May 01, 2006

a connoisseurship essay

Why do we need to know who painted what? How do we know this?

‘The individual work, rightly understood, teaches us what a comprehensive knowledge of universal artistic activity is incapable of teaching us.’ The viewer can completely understand a piece of art if they are confident of the authorship; they can fully interpret the importance of the commission and the meanings behind the work as ‘By attribution the scholar gains an intimate understanding of it, one that he might not otherwise obtain.’ Authorship also greatly affects the value of a painting, particularly in today’s art market, and an incorrect assessment of the artist behind a work can result in an unsuitable price. Attribution becomes increasingly difficult as time passes and, therefore, the question of who painted what causes debates amongst art historians and the quest to attribute pieces of art remains an important task.
Vasari’s Lives of the Artists records the lives and works of a great many artists of the Florentine Renaissance and helps us understand the artists of this period by describing their accomplishments, and the importance of their works during their time. Vasari explains that he wrote Lives because he felt the book would benefit the artists of his own time and help them improve artistically; that he would develop the appreciation of readers and patrons; that the book would distinguish the bad art from the good and that he would raise the status of the artists. These intentions show the importance of attribution to Vasari, and the artists of his time; knowing who painted what benefited the reputation of the artist, ensuring they received the credit they deserved throughout history. Berenson states ‘that many works of art fail to get the recognition they deserve unless they have first been attributed to an artist’ and so Vasari has ensured the Italian Renaissance artists have received acknowledgment.
Knowing the authorship of a painting helps us to value the work, and to sell it at the price it deserves. Value is an important issue today as the ‘fascination for rare paintings and sculptures has exploded onto front pages of daily newspapers and the mass–circulation weeklies, not to mention the special publications devoted to art’ . As a result of this ‘fascination’, ‘The upgrading of a copy to the status of an original, autograph work by a famous master or a new interpretation or reevaluation of works connected with the grandest names of the history of art are front page news items.’ This search for originals means the art market puts great pressure on attribution and debates arise over authorship and, therefore, price.
In 2003 the Madonna of the Pinks was bought by the National Gallery for £29 million; to save the work from travelling to the Getty, Los Angeles, and because it was believed to be the work of Raphael. The National Gallery have various arguments that they claim prove the painting is by Raphael, and Nicholas Perry comments on the likeness of the facial expressions of the women in The Madonna of the Pinks, c.1506–7 and St Catherine, c.1508, the latter being a work that connoisseurs more confidently attribute to Raphael. The fact that these two works were probably painted within a few years of each other also supports the argument that The Madonna of the Pinks and St Catherine were painted by the same artist. There are many arguments against the National Gallery’s recent purchase being the work of Raphael; although most scholars agree that Raphael did produce a painting like The Madonna of the Pinks, the painting in the National Gallery’s collection could be the work of a copyist. This causes some to claim that the painting was bought for too high a price. Whether the work is worth £29 million if it is a Raphael is a separate debate, but all share the belief that a copy is certainly not worth this amount of money.
Art historians can be confident that Duccio received the commission for the Maestà painted for the high altar in the Siena Duomo due to the surviving documents. The question over attribution is instead about how much of the altarpiece is Duccio’s hand. White argues that the fourteenth century painting practice was employed; Duccio had control of the entire project yet his workshop worked on particular narrative scenes, each person deploying their own individual skills. White believes that, ‘for its aesthetic unity the altarpiece cannot sensibly be divided into neat attributional rectangles’ , which is the argument Stubblebine proposes. He claims the Maestà was divided into discreet areas, each assigned to a specific painter. The authorship of this work is important because it reveals workshops practice and the role of apprentices in the fourteenth century. As the panel has been divided into separate pieces, 54 of which still survive, the attribution of these individual scenes becomes increasingly important because, in today’s art market, a panel by Duccio has a higher value than one painted by a shop assistant.
It can be argued that whilst style reflects the culture of the time, it develops without external stimuli, such as political, social and cultural events. From studies of motifs and how they evolve and transform, Alfred Gell concludes that motifs change by themselves, not as a result of cultural changes. Prown argues, however, that ‘The manifestations of identical elements of style in a broad range of objects produced in a given time and place cannot be considered coincidence; clearly cultural preferences were being expressed.’ This suggests attribution reveals the role an artist plays in their society as their style reflects ‘cultural preferences’.
Authorship also reveals the status of the artist and the importance of a commission; a painting can provide information about the culture in which it was produced, for example families such as the Medici commissioned artists to show their power and status within the city of Florence. Michelangelo’s fame was growing at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and he was becoming a symbol of Florentine greatness, after returning from Rome to sculpt David for the Florentine Republic. If Michelangelo received the commission for The Entombment, found in the National Gallery, from the Sant’Agostino Chapel in Rome, this could suggest the piece was to be a prized possession and that the commissioners had substantial funds, yet if it is the work by a less sought after artist this could imply that commission was less significant. The question of attribution is, therefore, important to the art historian for discovering the significance of a painting to its commissioner.
The connoisseur cannot totally rely on all documents from the past, for example, whilst Vasari’s Lives helps us understand the works of the Italian Renaissance, the author invents missing details and uses the same terms to praise the paintings, for example when describing Giotto’s Miracle of Spring of the St Francis Cycle at Assisi c. 1290–1307 and Leonardo’s Last Supper, 1498. aA contemporary sources are not always reliable, evaluating the style of works is a key discipline for the connoisseur. As a result, the connoisseur must attempt to attribute works of art by evaluating the style of a piece of art. The word style, which James Elkin defines as, a ‘Term used for a coherence of quality in periods or people’, is ‘one of the chief areas of debate in aesthetics and art history.’ It is through the stylistic analysis of objects that ‘we encounter the past at first hand; we direct sensory experience of surviving historical events, not necessarily important events, but authentic events nonetheless’ In The Philosophy of Fine Art, 1835, Hegel discusses style and his theory of ‘Zeitgeist’ (‘time spirit’ or ‘time ghost’). Hegel’s interpretation of art, and history generally, is that things, such as works of art, look alike and come about at the same time. This suggests that a work of art is not influenced by the culture of the time but that ‘Style is manifested in the form of things rather than in content.’
The connoisseur can better understand the style and development of an artist if they can attribute a number of works to them. Morelli’s intention was to analyse paintings with a greater attention to detail than before, and he achieved this by examining aspects of paintings which were previously considered unimportant and which the artist is unlikely to have reassessed for each work. He studied the rendering of hands and earlobes, and this helped him to reattribute a great number of paintings during his career as a connoisseur.
In conclusion, the art market and work of connoisseurs have shown us the importance of attribution today, as the public and art collectors have become increasingly concerned with authorship. To give a painting its correct value, authorship is essential, as is evident from the purchase of The Madonna of the Pinks. Paintings are more than objects for sale, however; they reflect the world they were produced in, the criteria of their age and the aims of patrons and of the artists themselves. Finally, attribution gives artists the credit they deserve for their contribution to society and the history of art.


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