Why do we need to know who painted what? How do we know this?
With regards to art and its histories, painting has always been a crucial standing block, if not the epitome of fine art and its progressions. When considering the question; “Why do we need to know who painted what?” it is fundamental to address first the importance of painting itself. Throughout our known records, painting has been closely criticised and highly acclaimed by connoisseurs and scholars from Vasari and Berenson to contemporaries such as Baxandall. The forefront of whose studies tended to focus towards painting as an art, seeing it as crucial in understanding art history and its progressions .This intellectual importance laid on painting stands to show its relevance to us today, and its continued importance; the importance of showing the styles and developments in artists and genres in such an accessible manner which has laid crucial foundations in our understanding of the history of art today.
Authorship of a painting is perhaps the key fragment in understanding the relevance and indeed the value of the art. As I have mentioned painting can provide a clear path through the progression of art from our earliest records. With the knowledge of authorship, we may categorise a painting in relation to a period, and hence its genre and style. With this knowledge we may study its social and historical relevance, and note any pioneering techniques, or better understand typical techniques and styles of the period and artist.
The appreciation of artistic styles and genres should perhaps first be concerned with the relevance of the artistic styles and genres. Style is perhaps the most difficult artistic term to define and hence there are many varying definitions and theories surrounding “style”. A useful definition resides in the Grove dictionary of art; an entry by James Elkens reading: ‘Term used for coherence of qualities in periods or people’. This is echoed by other scholars such as Meyer Schrapiro who defines style as ‘the constant form in the art of an individual or a group’. When considering style in this manner, we can immediately see the importance of authorship in the understanding of the development of artistic styles. For example artists belonging to a specific artistic movement, such as the Futurists or the Pre–Raphaelites; the authorship of the paintings may directly relate them to the movement and genre, hence giving us greater understanding both into the reasoning behind the painting and the artistic methods of the group.
Other definitions of style may demote the importance of authorship in relation to understanding and appreciating varying genres and developments in painting. This is perhaps most notable with Hegel, who also diminishes the value of the painter by classifying style as ‘the concept for the negation of the contingent’. Hegel’s beliefs stated that works of art within a certain period share characteristics which could be read across a large range due to the essence of “Zeitgeist” roughly translated as time ghost, or the essence of an age. In this respect, the artist is inspired only by the cultural spirit, and hence the production and creativity, indeed all the innovations in art history are inspired by an ulterior force, and the authorship of a painting is not needed to understand and appreciate its relevance. With regards to this essay however it should be beneficial to consider style as rather ‘Term used for coherence of qualities in periods or people’.
The attribution of many paintings to an artist provides us with the clarity with which we need to pass judgement on entire oeuvres and hence the ability to critique the artists themselves. A false attribution to an artist can severely damage their reputations, or indeed elevate artists to a false standing. The impact of authorship on the legacy of an artist is critical. An example of which is the continued debate on the authorship of the panel painting entitled “entombment” currently attributed to Michelangelo by the National Gallery, but fiercely opposed by academics such as Beck. The ferocity of this debate, and the widespread media attention, in and out of art circles, should lay weight to show the importance of the subject.
The clearly distinguishable renaissance painting is by all accounts no more than mediocre in its draughtsmanship and embodied skill (see figure 1). The composition is not solid, as there is little balance between figures; Christ’s feet appear entangled with those of St John the Evangelist. The use of chiaroscuro is not accomplished and the human figure appears out of proportion, with elongated limbs. This is not to comment on my opinion on the authorship of the panel, but merely to demonstrate and highlight the notable ineptitude of the artist within the painting. With this in mind we must again consider the attribution of the panel to Michelangelo as a proclaimed artistic genius. The panel’s attribution to the artist makes us question his proficiency.
However, if this painting was not attributed to Michelangelo its material value would be greatly diminished. The material value of fine art owes a lot to authorship, as we can again see when looking at “the Entombment”. This painting is partially paid for by the British public through the National Lottery Fund, making the value and hence the authorship of the painting highly relevant to a great many people.
When we can see how vitally important the attribution of a painting is, it is therefore a logical step to enquire as to how exactly we may make a firm attribution. This has been a well explored and highly debated subject, and many art historians have compiled methods by which a conclusion to the attribution of a painting may be considered. Famous connoisseurs are not as readily available today, as the prestige of the profession has been in decline for the last forty to fifty years, however the golden age of connoisseurship heralded important figures such as Bernard Berenson, and later, though to a lesser extent; Robert Longhi. These men played a large part in attributing authorship to a large number of paintings, and hence offer us a lot to learn from.
Bernard Berenson was known to have a highly visual emphasis when attributing works of art. It is said that Berenson, with a magnifying glass would stare at a painting for extended periods of time, tap the painting and eventually murmur a name. Other scholars conducted more scientific approaches to the analysis of art, such as Heinrich Wöfflin. Wöfflin, not interested in the origin of paintings, and more so in the development of art, constructed the “five antithetical concepts of stylistic change”. This is a method by which one can compare a paintings technical aspects concerning; linear, planimetric and recessional, closed and open forms, multiplicity and the clarity of an image. Using this method we can classify a painting into a genre, narrowing the fields of possible artists, however this is more problematic with imitation genres, seen when Renaissance art concerned itself with the classic antiquity arts of ancient Greece.
In modern practise it is more widely acknowledged that a combination of scientific technique and the technique of a connoisseur is a more concrete method of analysis. However despite our progressions in the field, modern circumstances can lead to complications in the field of attribution, as restorations, and adaptations make the attribution of authorship more complex. The development of photography, printing and computer technology can lead to different visual interpretations of works of art, upon which scholars have been known to base their opinions. Yet despite the modern difficulties, progressions relevant to art authorship in the sciences are undeniably revolutionary and provide us with evidence greatly needed in the field.
X–rays, ultraviolet rays and infrared waves all allow visibility which is beyond the human eye, often showing crucial evidence to the viewer. For example; infrared reflectography, which is a new progression, allows the observer to view an under drawing (if present), the technique of under drawing was used by certain artists, and can often show preparatory alterations, which are unlikely to be seen in an imitation. Samples of paint may also be taken from the surface and cross–sectioned to show layers of paint pigmentation. This can highlight restoration, and the date of production through the types of paints and base chemicals used. The technique of layering paint can also act as a signature by certain artists who have specific styles. Approximate dating can be accomplished by tracing the isotopes of lead in lead based paints, and a similar technique called “carbon dating” can be used to date wood panels for panel pieces.
These scientific progressions are included in the general methodology of artistic attribution. This model is offered by James Beck and shows the many different aspects which one must consider whilst attempting the attribution of a painting. First one must look at the painting in a purely analytical fashion, considering the intended viewing angle of the painting. One should note the state of completion, the balance, use of light and composition of the design and its style. Also important to note is the condition and material of the painting. Finally one should note the subject matter of the composition. The second stage of analysis should be technical, and involve the scientific interpretation of the painting, using the techniques offered earlier. Basic measurements should be taken into consideration and attention should be given to the damage and aging of the painting; and any alterations. Next it is necessary to closely study the subject matter of the painting, identifying characters and props where relevant, for example in mythological paintings. Any topography or iconography within the painting could be highly relevant and should be noted, setting the painting in a location, with political, historical or religious meanings, creating possible links to the artist.
Not all evidence linking authorship lies within the painting itself. Historical documentation, the provenance of the painting and the existence or non–existence of copies relay key information placing the paintings origin. Historical documentation such as contracts, church records, family archives, letters and inventories often states the painter in a clear coherent fashion, enabling a swift and relatively confident attribution.
A combination of science, connoisseurship and historical reference lay for us, as art historians, a solid but not impermeable ground by which we can attempt to make an attribution for a painting. Using this we can gain a greater understanding of specific artists and also genres and periods, relating the progression and development of art, hence underlining the importance of the knowledge of authorship. Further improvements in science and a greater number of specialists in the field could produce a more consistent method for confident attributions of paintings, and these progressions will surely continue.