Tag Archives: connoisseurship

A stitch in time

Portrait of Bianca Sforza, "la Bella Principessa", Leonardo(?), ca.1496

The controversy over the Bella Principessa takes a fascinating turn as Martin Kemp uncovers, in Poland, what appears to be the 15th-century codex from which this page was torn. Binding marks on the left edge of the page of vellum match the position of stitching in the handcrafted book.

If true, as true it seems, this announcement would seem to put to rest the claim by Christie's and assorted connoisseurs that this is a 19th-century German pastiche or a 20th-century forgery rather than an authentic early modern work possibly from the hand of Leonardo.

See H. Niyazi's overview for details of the attribution history and attending issues.

I’ll have a half double-decaffeinated half-caff with a twist of lemon

Connoisseurship is at a crossroads, and H. Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem explores that intersection in his review of James Beck's From Duccio to Raphael: Connoisseurship in Crisis.  Beck, no stranger to controversy, sets an agenda for reform by calling into question the means by which a couple of well publicized pre-sale attributions were developed.

Complaints of contrivance on the part of consulting connoisseurs or of credulity on the part of their patrons are nothing new (*cough* Berenson *cough*), but Beck's goal isn't an exposé, nor even a dressing down.  Rather, he's prescriptive.  He offers up a set of guidelines and practices aimed at greater rigor and consistency in the practice of attribution.  Of course, even that lacks novelty, as the kerfuffle over the Rembrandt Research Project's connoisseurship-by-committee shows.  Perhaps it doesn't matter whether you count the threads in a canvas if, in the end, the politics and dynamics of an evolving committee overdetermine the final call, which comes down to a simple vote.  And maybe it makes no difference whether a painting is promoted (or demoted!) on a vote of four to three, if the angle and viscosity of the paint preclude that outcome.  (For another treatment of this question, see David Packwood's thoughtful discussion.)

What's fresh and intriguing in both Beck's book and Niyazi's review is the measure in which each of them feels constrained by the call of two powerful but often contrary empirical methodologies, intuitive assessment and evidential rigor.  Beck feels, much more strongly than Niyazi, the allure of old-school, authoritative declarations of authenticity.  But then, Beck was steeped in a formation where the cultivation of judgment was paramount; Niyazi is a scientist by training.  Appreciating the fact that Beck overcomes the temptation of the shamanistic approach and endorses the need for repeatable, objective measures is the impetus of Niyazi's review.

By way of illustrating the problem, Niyazi links to a delightful video excerpt in which the impish Thomas Hoving sizes up an alleged Pollock.  Niyazi's tone toward Hoving, like Hoving's toward the painting, is somewhat skeptical, but I think there's room for nuance here.  Hoving's playfulness and his experience in sizing up fakes must be taken into account.  With his mugging and squinting and posing, Hoving's clearly offering not just a stunt of connoisseurship, but also a parody of stunts of connoisseurship (such as the one he undertook when deciding whether to buy the Juan de Pareja, an episode hilariously described starting around page 249 of Hoving's autobiography Making the Mummies Dance.).  Hoving's pronouncement about the Pollock-candidate comes with authority of a sort, but also with a wink and a nod.  I'm reminded of art lover Steve Martin's amusing riff in L. A. Story:

That's not to say that Hoving is insincere in his decision or incapable in his application of the method, but merely to say that he understands the nature and limits, as well as the positive potential, of expertising.  So I think the excerpt, while illustrative, is somewhat less damning than Niyazi suggests.

In any event, Niyazi's review ("Read the whole thing!") raises again with intelligent vigor an issue that will only become more pressing as empirical techniques and digital technology continue to mature: to what extent should science and deductive logic trump authority and intuition?

“Elementary,” he said.

David Packwood of Art History Today provides an interesting overview of some issues raised at the intersection of traditional connoisseurship and scientific analysis. Do contemporary empirical methods threaten to displace the variable, and sometimes volatile, mix of observation, intuition, memory, and understanding that has fueled art historical attributions since the discipline's founding? If so, is that a good thing?