Nowadays connoisseurship is much scorned. Connoisseurs are called servants of the art market — they are said to be oblivious to the political concerns of the social history of art. And their claim to make reliable attributions has been defiantly rejected. Walter Benjamin’s very famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) identifies these problems. Connoisseurship, it is often said, is elitist, Euro-centric, and logo-centric, to employ the fashionable jargon. Certainly it is thought to be old fashioned.
Philippe Costamagna, who is a French museum director, thinks this trendy way of thinking is radically mistaken. He speaks of a person having an eye, or being an eye, as a shorthand way of describing the ability “to establish authorship of paintings by sight alone” (1). His entirely undefensive, marvelously buoyant book tells the history of connoisseurship with references to Giovanni Morelli, Roberto Longhi, Bernard Berenson, and some other more recent figures, many of them female, who have made significant attributions of European old master drawings and paintings.
A marvelous storyteller and gifted writer, Costamagna describes his enchanted childhood: Raised in the South of France, he roamed through many local churches and castles. “Before the age of ten, my cousins and I could distinguish Louis XVI furniture from Louis XIII or Louis XV” (20). On his first plane trip, going from Nice to Paris, he and his young sister were sent first-class, and so embarked, hand with hand, under the care of Maria Callas. And then, thanks to his nanny, his Parisian visits were “filled with visits to museums” (21).
Never cowed by art dealers or collectors, always wary of the commercial art market, he learnt to trust his own experience. Costamagna, however, is modest about his own skills. To have an eye, he says, is not to be creative; rather, it involves only the ability to respond and, he allows, a certain amount of luck. “It is too easy,” he admits, “to be moralistic about the market” (207). The Eye (New Vessel Press, 2018) is a singularly gracious account of his well-spent life. With no bibliography and no footnotes, this book offers a very immediate commentary, and so its form is perfectly suited to its subject.
In the Preface of his 1958 Mellon Lectures devoted to Nicolas Poussin, Anthony Blunt explains that originally he intended “to produce a straightforward monograph on Poussin as a painter, but the more I studied him the more I became convinced that in order to appreciate him as an artist it is essential to understand the intellectual climate in which he worked and the ideas [. . .] in which he believed and which affected his method of work as well as his paintings.” By contrast, Blunt’s great rival, the connoisseur Denis Mahon, focused on direct visual experience of Poussin’s artworks.
This, then, is a familiar distinction, the contrast between scrutiny of art’s social background and the connoisseur’s concern with artworks’ visual qualities. In principle, perhaps these two approaches are complimentary. But in practice, they seem to come into conflict. In his response to the 1960 Poussin retrospective at the Louvre, Mahon contrasts studies “which can be explored well enough in the library with the help of photographs,” with his focus on “the more intimate ingredients of his art,” for which “experience of the originals is essential.” Blunt, he argues, depended too much upon photographic evidence. Costamagna emphatically agrees with Mahon’s way of thinking: To properly understand a painting, he repeatedly says, you need to see it in the flesh.
Precisely because The Eye is so charming, it’s important to consider some self-imposed limitations of Costamagna’s account. He notes that connoisseurship is being marginalized, but doesn’t explain why that has happened. And he says almost nothing about a perhaps related question, why interest in old master European art is diminishing. Costamagna argues that dealing in contemporary art also involves an eye, but he doesn’t develop that theme. Does making old master attributions help you evaluate Jackson Pollock, Eva Hesse, or Jeff Koons? That interesting question deserves discussion. Nor does The Eye discuss other visual cultures. Since China and the Islamic world had many connoisseurs, to what extent, one wonders, are their ways of thinking similar to those of commentators dealing with European old masters? In our determinedly multicultural art world, which is heavily focused on contemporary art, I suspect that connoisseurship can survive only if it broadens its horizons.
Perhaps, then, the most surprising note in The Eye comes near the end when, arguing that a “curator should meet with people in prisons, in hospitals, in disadvantaged neighborhoods” (231), Costamagna writes: “I firmly believe that, outside of art history, we all have an eye” (239). Here he opens up a fascinating political discussion. In his well known polemic, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979), Pierre Bourdieu deployed a great deal of sociological evidence to argue that aesthetic judgments are decisively influenced by class. Costamagna emphatically disagrees, claiming that anyone with an eye will agree with the experts.
I admire (and actually agree with) the resolutely democratic spirit of his claim, but here some argumentation really is called for. After all, The Eye provides a great deal of charming evidence to suggest that Costamagna’s own ways of thinking were the product of his own marvelously privileged childhood. Early on he saw a great deal of art, which helped him gain a resolute confidence in his own judgments. If you come from a poor family, or even the middle-classes, then you likely will find the typical art museum intimidating. Public art collections are housed, often enough, in well-guarded palaces. The Louvre, once the king’s palace in Paris, became a public space only thanks to the French Revolution. I grant that our American museums reflect a different history, but surely it’s difficult to visit the Frick or the Morgan in New York or even the Met without some awareness of its social history. Nowadays, of course, these public institutions work very hard to be accessible. But I don’t believe that it’s possible, realistically, to promote a populist vision of connoisseurship without more critical reflection than this book provides.
A great deal of academic writing is devoted to the history and critique of the claims of Berenson and the other connoisseurs. What by contrast is very admirable about The Eye is that it presents the case for visual thinking directly and constructively. If connoisseurship has too often been associated with snobbery and social-climbing, that, Costamagna suggests, is only because the essentially democratic nature of this skill has not been understood. We can all of us become connoisseurs — that, he argues, is the utopian promise of visual art.
I love Costamagna’s note-perfect description of the process of making attributions: “We stand in front of a work. Boom, we suddenly, instinctively know the artist who painted it” (226). What needs still to be explained, however, in my opinion, is how this process works and how the larger public can be engaged. But here it would be ungracious to complain, when I am merely urging that Costamagna write another book. The Eye argues that connoisseurship is the grounding for a generous, socially conscious morality: “I am an Eye so that others can see” (240). Ultimately art matters, he claims, not because it teaches us about social history or other cultures, but because it is the source of ecstatic aesthetic pleasure. That is spot-on — and underscores why connoisseurship is so important.