Connoisseurship is an indispensable means of recognizing works of art. However, as is well known, the necessary skills cannot be learned from books and rules. Instead they are the result of long experience, and the more experience the connoisseur has the more reliable his or her judgments should be, in theory anyway. A scholar becomes an expert in a certain field by attaining a certain level of experience and, of course, by being accepted as such by other scholars. Connoisseurship is thus intrinsically linked to authority.
Technical investigations of works of art can likewise claim authority, the authority of the seemingly objective approach of natural science. However, the results of technical investigations also need interpretation, and the nature of those interpretations is frequently nothing other than classical connoisseurship. This applies especially to techniques that generate images, like IRR and X-radiography. For instance, attributing a painting to a certain master with the aid of its underdrawing is no different, fundamentally, from judging it by the painted surface. Even in the case of more abstract, non-iconic technical data, such as pigment analysis, interpretations are sometimes guided by pre-existing opinions which may, in the end, be based on connoisseurship.
Connoisseurship is inevitable for the study of historic art, and its impact probably reaches far further than is obvious at first sight. Yet it is necessarily subjective in nature, and while this is well known with respect to its classic application – the judgment of an individual work of art by an individual person – one should also be aware that a lot of so-called “objective” findings about works of art are not independent of the very same judgments. To keep the discussions alive, we have to accept the authority of connoisseurs and of technical studies, but at the same time we have to challenge their authority.
About Stephan Kemperdick
Stephan Kemperdick studied fine arts at Düsseldorf, then art history at the Freie Universität Berlin. He graduated in 1992 and received his PhD in 1996. From 1999-2002 he was Assistant Curator at Städel Frankfurt and in 2003 and 2004 at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. From 2005-2007 he was Curator of Old Master Paintings at Kunstmuseum Basel. In 2008 he returned to Berlin to become Curator of Early Netherlandish and Early German Painting at the Gemäldegalerie. His publications include monographs on the Master of Flémalle (1997), Rogier van der Weyden (1999), Martin Schongauer (2004), collection catalogues of early German paintings at the Städel Frankfurt (2002, 2004) and the Gemäldegalerie Berlin (2010).
He has curated and co-curated several exhibitions, including The Early Portrait, Basel 2006; Hans Holbein the Younger, Basel 2006; The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden, Frankfurt/ Berlin 2008/09; The Road to Van Eyck, Rotterdam 2012/13; The History of the Ghent Altarpiece, Berlin 2014 and, Holbein in Berlin, Berlin 2016.