begins with Tummers arguing that connoisseurship has largely escaped theoretical analysis. Warning readers of the pitfalls encountered by connoisseurs of Dutch painting over the course of the twentieth century, she used the fascinating, yet tragic Hans van Meegeren controversy to buttress the debate pitting individuals who relied on their intuition versus those who took a more rational approach to connoisseurship. Over time, greater caution would prevail, as is evidenced by the conclusions of the RRP. In their view, group consensus dependent upon scientific methods was thought to provide greater objectivity. This approach, however, still resulted in split decisions among team members. Even with the elevation of Ernst van de Wetering as the sole arbitrator over attributions, not all of the ongoing controversies have been laid to rest.
In the following chapters Tummers turns to the seventeenth century to consider how that era’s “connoisseurship” differs from practices familiar to us today. Drawing upon a wealth of written sources, the author in chapter two discusses what was considered an original (principael) and a copy ( copien) during the period, how works in these categories were valued, and how difficult it was to identify examples in which the master may have retouched copies. These issues dovetail with the focus of chapter three, an examination of the meaning of ‘by his hand’. Specifically, did collectors expect or demand that artists like Rembrandt execute their paintings without the assistance of the workshop? In today’s parlance autograph is perceived as solely by the master, but as Tummers explains in her discussion, this narrow definition seems not to have been used in the seventeenth century.
Chapter four turns to seventeenth-century art theories about style, and how painters might adjust their manner in response to changing demands or functions. This practice is significant, for it places into question the prevailing thought by twentieth-century connoisseurs that artists followed a linear development throughout their careers. Tummers is correct in stating that all too often the failure to recognize deliberate stylistic changes has resulted in misattributions.
Questions as to who was better suited to judge paintings, artists or knowledgeable art lovers (liebhebbers) are raised in chapter five. The author concludes from her research that non-artists were seen as eminently qualified to make these judgments. This discussion leads to the next chapter where “the essence of seventeenth-century connoisseurship” is explored. Building upon her earlier discussions, she writes that critics and theorists had much to say about what one painted, how artists designed their compositions and incorporated various stylistic elements, and how well the painters achieved their goal of creating a ‘reality effect.’ Here, as elsewhere, useful definition of terms greatly assisted in the reader’s better understanding of this material.
The fascinating journey Tummers covers in The Eye of the Connoisseuris put to the test in her epilogue, one devoted to returning David and Jonathan (1642, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg) to Rembrandt. By applying the definitions and practices Tummers argued as being central to a seventeenth-century understanding of being ‘by one’s hand,’ she convincingly makes her case for the Rembrandt attribution. In doing so, Tummers offers a useful model to reshape the often jagged contours of the oeuvres of many Dutch and Flemish painters. Only time will tell if the next generation of connoisseurs will respond to her call.
Dennis P. Weller
North Carolina Museum of Art