What does a connoisseur look for?

Isaac Mostovicz writes...

Connoisseurship, the thorough appreciation and knowledge of art or “matters of taste,” has traditionally only been discussed as a scholarly pastime. A connoisseur has put in his time and studied a great deal in order to understand his field and the players in it. He also knows exactly what to look for when he sees something new.

Not unlike the way buyers of diamonds consult the 4Cs before making a purchase (we’ve mentioned them on Janus Thinking before here), connoisseurs engage with four aspects of an item in order to fully comprehend it. These aspects are attribution, authenticity, condition, and quality.

Attribution: What is it? Who is the author?
The connoisseur attributes authorship.

Authenticity: Was it actually made by whom it’s attributed to? Is it really what it says it is?
The connoisseur validates authenticity.

Condition: Is it like new? Is it well worn? Has it aged gracefully or poorly?
The connoisseur appraises condition.

Quality: Is it flawless? Is it particularly intricate or nuanced?
The connoisseur evaluates quality.

Wikipedia reminds us that the connoisseur engages with these aspects “on the basis of empirical evidence, refinement of perception about technique and form, and a disciplined method of analysis.” The connoisseur must spend a great deal of time to develop these skills. Indeed a true connoisseur will have entirely immersed himself in what he wants to learn to appreciate.

That was certainly the case for William Ivins Jr, an accomplished curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1916 – 1946. Unlike most curators, he had no advanced degrees, had taught himself art history, and had worked for years as a lawyer and stockbroker. But his interest in art led him to review tens of thousands of prints. Varying a great deal in authorship, authenticity, condition and quality, the prints allowed Ivins’ to develop an eye for the phony and the sublime. As curator of the Met he amassed “one of the world’s most encyclopedic repositories of printed images.

Ivins did it without an MFA or DPhil in Art History; his story demonstrates that with time and passion anyone can become a connoisseur. Indeed, the next post in this series will discuss the decline of taught connoisseurship.

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