Page 13 - Finding Van Dyck

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erroneous attributions. In 2004 a fresh attempt was made to
compile a more authoritative catalogue (to counter what the
Queen’s Surveyor of Pictures, Sir Oliver Millar, diplomatically
called the ‘good deal of confusion’ caused by Larsen) which
was published by Yale.
6
For the 2004 catalogue, Van Dyck’s
career was broken down into four parts, with Van Dyck’s early
years in Antwerp and first brief period in London covered by
Nora de Poorter, his time in Italy (1621–7) by Susan J. Barnes,
his return to Antwerp and Brussels (1627–32 and briefly again
1634–5) by Horst Vey, and finally his English period (1632–41)
by Sir Oliver Millar. Their research resulted in 744 works being
firmly attributed to Van Dyck.
7
We should perhaps note here that the very concept of
connoisseurship is a controversial one. It has been since its
heyday in the early twentieth century, when many art historians
relied too heavily on their ‘instinct’ to attribute paintings. One
such art historian was Max Friedlander, who in 1939 wrote:
‘The way in which an intuitive verdict is reached can, from the
nature of things, only be described inadequately. A picture
is shown to me. I glance at it, and declare it to be a work
by Memling, without having proceeded to an examination of
its full complexity of artistic form.’ Unsurprisingly, only about
half of Friedlander’s attributions have stood the test of time.
8
Then, there was the problematic question of a ‘connoisseur’s’
connection to the art trade. After all, if a famous art historian
such as Bernard Berenson had merely to look at a painting
to declare it, without any corroborating evidence, a work by,
say, Giotto, then its value would soar (which of course pleased
Berenson’s employer, the famous art dealer Joseph Duveen).
From about the late 1970s onwards, art history as a discipline
saw a considerable reaction against connoisseurship, and by
extension the whole question of making attributions based on
visual evidence. In essence, the study of the object, be it a
painting or a sculpture, became less important than the study
of its context. Some art historians went so far as to declare the
very notion of authorship irrelevant, their thesis chiming with the
growing trend amongst
historians
to turn away from the study
of the individual (not to mention the rise of literary criticism). As
a result, both art history and history as disciplines increasingly
focused on identifying other elements that determined historical
and art historical ‘outcomes’, be they economic, social, or
gender based, in a headlong quest for generalisation. And since
connoisseurship inevitably involves a detailed biographical study
of an individual artist, connoisseurship as a skill became less
valued. The shift of emphasis in both history and art history
is best reflected in their respective historiographies – modern
historians wrote fewer biographies, and art historians wrote
fewer catalogue raisonnés.
The result today of this shift away from what we might call a
traditional history of art is that not enough art historians are,
if we may say so, connoisseurs. Indeed, it is not unknown for
those few art historians who study ‘the object’ empirically, or
attempt to write a catalogue raisonné using connoisseurship (the
‘C-word’, as it is called), to be derided by their peers. And of
course, if few art historians are connoisseurs, then it follows that
even fewer art history students (the auction house specialists of
the future) are connoisseurs – which in turn helps to explain why
opportunities arise to find miscatalogued paintings at auction.
There are signs, however, that the pendulum is swinging back.
Modern connoisseurs are greatly aided by new technology.
Where the late Sir Oliver Millar was forced to rely on, and grew
used to, black and white photographs of paintings in distant
collections, now high-resolution computer screens and digital
photography permit the close scrutiny and instant comparison
of paintings that are many thousands of miles apart. For a
growing number of art historians, therefore, connoisseurship is
increasingly recognised as a skill in assessing paintings – even
if it is no longer (rightly) considered the only skill.
6
Susan Barnes, Nora De Poorter, Oliver Millar and Horst Vey,
Van Dyck –
A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings
(Yale, New Haven and London, 2004),
hereafter cited as ‘Barnes
et al
’.
7
Rembrandt, by contrast, is today only accorded 320 paintings (down from 611
in 1935), and he lived eleven years longer.
8
Cited in Ernst van de Wetering, ‘Connoisseurship and Rembrandt’s Paintings: new
directions in the Rembrandt Research Project, Part II’, in
The Burlington Magazine
,
Vol. CL, No.1259 (February, 2008) p.90.