On Connoisseurship

Henri Zerner, 1987

A professor of art history at Harvard University, Zerner came to the Fogg Art Museum as curator of prints in 1973. He argues, as does Morelli, that genuine connoisseurship must be the foundation of art history.

The antagonism between art history and or perhaps more exactly, between connoisseurs and art historians, is nothing new. Here is how great Morelli characterized it in his typically pugnacious way: “It has been said, sarcastically, that the art connoisseur is distinguished from the art historian by knowing something about the art of the past. If he happens to be of the better sort he abstains from writing on the subject. On the other hand, the art historian, although writing much upon art, really knows nothing about it; whilst the painters who boast of their technical knowledge are neither competent critics nor competent historians.”

The painters have mostly dropped out of the game, even if Frank Stella did recently give the Norton lectures on Caravaggio and Rubens. It looks like they might be replaced by the conservators. These days, the offensive is mostly on the art historian’s side, and it is the connoisseurs that are under attack. In the present effort to rejuvenate art history, the whole enterprise of connoisseurship has been more or less discredited.

There are two main reasons for this. The first and most obvious is venality. Connoisseurship appears inextricably linked to the commerce of art. The specific case of Berenson looms large, but he is only the most visible example. The art trade depends on the authority of experts to authenticate the objects in circulation. There tends to be a blanket disapproval of this commercial involvement. There is no reason to be so righteous. Scholarship does have its ethics, which do not have to be incompatible with commerce. There are honest picture experts, just as there are honest bankers and grocers. Of course there are crooked ones too. What was unfortunate in the case of Berenson was not that he was working for dealers, or even that his deals were occasionally of a dubious nature, but that he was so ashamed of the connection.

The real question is to what extent scholarship has been directed and shaped by the marketplace, and this brings me to connoisseurship’s second major blemish. Connoisseurship is synonymous with attribution, with the decision as to when and where objects were made, and in most cases, in assigning names. It devotes its energy to establishing masters and masterpieces -greater, lesser, or minuscule. That this has happened under the pressures of commercial interests is obvious enough, but what is important is the intellectual result of this development rather than some possible moral strain. The situation is made all the worse because the work and knowledge of the connoisseur is often badly expressed, if verbalized at all, so that it appears as a kind of divination or arbitrary authority. The notion of quality, so often invoked by those who practice the art of connoisseurship, as Berenson called it, is such an elusive and mystical one that it comes under easy attack for those who would condemn the whole enterprise as bogus. All in all, connoisseurship may well have deserved its bad name. But I also believe this is extremely unfortunate.

What is at stake is the interpretation of art and particularly the use of art as historical evidence. I will surprise no one if I say that the tendency of recent studies has been towards a contextual and historical understanding of art, moving away from a more traditional aesthetic approach. The danger of this trend is to impose upon art, to read into it what one has learned elsewhere, mainly from literary or documentary evidence, and, I am afraid, in the case of many art historians, from secondary work by historians or anthropologists. I consider Antal’s study of fifteenth-century painting a case in point, despite his apologists.

Of course, what we should retrieve from art is precisely what we cannot find elsewhere, what it alone is capable of telling us. In order to do this, we need a serious examination of the visual evidence itself. To look and to see – to make fine visual distinctions, to identify specific visual features, to correlate them to one another through notions of rhythm, recurrence, and relative irregularity – is not an easy matter. To be attentive to all the indications we can obtain from the examination of artifacts, from the slightest inflections of the maker’s hand to the largest configurations, to make this study disciplined and coherent, this should be the task of connoisseurship. It can tell us an extraordinary amount about how things are made, to what purpose, and about their later destiny and use.

It is ironic that connoisseurship has concentrated mostly on the products of literate cultures, when there are so many cultural areas where the only evidence is visual. This is true of prehistoric societies, of course, but also of certain aspects of culture, like popular culture, where the verbal material is often deficient. What can visual material tell us about the cultural disruption and disparities of a complex society? It is in answering these kinds of questions that connoisseurship could test its powers.

If I had to define connoisseurship, I would say it is the articulation and symptomatic examination of the visual evidence. If we understand it in this sense, it is hard not to agree with Morelli that it has to be the necessary foundation of art history.

I would not like to end on such an all too obvious note, but by raising a major problem that art history has never quite faced, how can we weigh the visual evidence against the verbal or documentary evidence? Ours is a logocentric culture. We trust the written document much more readily than our visual understanding of an image. This must be changed and we must attend to visual clues if we want to get something out of our visual legacy. But this is not easy.

Connoisseurship is in its infancy.

©1998 R de Koster