CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

From 19-21 June 2016 the CODART NEGENTIEN congress took place in Madrid. The congress, organized in conjunction with Museo Nacional del Prado, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Museo Lázaro Galdiano and Patrimonio Nacional, focused on the issue of art-historical attributions and its significance for curators. Please find the text of the theme Connoisseurship: Between Intuition and Science written by CODART’s Program Committee below.


The congress will open festively on Sunday with a reception at Museo Lázaro Galdiano. On Monday our host is Museo Nacional del Prado, that generously offers us an exclusive visit before opening hours to the exhibition Bosch. The Centenary Exhibition, and a special visit to the permanent collection in the evening. During the day the congress theme will be discussed in lectures and a group discussion. Tuesday we are guests of Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. We will be able to visit the exhibition Caravaggio and the Painters of the North privately. The morning program will feature a plenary Speakers’ Corner. Tuesday afternoon delegates can join several excursions to locations in and outside of Madrid.

Jheronimus Bosch (1450-1516), The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail of the right wing), ca. 1500-05 Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid

Jheronimus Bosch (1450-1516), The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail of the right wing), ca. 1500-05
Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid

Connoisseurship: Between Intuition and Science

Connoisseurship has long been at the heart of the work of attributing an artwork – that is, associating it with a specific artist, period, and/or location. Ever since the 17th century, attributing works of art has ranked among the foremost tasks of the art historian. Traditionally, attribution is predicated on meticulous examination by a connoisseur. Yet for some time now, art-historical attribution has been virtually absent from academic training. Indeed, it has even been denigrated as an unscientific, anachronistic activity. For museums and the art market, however, it has lost none of its significance.


In the everyday work of museum curators and in the art trade, the attribution of works of art is a subject that constantly generates further research. Moreover, connoisseurship and matters of attribution are the most readily ‘visible’ branches of art history. They attract considerable attention in the media and among the art-loving public.


Museum curators or collectors – frequently connoisseurs in their own right – have traditionally decided on the attribution of the works entrusted to them. Since the late 19th century, art-historical research has undergone a process of ever-increasing differentiation. The expertise of specialists working outside museums has become accepted, and in many cases expressly sought. This trend has continued and become stronger up to the present day, particularly in the field of research and technical art history.


Methods of art-historical attribution have changed since the discipline was first established in the 17th century. A connoisseur’s judgment rests on the study of the original, detailed knowledge of comparable works, an analysis of stylistic and/or artistic similarities, and a discerning eye honed by experience. However, sometimes the connoisseur may decide on an attribution intuitively, without having considered the circumstantial evidence. In the final analysis he or she is called upon to provide a subjective evaluation of inherent features such as quality – features that resist definition. This lack of complete objectivity is the main reason for the enduring criticism that is levelled at attributions based purely on connoisseurship. New ways of investigating artworks, often focusing on their genesis and structure, enhance traditional methods of attribution. Connoisseurship, combined with scientific and technical examination, is now one of the core responsibilities of museum curators.

Jheronimus Bosch (1450-1516), Haywain (detail of the central panel), ca. 1516 Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Jheronimus Bosch (1450-1516), Haywain (detail of the central panel), ca. 1516
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

New stories

While the art-historical attribution of a work of art may prove successful, this is not the end of the story for the museum curator. Works of art are on display in galleries and exhibitions and thus occupy a certain place in the public consciousness. Their reclassification or assignation to a possibly very different context also implies a re-evaluation, which must be explained to visitors. Deciding on the content and form of this explanation and then putting it into practice is one of the great challenges that museum curators have to address.

The future of the connoisseur

Taking all these issues into account, what is the future role of the connoisseur? Is it based solely on intuition, or can it be called a kind of science? Do we need technical ‘evidence’ to corroborate a connoisseur’s opinion? What about training? Will the voices of connoisseurs continue to make themselves heard in an age that is becoming ever more dominated by technical approaches? Could they indeed become more important than before, as a counterbalance to technical art history? What is their position in the wider context of art history, technical and otherwise, today and tomorrow?

At the CODART NEGENTIEN conference in Madrid we will explore the position of the connoisseur. The advantages and disadvantages of the intuitive and scientific approaches, respectively, will be addressed in lectures and debates.

We wish to thank our hosts and partners: