On Connoisseurship

Giovanni Morelli, 1880

An Italian diplomat and theorist, Morelli originally wrote under the pseudonym Ivan Lermolieff. Primarily concerned with problems of authorship, he was one of the first to devise a systematic approach to the attribution of works of art. Morelli’s method was based on the belief that the way important details were rendered — such as the hand, ear, or drapery — was so idiosyncratic that an analysis of them would lead to correct attribution.

What for instance, is the ‘form’ in a picture, through which the spirit of the master finds expression? Surely not the pose and movement of the human frame alone, nor the expression, type of countenance, colouring, and the treatment of the drapery? These are undoubtedly important parts of ‘form,’ but do not constitute the whole form. There still remain, for instance, the hand, one of the most expressive and characteristic parts of the human body, the ear, the landscape background if there be any, and the chords, or so-called harmony, of colour. In the work of a true artist all these several parts of the painting are characteristic and distinctive, and therefore of importance…

The character or style in a work of art originates simultaneously with the idea, or to put it more plainly, it is the artist’s idea which gives birth to the ‘form’ and hence determines the character or style…. Almost every painter has his own peculiarities, which escape him without his being aware of it. The study of all the individual parts, which go to make up ‘form’ in a work of art, is what I would recommend to those who are not content with being mere dilettanti… Let me endeavor by an example to render my imperfectly expressed ideas more intelligible to my readers.

I have already observed that, after the head, the hand is the most characteristic and expressive part of the human body. Now most painters, and rightly enough, put all the strength of their art into the delineation of the features, which they endeavor to make as striking as possible, and pupils, for this part of their work, often appropriate ideas from their masters. This is rarely the case in the representation of the hands and ears; yet they also have a different form in every individual. For every important painter has, so to speak, a type of hand and ear peculiar himself.

©1998 R de Koster