Style and Connoisseurship
6th January 2005
Critical Approaches to Art History
Formalism — Style & Connoisseurship
(provided by S. Sharpe)
We are going to retreat from last terms critical approaches and go back to the form of art rather than its context.
The birth or dawn of art history, as an academic discipline is in the 19th century and they were very concerned with attribution — who made it, what is it — its form.
How do we decide attribution? Two ways — characteristics of artist and documentary evidence. How do we know what the characteristics of an artist are? We look to other works, hopefully uncontested and secure and make comparisons.
The Entombment, Michelangelo, c.1500-1
This Michelangelo in the National Gallery is by no means certain. If we wish to prove it is by him we should look for similarities — other Michelangelo nudes — from a secure source. Luckily the Sistine Chapel ceiling (Last Judgement covered) provides an excellent comparison. Documentary evidence links it to Michelangelo, has never moved (secure trail), famous for being his work from the moment unveiled. But when we look closer there are many differences. Not comparing like with like (fresco vs. panel painting, dead body vs. alive).
So let’s find a Michelangelo panel painting for comparison. Not so easy — Doni Tondo but not a nude. Finally, the attribution was actually based on a crucifix carving (so subject matter the same at least) but not everyone agrees that the Crucifix is Michelangelo — tenuous attribution based on the fact Michelangelo known to have carved a Crucifix for Santo Spirito where he did anatomic dissection and when they found a crucifix said it must be by him!
The first writer to systemise this looking and comparing was Giovanni Morelli in the 19th century. He produced a very detailed book explaining exactly how attributions could be deduced and concluded that overall impression was not helpful but details were. He sought to identify what an artist did subconsciously rather than what he taught his workshop to replicate. Don’t look at main features of faces, drapery, etc. but particularly ears and hands.
Of course difficulty is that cannot guarantee in any piece of work (and most masterpieces are to some extent collaborative workshop enterprises) who did what. Ie the National Gallery’s Masaccio which emerged from a private collection in the 19th century:
The Virgin & Child, Masaccio, 1426
This is a well documented work — part of a polyptich which we know was broken up. Thus it is conceivable it could have found its way into a private collection but no clear lineage back to its original site. A famous connoisseur called Bernard Berenson confirmed its attribution and it has never been contested. Unusually he actually wrote about his analysis (1907).
Berenson first compared to Masaccio’s Virgin & Child with St. Anne in the Uffizi.
Then later compared the Virgin and Child to Masaccio’s frescoes in the Brancacci chapel — St. Peter Enthroned and Tribute Money. See the near identical shape of the seated St. Peter and the pointing hands. Even the angel’s ears are similar to the Brancacci chapel figures (very low down on heads). Of course again, not comparing like with like (fresco/panel, man/woman) and also some of the Brancacci chapel was actually finished by Filippino Lippi!
Interestingly, modern methods of scientific analysis (although helpful in spotting forgeries) does not help with connoisseurship — just gives more info to evaluate.
This Masaccio attribution has never been questioned but Berenson didn’t always get it right. Berenson believed that in his analysis he could actually see different personalities and famously created ‘Amico de Botticelli’ for a series of works which are now known to have been by Botticelli or others.
How do you go about assessing this style — particularly if dealing with the work of an artist in his younger days, when still developing? Fraught with danger.
Berenson subsequently moved away from the ‘Morellian’ scientific analysis claiming the ability of connoisseurship was ultimately innate — you either have it or you don’t.
Attribution still very important — if not to art historians — then to museums, galleries and the commercial art market.
The art historian Heinrich Wolfflin followed some of the ideas of connoisseurship in that he was interested in form rather than context but not biography. Art has a history of its own, separate from sociological history. Wolfflin worked with eras, periods i.e. how to get from renaissance to baroque.
Consider regionality — Florence different from Siena, Italian from Netherlandish, 17th century from 13th century.
So how get from Andrea Mantegna (15th century) to Rubens (17th century):
Wood, Mus�e du Louvre, Paris
Christ on the Cross between Two Thieves, 1619-20
Oil on panel, Antwerp
Subject matter is the same. Wolfflin gives us a whole new language — linear vs. painterly (swirls of loose paint), plane vs. recession (difficult to define individual foreground, mid-ground, etc).
Jacob Burkhardt was a historian but also professor of History of Art and Wolfflin’s predecessor. Burkhardt famously gave us the term ‘Renaissance’ but he too saw history and art as two separate things going on. Wolfflin took this to mean that History of art has a continual trajectory. Form leads to style which leads a new form which leads to a new style. He wanted to uncover the rules, “principles of art history” by which this visual development worked. He did not consider the cultural context of when the piece was made or the materials had any bearing on its appearance.
“Not everything is possible at all times”.
In the introduction of Principles of Art History W�lfflin stated that each artist has his or her own personal style, but beyond this there is also a national style, and finally a period style, which rise and fall cyclically. “Not everything is possible at all times,” W�lfflin wrote. “Vision itself has its history, and the revelation of these visual strata must be regarded as the primary task of art history.”
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