In a Better Light: Vision, Spatiality and the Connoisseurial Practices of the National Gallery, c. 1875–1916
Visual assessment was crucial to the judgement of artworks throughout the Victorian period and beyond, and yet our understanding of the practice of connoisseurship is too often limited to a largely theoretical approach. This article adopts a spatial methodology to study the practice of institutional connoisseurship of Old Master paintings in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, thus highlighting the extent to which connoisseurship relied on visual analysis in this period. The concept of connoisseurship is widened to encompass not just issues of authenticity and attribution, but also equally important criteria such as condition and beauty that were similarly judged by eye.
This article opens with the description of a visual model of connoisseurship, drawing on current psychological theories on vision and expertise. This model posits the practice of connoisseurship as a series of swift judgements based on a visual mental canon built up over years of exposure to comparative images. I then go on to test this model with a case study centring on the professional practices of staff at London’s National Gallery between the 1870s and 1910s. Making particular use of material from the National Gallery archives, my analysis relies far less than previous studies on written theories of connoisseurship, instead using a broad range of sources including museum minutes, private correspondence, photographs, and building plans to consider the physical conditions under which connoisseurial judgements were reached. Using these materials, I explore how the spaces in which connoisseurship was practised overwhelmingly predicated vision as an analytical tool, as opposed to alternatives such as technical examination.
There is strong potential for the translation of this approach from the context under review in this article to other periods in history, wider geographical areas, different historical actors, and the judgement of a much broader range of material culture artefacts beyond Old Master paintings. This will help to deepen our understanding of connoisseurship as a flexible practice with divergent aims and methods for different stakeholder groups, each adopting its own particular connoisseurial lens.