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Connoisseurship is not as elitist as it sounds

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci
Public Domain

In recent years a lot of work by acclaimed artists that sold for millions was later found to be fake. A phony Jackson Pollock that went for $17 million in 2007 comes to mind. Simulated De Koonings and Motherwells have also been hustled. More recently, a counterfeit Mark Rothko painting earned $8.3 million. Why did this happen? How do art experts get art so wrong?

Speaking last month at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Bendor Grosvenor blamed art historians. They know their art history, he said, but they don’t know the artists who made such history.

York University professor Liz Prettejohn agrees, contending that current art histories are too bent on contextualization (putting art in categories). Out of 10 highly qualified candidates for an art history post at York, she said only two were able to recognize a well-known etching by Rembrandt. Most applicants couldn’t even place it in the right century.

Grosvenor, a member of the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Council on National Records and Archives, who earns a living uncovering misattributed pictures, said there’s a good reason to spend time getting artists right. The public cares:

“The museum-going, art-aware public really does want to know who painted what, no matter how many times art historians tell them it’s irrelevant.” Making the point, he cited the highest-rated art program on the BBC is “Fake or Fortune?” with as many as 6 million viewers.

People have to stop thinking of connoisseurship as an elitist word, Grosvenor said. “It is simply about closely observing objects until you can recognize certain features about them.

If you ask me, art historians aren’t the only ones that get art wrong. Science also goofs. Consider the case of chemist Walter C. McCrone, a leading expert on art forgeries.
"When a painting comes to me for review, one of the first things I do is turn it over," he said in the January/February 2000 issue of The Sciences, the journal of the New York Academy of Sciences. "The canvas, parchment or wood panel may hold all the clues I need."

But it can be argued that the first thing to do when deciding who made a painting is to look at the painting. McCrone has been known to forget this. In the early '90s, he dated two works that had surfaced in Sarasota, Florida purported to be by Renaissance master Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci.

McCrone told me that the chances were "very, very good" that Leonardo had a hand in the painting, even though it didn't look a bit like a Leonardo. The composition was out of balance, the faces were out of proportion, the lighting was out of whack and the hand gestures were straight out of Art 101.

I wrote at the time how inconceivable it was that an artist known for Vitruvian Man – the male figure with arms and legs outstretched in demonstration of classical grace and balance – would have painted such an ungraceful and unbalanced picture.

The physical aspect of a painting is often a huge factor in determining attribution. For example, Raphael was known for effortless grace, most often noticeable in his paintings of the Madonna and Child. His painting of St. Catherine in London's National Gallery is one of rapture between a woman and her god. Goethe noticed it: "The divine genius of Raphael reached a height that no one else will surpass or equal."

Yet the face of the Madonna in the so-called Raphael in Sarasota showed a commonplace prettiness, pursed lips sucked into a rosette, and the pale-complexion of a porcelain doll – bloodless and slick. McCrone dated it at 1505, when Raphael was 22 years old.

How could that be? When Raphael was 21, his painting Marriage of the Virgin was considered so lucid and graceful that Pope Julius II summoned him to paint the papal rooms at the Vatican. Especially notable about Raphael's holy figures – early or late (he died at 37) – is their healthy glow. The pallid look of the painting that McCrone deemed a Raphael didn’t come close.

Can science serve in authenticating painting? Of course it can. Should science ignore connoisseurship? Silly question. And neither should art historians.

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