Knowledge in Art

Art historian Jeffrey Taylor on connoisseurship, how can we tell an original painting from a copy and why lesser details are so important in art

videos | September 1, 2020

Most students of art history have not really thought about this question of how we create knowledge. It’s a problem in all fields of study inquiry, whether it is science or humanities or social sciences, to understand your knowledge and how we know what we know. It is a core question, and in the art world, that question is extremely profound and difficult and complicated.

Many of my students somehow imagine that there’s some United Nations High Commission for good knowledge in art. There is no such thing, there’s nothing, there’s no universal overarching entity that establishes good knowledge in art.

Most importantly, when we discuss knowledge in art, it often centres around this most difficult and central and very simple but very controversial question, which we can call attribution, which is simply deciding who is the artist who made this artwork. But that simple question is incredibly controversial, partially simply because there can be a lot of money at stake: if the artwork is by a famous master, it’s worth a lot of money, and if it’s by somebody who’s not particularly important or it’s an art forgery, it’s not worth money. So, establishing that question can be something that can make people very angry if they don’t get the answer that they want. So it’s worth considering how it is that we actually establish how we know what we know in the field of art.

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And to begin, we should return back to the 19th century and consider the most important figure in the field that we call connoisseurship. Connoisseurship comes from the French word connoisseur, meaning a person who knows. But in the art world, we use the word connoisseur with a very specific meaning. A connoisseur is that person, that expert in the art world who can give attribution, who is an expert in a certain artist or a certain period, and if you show them an artwork and say: Who has made it? – they would be able to make a determination and say, this artist made that artwork.

That field of activity was founded by an Italian doctor named Giovanni Morelli. Morelli was really trying to apply a kind of scientific method to determining attribution in paintings. He specifically worked in the area which then and now is the most high-value, big-money, most canonically important era in art, which we call the Italian Renaissance, so the artists who worked in Italy between 1400 and 1600, including Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Tintoretto, Titian, Bellinis, Mantegna, Giorgione and so many of the other artists who we would call canonical.

But at that time artists didn’t generally sign their works, and also it was quite common for followers of the artists to make copies of the artwork so that the owner could have one artwork in their main palace and another one in their countryside palace, and nothing was seen as wrong with the idea of making a copy.

But over time, it might have been forgotten which had been the original and which had been the copy, and there were many artworks that we simply didn’t know who made them or, over time, the people who owned them (or the church or the monastery who were the owners) would begin to develop a very optimistic attribution like it was by one of the biggest names, like Botticelli or Raphael but it wasn’t: it was by someone else.

So Morelli decided to try to put order into all of this system and really figure out who made these artworks. He did this in Italy, and he did it in the museums in Europe, going through and publishing a series of books where he reattributed a lot of artworks from what they had been known to be by and saying it’s by someone else. He really saw it as a scientific technique, and it was different from the way other art historians had approached paintings at that time. He said you shouldn’t look at the obvious features of an artwork. If you’re looking at a portrait of the Madonna, you don’t look at the mouth and the eyes because if it’s a copy, the copyist would have placed great effort in making sure that the mouth and the eyes were exactly like the original but the copyist might neglect the lesser details.

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Specifically, Morelli believed that artists developed very personal techniques for rendering the ears and the hands and in the way they represented these parts of the human body, the artist would be essentially giving away, we might say, their metaphorical fingerprints. So he developed a series of diagrams to show how different artists like Botticelli, Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini would show an ear and how they would show hands. He used that technique because he believed that in doing those two parts of the human body, they will use their own very personal solutions how to represent them, and they will give away who they are. Especially if it’s a copyist or some other person, they will really show their individual style.

So, that was how he began to develop this idea of connoisseurship. The idea of looking at the less important details, the less obvious features of an artwork, would actually have a great influence on other scientists and doctors. For example, Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, read the writings of Morelli and decided that this idea of looking at the less obvious details, the neglected details, was very similar to the methodology that he thought would be successful in psychoanalysis, especially the interpretation of dreams. So when people would describe their dreams, he would look for the little details, and in that way, he believed he was going to get closer to an understanding of their real psychological situation. So Sigmund Freud believed that Morelli’s technique of looking at the little details, the neglected details, was similar to the methodology that he believed would work for psychoanalysis. Specifically, the interpretation of dreams, listening to people describe their dreams and noticing the little details that they described might be, we can say, clues to their real psychological situation.

And that’s another idea that emerges from Morelli’s work: the concept of the word clue. ‘Clue’ is a common word in detective novels and crime stories, but it was a new intellectual concept essentially involving taking a very small piece of information and extrapolating large conclusions from it. In fact, Morelli’s work would also have a great influence on another doctor, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was writing stories about a detective called Sherlock Holmes who would solve mysteries using clues, finding small pieces of information and extrapolating large bits of knowledge from that clue. In fact, there is a Sherlock Holmes story where Sherlock solves the mystery by identifying the unique features of the human ear.

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PhD in Comparative History, Western Colorado University
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