Learning to Look: Principles of Connoisseurship

“Connoisseurship,” derived from the Latin cognoscere (to get to know) by way of Italian conoscitore and French connaisseur, was long regarded as the primary tool for identifying, understanding, and appreciating works of art. Developed in the eighteenth century in tandem with gentlemanly ideals of taste and refinement, connoisseurship expanded with the growth of museums and the market in the nineteenth century to embrace scientific techniques of dating and attribution, typically in the field of Old Master painting. By the late twentieth century, these practices seemed increasingly divorced from more contextual modes of analysis inspired by social and economic history, with the old-fashioned “connoisseur” often dismissed as a reactionary obsessed with authorship, authenticity, and dubious judgments of “quality” at odds with a more democratic, inclusive, and outward-focused study of visual and material culture. This seminar argues instead that enlightened connoisseurship, understood in the broadest sense as knowing what one is seeing—and, even more important, knowing how to interrogate an object’s material, technical, and stylistic properties—is fundamental to the historically responsible study of things as primary evidence of the past. Relying heavily (but not exclusively) on the collections of the Frick, the seminar introduces participants to advanced techniques for evaluating objects in diverse media, including ceramics, bronze sculpture, ornamental metalwork, paintings, works on paper, silver, numismatic objects, and textiles. Although each poses specific problems in terms of manufacture, dating, attribution, authenticity, alteration, etc., we believe that the basic tools of informed, skeptical, and comparative close looking (including aesthetic assessment as well as insights from technical art history) constitute a teachable and transferrable skill set of shared value to academics, curators, collectors, and conservators. In addition to active participation in seminar meetings, students will study one potentially problematic Frick object (from a list selected by the instructors) over the term, presenting their findings to the class and in a final written paper. 3 credits.