Connoisseurship and Our Objects

The history and practice of connoisseurship is important when encountering any new piece of artwork. (See the history and controversies in the field in an essay by Kathryn Widing). It is imperative when approaching an unidentified work to make sure each element of the piece is understood in its context and in our modern world. By identifying and uncovering the missing elements of a piece of art, curators, scholars, and gallery owners alike turn to connoisseurship in order to project monetary or historical value onto the piece. The practice of connoisseurship is defined by Grove Art Online as “a specifically visual knowledge gained from looking at works of art. It requires a gift, and the constant exercise, of a keen visual memory and the ability to sympathize with the process of artistic creativity. A connoisseur (French for ‘one who knows’) is someone often described as having a ‘good eye’ with which to attribute works of art, to distinguish different styles or periods”. Therefore, connoisseurship as a practice is fairly subjective and has encouraged different approaches to identifying works of art.

The value of a piece of art is oftentimes determined by the reputation of the connoisseur. In his book False Impressions: The Hunt for Big Time Art Fakes, former director at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving, lays out a checklist that he follows when confronted with a work of which he is unfamiliar. Hoving’s approach reinforces the historical understanding that connoisseurship relies heavily on a trained eye and gut instinct. Connoisseurs are mentioned to have a practiced eye, keen visual memory, a strong sensitivity to quality, and the ability to recreate the creations of the artist, ultimately relying on talent over scholarship. Each connoisseur has a method to his or her individual approach, and in looking at Mayer’s collection of ancient Egyptian reliefs we can take these connoisseurs model and apply it to our own.

As our class was presented with Mayer’s collection of reliefs, each student immediately took on the role of a connoisseur. Despite having previous education or knowledge on the subject of ancient reliefs, each individual took notes and wrote down their reactions and observations, for first instinct is heavily regarded in the practice of connoisseurship. Each student conducted their own research projects to shed light on the subject of ancient Egyptian reliefs. Through uncovering the meaning behind the subject matter and iconography as well as conducting paralleled research in the history of the subject, we were able to shed light on many of the elements we knew nothing about. However in order to fully grasp how to approach identifying our objects, I turn to two highly regarded art historians in the field of Ancient Egyptian art.

The first of these experts is a curator in Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Near Egyptian art who has recently conducted an exhibit in the subject matter. In analyzing the catalogue to her recent exhibit it is clear that she takes definitive steps when looking at new objects. Her first step is studying the social and historical landscape of Egypt and assessing the different religions of the Late Antique Period to answer the question “what is Coptic?” Next, she looks at where the reliefs may be it is a Christian church, a monastery, or perhaps even a tomb. By studying different elements like the column capitals and walls, she is able to determine the original setting of the objects. The third step in her approach is to determine the subject matter depicted on the reliefs, for pagan and Christian tombs alike were ornamented with reliefs representing plants, animals, and neutral subjects. By assessing an object through this lens, she is able to conclude whether the pieces are authentic or not.

When a member of our class went to ask her what she thought about our own reliefs, her first instinct was that she could not guarantee the authenticity of our objects. A few elements caught her eye that seemed to justify the ‘strangeness’ of some of the reliefs: that drawn lines were visible, drilled holes were prominent, some iconography seemed unfamiliar, elements of paint seemed suspicious, and identified breakage on the pieces. Her suspicion was obvious, however when told that our second connoisseur believed them all to be authentic, she seemed surprised and claimed that the latter historian was the expert, proving connoisseurship tends to be fairly subjective.

The second scholar whose approach to Ancient Egyptian art helped us uncover more about our objects is an associate professor of fine arts at a well-established college who specializes in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Eastern Christian art and architecture. Her publications are highly regarded in her field and her opinion is considered extremely valuable. Her approach to uncovering objects in the field is exemplified in her book on Late Antique Egyptian Funerary Sculpture, and through an email correspondence with another student in our class. Her wide background in late antique Egyptian reliefs grounds her approach to Egyptian reliefs. Thus when evaluating an object she first considers the surface for remains of paint or ground and traces of carving tools. She examines the texture of stone, its ancient and modern damage, and any evidence of modern treatment. Next, she compares the object to any work she has seen before. In attributing the work to its site of origin she claims that archaeological documentation is paramount, however, in this field it is a rarity. By looking at a larger pool of traits and paying attention to stylistic treatment of micro-motifs and larger compositional passages as well looking at planes of depth and treatment to the subject’s iconography, an object can be authenticated and the ability to judge forgeries is made easier.

When approaching Mayer’s collection of reliefs with the guidelines set by our two experts, it is clear that there are specific elements one must uncover. Stylistic analysis is an assured way to attribute objects to their time period and place of origin. The most important characteristics are thus determining the demographics and site, the materials used, and the imagery that appears on the reliefs. By understanding these components one is able to determine the authenticity of the relief, thus giving it academic and monetary value. It is important to keep in mind that in the field of Ancient Egyptian art much is unknown due to the lack of archeological documentation and information, thus making it extremely difficult to truly uncover the authenticity and meaning behind these pieces. But what we do know is that they are of value in learning about the field and the history of the practice of connoisseurship.

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Sana Neumann '13 is an Art History major and Religion minor.