On Connoisseurship

Max J. Friedlander

Max J. Friedlander was universally recognized as the greatest expert on dutch and german painting. His 14 volume series “Early Netherlandish Painting” remains one of the outstanding contributions to art history.


Formerly pictures and sculptures were produced in the same spirit as furniture; that is to say, the professional attitude, the relation of the producer to his patron or client, and his social position were those of the craftsman. Art separated in recent times from craftsmanship, or rather, craftsmanship and art parted company-to the disadvantage not only of craftsmanship. Punctuality of delivery, fulfillment of the agreed conditions, solidity of execution were in past days demanded from painters and sculptors, and remuneration adjusted to the time spent. Even Durer, on asking for a higher honorarium from a Frankfurt patron, still refers not to his name or the superiority of his artistic performance, but to the unexpectedly heavy claim upon his time, and to the high cost of the colours employed. The sons of painters became painters: in choosing a trade one did not wait for special gifts to announce themselves.

We link with the concept ‘artist’ ideas of special qualifications of selectedness, of rare gifts, of an ability which is not gained by industry and practice. The activity of the artist appears uncontrollable and does not fit into the general order of useful, necessary and profitable labour. The craftsman is more deeply indebted to society, to the community, than the artist, and in a different way. The admiration which comes the way of the artist has an admixture of suspicion. His position depends on fame, and fame on the uncertain, changeable artistic judgment. Youth lives on the hope for recognition, old age on the prestige gained by performance-or else on defiant contempt of public opinion and expectation of posthumous fame. The duty towards himself, to which the artist appeals so proudly, is strictly speaking nothing less than a duty.

The ‘great name’, which compensates the artist for the loss of social security, becomes only with the 15th century once again accessible to painters and sculptors. The thought that a master of classical Greece was able to keep his fame unobscured all through the dark ages probably fired the spirits of the 15th century, heightened the general esteem of the artist’s profession, and stimulated ambition to great deeds.

Already about 1400 the Limburg Chronicle speaks of a painter named Wilhelm ‘who, according to the judgment of the Masters, had been the best in the German lands’. Here we thus already find an order of precedence, the bold superlative of appreciation. It still took, however, a long time before social position was determined through the recognition of uncommon gifts To begin with, in the 15th century some masters, who had freed themselves from the restrictions of the Guild organization, managed to get absorbed among the crowd of Court retainers-the jesters, the mistresses, the adulatory poets.

In the 16th century painters and sculptors, striving to rank with the intellectual workers, associated themselves with the scholars and thinkers-Leonardo and Durer are cases in point. In the practice of craftsmanship, conception and execution were indissolubly linked together. The dualistic idea, which in the 16th century crops up in the inscriptions ‘invenit et fecit’, points to a pride which separates spiritual ownership from manual labour and claims the former for itself.

The 17th century witnessed the painter-prince, a type which Rubens embodies most perfectly. His financial success, his social rise, were at any rate partly due to his artistic powers. But it must be recognized that qualities of his character, intellectual gifts, the manner of a man of the world, diplomatic ability, all contributed to the result. A reflection of this light fell on the English portrait painters of the 18th century and still upon some painters of the 19th century like Makart or Lenbach; painters who enjoyed their posthumous fame while still alive, and consumed it.

In the 19th century the concept ‘artist’ became sharply determined. To quote Goethe:

“The song that rises from the throat Repays the minstrel well.”

-that is a typical Romantic idea.. Outside, and at times above, bourgeois society, running the risk of a financial decline, free and beyond the law, the artist despised the ‘philistine’ and created for himself a social class, with special renunciations and special pretensions. Bohemianism blossomed forth when Romanticism turned into the taverns and cafes of the great cities.

A posthumous fame has above all come the way of those painters of the 19th century who belonged neither to the type of the painter-prince nor to that of the Bohemian, but who, on the contrary, in austere and untiring industry, led a middle-class life, and even felt some yearning for the solidity of handicraft.

The process of transformation here sketched-memorable in the history of civilization-modified the nature of production. The intensified striving after fame carried nervous tension, jealousy, and a desire to attract attention into the workshops. One was accustomed to go to market in order to buy things which were good value and were useful; one goes to exhibitions in order to experience thrills and discover talent. A shrill note, a wilful emphasis and over-accentuation of individuality, the extravagant instead of the extraordinary-these become doubtful features on the surface of up-to-date production. Only authentic gifts, firmly self-contained, could hold out in this mad confusion.

The style of a period changes in reciprocal contact with fashion, which moves on a lower plane. While fashion, prescribing dress and coiffure, rushes forward fleet of foot, that taste which determines artistic production advances rather with circumspection, conditioned by a necessity which is deeply rooted. Fashion in recent times, baited by economic interests, has assumed a whirlwind tempo; and it has infected artistic production.

Refined taste alongside of slight gifts-a combination which nowadays is not exactly rare-must entail that the painter feels that the things which he sees are commonplace, and thereupon tries passionately to invent something that he has not seen. Thus are born manners of art, not very differently from fashions of dress. Since it has been successfully conveyed to the public that it must praise what displeases it, the public agrees to everything…

The craftsman became an artist, but he also became a scholar or a manufacturer, a contractor or a virtuoso. The relation of virtuoso to artist is that of manner to style. The expression, originally meant as praise of exceptional ability, contains in our terminology a connotation which is not devoid of reservation, doubt and caution. A consciously developed skill, an exhibition of one’s ability in an endeavour to please, that is what we call virtuosity, in contrast to naively original power of creation. Most frequently the expression is used, without a derogatory implication, of reproductive musicians.

That the artist tells us his name and assumes responsibility for his performance through his signature, nowadays the general custom. This developed gradually in connection with the awakening and intensification of the consciousness of one’s own worth. It is no accident that great masters like Giotto, Simone Martini, and Jan van Eyck should call out their names in times when this was by no means the general custom. This habit spread curiously and unevenly. As late as the 17th or 18th centuries many painters either did not sign at all, or did so only exceptionally-Rubens, Van Dyck and Watteau, for instance. Here it was customary to sign, there not. Rules cannot be formulated, psychological explanations are unavailable. As a trade mark, as a protection against copying, the signature was fairly regularly employed in engraving and woodcut. Precisely those masters who also produced woodcuts and engravings-such as Durer, Lucas van Leyden and Jacob Cornelisz-have signed their paintings too; if not always, yet frequently.

A place entirely apart is occupied by the celebrated lines on the Ghent altarpiece. Prolix, laudatory, rhetorical, like the inscription on a monument, they are hardly conceivable as the utterance of a painter in the first half of the 15th century, and are therefore suspect, apart from other arguments which have been produced against them.

The artist with his inner struggles and tragic conflicts, not understood by the dull crowd, has in the 19th century become the subject and the hero of high flying poetical treatment. The conception was heightened into something mystical. The painters are hard put to it to correspond to the expectations which an imagination, fed on novels, entertains with regard to them. In consequence there followed inevitably disappointment on one side, the pose of ‘genius’ on the other. The artist who, in the popular view, only has the choice between being a genius or nothing, looks like a ‘sick eagle’. The phrase was coined by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

To draw the boundary line between genius and talent has never been done quite successfully, though attempts are continuously being made. If one thinks of a difference of degree, then it would surely be difficult to indicate a point on the scale where genius begins. A generally valid indication of the contrast is probably not to be found.

Michelangelo, Grunewald, Rembrandt are unhesitatingly described as masters of genius: indeed, to apply the concept of ‘talent’ to these creative personalities would be inappropriate and almost sound like blasphemy. A performance which exceeds expectation, prevision and estimate; sharp-edged individuality; defiant opposition to compromise; an attitude of ‘this cannot be otherwise’; a spiritual obsession, which is akin to madness-these are somewhat obvious characteristics of the genius, which operates outside the conventions of taste of its period, in tragic isolation. We speak of a “melancholia ingenii” and think of mental struggles against inner and outer resistance. Genius seems to evince itself in will rather than in achievement, in conquest rather than in rule.

We extend to talented artists our appreciation and sympathy, feeling that in their praiseworthy activity they nevertheless remain on our level. Their vision is familiar to us, it contains indeed more and better things, but not anything fundamentally different from our own vision. They occupy a height which can be scaled. Of Rembrandt and Frans Hals it has been said, subtly and appositely, that in front of works by the latter one is seized by a wish to paint, and before works by the former one loses any such wish. Thereby a difference, which I have tried to define, is perhaps not badly indicated, and the incomprehensibleness and unapproachableness, which are peculiar to a creation of genius, fixed within their limits.

Among the greatest masters to whom the title of genius is commonly not denied, there are happy and harmonious natures to which my definition does not seem to apply; who stand before us not as fighters but as victors. On the other hand we find artists who do not incontestably belong to the category of the greatest and nevertheless, through their boldness of imagination and strongly marked individuality, claim the title of genius~Greco, Van Gogh or Bocklin, for instance. Now and then we feel indeed an inclination to say: a genius, but not a talent. In this way a difference of kind between genius and talent outlines itself perhaps most clearly. The concept of genius indicates a closer alliance to the spiritual than to the visual. Grillparzer has said: ‘Only from the union of character with talent issues that which is called genius.’ However, one can probably find elsewhere other, more convincing definitions. But the union of specific gifts to greatness of soul and strength of spirit may be peculiar to genius.

The Artist: Genius and Talent,” is reproduced from On Art and Connoisseurship published by Beacon Press, Boston.