Why Don’t I Like New "Masterpiece" Discoveries?

My friend heidenkind recently brought my attention to this article, which asserts that The Education of the Virgin (17th century, shown right), a painting discovered in the basement of Yale Art Gallery, is not by Velasquez (as was thought earlier this year). I have to admit, I was pretty pleased that the painting was unattributed to Velasquez. Is that strange? I would assume that most people are thrilled when they learn that a possible new work by Velasquez, da Vinci, Michelangelo, etc., has been discovered. And I rarely (if ever) feel thrilled about such news – particularly if the work has immediately been attributed to a great master. Instead, I get pleased when the painting is demoted from any “great master” status.

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel this way. Some of you may remember me earlier post along these lines, in which I discussed my skepticism on the plethora of new discoveries. I haven’t quite pinpointed all of the reasons for my skepticism/hesitation regarding new discoveries, but I thought that writing this post might help me to organize my thoughts. I think that I mostly resist hasty attributions to great masters because I know a little bit about the politics behind art attribution – it’s tempting for a connoisseur to attribute a painting to a great master, since such an attribution would help further the publicity and career of that connoisseur. I’m particularly reminded of Abraham Bredius, the connoisseur who “discovered” the “Vermeer” paintings by the forger Han Van Meegeren. Bredius is lucky that he passed away soon after Van Meegeren’s confession in 1945.

Anyhow, there are lots of other motivations for a work of art to be attributed to a great master, and most of them are financial. The owning museum, institution, or gallery will push for such an attribution, since it will be monetarily beneficial. And hey, the connoisseur could also get a nice fat check for such an attribution.

But is this political/financial reason why I don’t get excited about discoveries? I also wonder if my might have something to do with the historian side of me. If there are unknown works by great masters, then this forces me (as a historian) to reshape the artist in my mind as a historical figure. And I think I resist such reshaping a little bit. Does that make sense? In some ways, I feel like I know great artists quite well, and having a new work of art means that there is some aspect to their lives and work that was hidden from me. (I guess it’s kind of like the artist was doing something “behind my back.”) I know, it’s a little silly. Yet, at the same time, I love learning new things about artists. So maybe I experience some kind of inward struggle (i.e. the desire to learn vs. feeling deceived) when a new work of art is discovered, and that’s why I shy away from such discoveries. I don’t know.

Ironically, though, I rarely feel skeptical when archaeologists announce that a new work of prehistoric/ancient art was discovered or excavated. I always think, “Hey, awesome!” and move on with my life. So my skepticism (and emotional attachment?) must be somehow related to the idea that these works of art are attached to early modern “masters” (i.e. individuals). There isn’t enough information about specific prehistoric/ancient artists (or even some cultures!) for me to get as defensive and protective as a historian. Instead, I almost always get excited about ancient discoveries.

So, that’s what I came up with this evening: political/financial reasons and my silly protectiveness as a historian prevent me from embracing new “masterpieces.” What about you? Am I the only person who is continuously skeptical? Do most people get excited about attributions and “masterpiece” discoveries? Do any other historians get protective about an artist’s biography/oeuvre?

  • Katya says:

    What annoys me is that a new discovery seems to be the only thing that gets people interested. I am yet to see a new discovery that would drastically change my opinion of an artist. Also it irks me that a new attribution of a known painting is presented as though the painting itself has been transformed, when in fact it hasn't changed at all.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Great points M and Katya!

    The museums and collectors (or should I say investors) have as much to do with this business of hasty 'master attributions' as the unprincipled connoisseurs that pander to them.

    I also love Katya's point about a work being admired for it's own merits, not just who may(or may not) have done it.

    The media is another element of this phenomenon, equally guilty of propagating misinformation.

    Luckily conscientious art history writers/bloggers are here to keep them on their toes and set the record straight!

    Great work M!

    Kind Regards
    H Niyazi
    threepipeproblem.blogspot.com

  • Undine says:

    Very interesting topic, and one I've never seen directly addressed.

    I know little about the art world, but in the fields of literature and history there are similar "discoveries" that continually pop up. I'd be thrilled if I could trust these "discoveries" were reliable–after all, they would just add to our field of knowledge–but I'm always skeptical because: 1.The atribution is invariably made by someone with some personal stake in the matter. 2.The attribution is invariably obviously, ridiculously wrong. (But many of them are allowed to stand anyway.) It's frustrating how people are more eager to find "new" items than to root out the fraudulent ones.

    In short, your feelings are completely justified.

  • Dr. F says:

    M:

    It's healthy to be skeptical to new ideas but I think the concern you raise in your post stems largely from fear. As someone once said, one fact can destroy the most elaborate theory. The careers and reputations of art historians are based on years of work. Much of their time is spent on building fortifications around their work and defending their turf.

    Hopefully, your youth and open-mindedness will help you avoid this pitfall. To paraphrase Machiavelli, "fortifications are useless in warfare."

    Frank

  • e says:

    You made excellent points in your post and I found myself saying, "Hmmmm" a few times.

    The whole thing really is rather political and suspicious.

    So, do you believe that the Rembrandt found at Catholic University is really his?
    I use that as an example as that's the only discovery I've seen in person.

  • Hels says:

    Great topic.

    Roger Fry wouldn't allow artists to sign their work on Omega Workshop objects because he thought it would make patrons focus on the reputation of the artist, not on the quality of the object.

    As soon as an object is attributed to Velasquez (or Vermeer or Rembrandt), lesser known artists can safely be ignored. Again! But ignored by reputation, not by the quality of their art.

  • H Niyazi says:

    @Frank! I very much doubt fear is the motivating factor in M's scholarly scepticism of shaky attributions.

    Machiavelli was famously quoted for not being interested in the beauty of art – so is probably the last Florentine I would quote when referencing the need to appreciate art on its own merits, regardless of its attribution.

    I would say your points on art historians 'fearfully' defending their life work has more to do with your own adventures with gruff Giorgione scholars :) They are among the staunchest I've seen – from Settis and his snake that wasnt there to Januszczak and his drake!

    I personally find the process of connoisseurship and attribution a bit unusual and disconcerting – the exact antithesis of how scientists approach new discoveries and data. Something that challenges work we may have done is welcomed in the medical sciences. It often goes to bolster our findings, or clarify gaps.

    If we happen to spend our life doing something that can be overturned within months, then we haven't really been doing it properly :)

    H

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone! I also like what Katya said about how attributing an unknown work seems to "transform" the painting – when the physical object hasn't changed at all. It's a little silly, isn't it?

    Dr. F, the element of fear hadn't even crossed my mind, but I can see how that could come across when reading my post. As of yet, no new discoveries have challenged any arguments that I have made, but that's not to say that I'm exempt from such a thing happening! The whole concept of fear in regards to history is quite interesting. Historians always have to take risks when working with fragments of facts and information – I wonder how many scholars have experienced fear that their argument could be nullified by a new discovery. Your comment was quite thought-provoking.

    Undine, I also feel like some artistic attributions are ridiculously wrong. I'm not a professional connoisseur by any means, but sometimes I look at these discoveries and think, "C'mon, really? You think this looks like a work by [insert famous artist's name]?" Sometimes the comparisons seem very strained, in my opinion. It's interesting to know that there are similar reactions with literary attributions.

    e, I haven't doubted the Rembrandt etching – mostly because it is a print and several copies of the work probably exist (so there would be other examples to compare to that etching). I generally am more skeptical in regards to paintings by influential artists. Something may look like the style of a well-known artist, but that doesn't mean that the painting must have been created by that person. After all, great painters were often influential during their own time – which means that contemporary artists may have been copying the "master's" style as well.

    Hels, I didn't know that about Roger Fry! That's interesting. Sometimes I wonder what the art world would be like if there wasn't such a focus on "big name" artists. Maybe we'd start paying more attention to the artistic object, then?

    H Niyazi, I also think that there is a lot of subjectivity in basic connoisseurship practice. But I do think that there is some value in connoisseurship (which arguably is scientific to some degree, since it involves empirical observation). However, I appreciate when connoisseurs look to additional scientific (and technological methods) to support their argument. Although I still felt "iffy" about the "Bella Principessa" attribution do da Vinci, I thought it was very interesting that fingerprinting was used in the attribution process.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Ah the Principessa fingerprint – now there's a hot potato!

    I must apologise for my use of the word 'drake' above – it's meant to be 'crane' :) This is what happens when you watch too many Seinfeld re-runs.

    H

  • heidenkind says:

    I think finding a missing work is possible for some artists. But a painting by Leonardo or Michelangelo or Velasquez? Those artists have been famous since the get-go, and unless said painting disappeared during WWII or something along those lines, I seriously doubt there is a lot of their stuff just hanging out undiscovered.

    What you have to realize is that a lot of attributions are like The Maltese Falcon–the stuff of which dreams are made. The people involved are so obsessed with finding what they want to see that they're willing to risk their careers and credibility on it. Every historian dreams of making a big discovery, but you have to treat these things with a logical dose of skepticism or you wind up like Kaspar Gutman.

  • Dr. F says:

    M:

    Everytime I taught a class or dealt with a client, there was always a little bit of "fear" in the back of my mind. What if something came up to blow away my whole position? I think that's why we take so many pains to dot the "i"s and cross the "t"s, or search down every lead and check every footnote.

    H:

    I would like to say a word on behalf of Salvatore Settis. He is a great scholar whose book on Giorgione's Tempest is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Renaissance art. Despite disagreeing with his conclusion, I have read the book at least five times and always marvel at his skill and erudition. His article on the Castelfranco Altarpiece in the 2004 exhibition catalog, Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, is superb.

    Heidenkind:

    Your reference to the Maltese Falcon was right on.

    Frank

  • M says:

    heidenkind, I loved the Maltese Falcon comparison as well! That was great.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.