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Gary Schwartz’s Scrupulous Art History

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Self-portrait with hat, eyes wide and mouth open, by Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1630 (Rijksmuseum)

Gary Schwartz, a Brooklyn-born Dutch resident, is an independent scholar who writes about Dutch art. He is the author of classic books on Rembrandt. A long time ago, when I read his book about Pieter Senredam, I was fascinated by his explanation. Although not flashy and by no means fashionable, he deals with central issues in a decisive and honest way. To properly understand his wonderful new book, Rembrandt in a red beret: the disappearance and reappearance of a self-portrait It is useful to start by discussing art attribution in a general way, as in (W Books, 2023).

The study of identification, or attribution, is an important foundation of art history. Until we know for sure what kind of work was created by an artist, we cannot reliably reconstruct her or his career. Of course, major works of art are often stolen, damaged, or altered. And as the pigment ages, changes often occur when the photo is restored. Appraisers often need to take these changes into account when determining attribution.

Counterfeits are a big problem for connoisseurs. Small differences between the two photos of her, a good quality fake and the original, may be difficult to detect at first, but in the end they can be very important. Philosopher Nelson Goodman provided an important argument. Even if you can’t tell the difference between an original painting and a fake one today, knowing there is a difference will motivate you to look further. (It’s worth noting that Goodman is a former art dealer and collector.) The philosophical complexity of making attribution is how one’s beliefs enter into the process. If you want to believe that a painting is by Rembrandt, you will probably think differently than if you believe that the painting is a forgery. And to further complicate the situation, if your concept of the real Rembrandt depends in part on accepting some false attribution, your current judgment will be biased. Probably.

Attribution is an exercise in inductive reasoning. One important concern is how much diversity we attribute to artists. Knowing many real Rembrandts, we will consider adding another to his works. Therefore, the purpose of appraisal is to track developments. When an artist is young, old, or experimenting, perhaps her or his work changes in surprising ways. What the market ultimately needs is a definitive solution – this isor is not, Rembrandt. Expressions of doubt are out of place in this situation. Connoisseurship has an unstable relationship with the market economy. In general, the works of famous “famous artists” like Rembrandt are of great value, while the works of his students and lesser-known contemporaries are of little value. And counterfeits have no value. Therefore, curators need to be decisive.

In general, art history is now a left-wing discipline, with particular emphasis on politically critical art, especially contemporary art. However, it is inevitable that art criticism functions as a servant of the art market. Just as we do revisionist interpretations of famous artists, studying previously unknown figures examines the market value of their works. That is the conscience of art historians. Bernard Berenson, the 20th century’s greatest connoisseur, was heavily criticized for his role in the market. Still, without independent income, there is no escape from the need for work. When Meyer Shapiro, a professor at Columbia University who had been a vocal critic of Berenson, wrote about Paul Cézanne and defended the Abstract Expressionists, he too inevitably secured a place in the art market. The same is true when TJ Clark, the most famous living art history writer, writes a left-wing account of Impressionism. And the same goes for everyone, including me in my modest role as a prolific published art critic.

Of course, one might imagine an art history and museum system divorced from this focus on the individual. For example, it may be possible to exhibit and interpret paintings from the Dutch Golden Age without attribution by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Senredam. Museums usually display their best works, while anthropologists display representative samples. However, it is not easy to imagine what such an art world would be like without an interest in excellence. And there is no sign that such a change is on the horizon.

A common complaint is that famous photos are too expensive, and they most certainly are. (What is a fair price, you might ask, and who decides it?) And since the value of a work of art is determined by a market system, necessarily these discussions about art , related to the larger pressing issue of economic inequality. The people who pay exorbitant prices at art auctions are the ultra-wealthy. That’s certainly true, and people get nervous when we explicitly state that economic value directly reflects aesthetic value. Nevertheless, I think this conclusion, which raises concerns about museums being explicitly identified with the closely guarded homes of luxury objects, is inevitable.

Rembrandt wearing a red beret (1643) is an excellent but not famous painting with a fascinating and somewhat unusual history that is thoroughly detailed by Schwartz’s book. The work includes a complex account of his 19th century history in Germany, art theft, and recent involvement with Rembrandt enthusiasts. Long story short, the painting passed through the collections of various princes, was stolen from the Weimar Museum in 1921, and went missing until the 1940s, when someone claimed to have bought it from a German sailor. reappeared in Dayton, Ohio by. New York in the 1930s. (In other words, this picture is do not have Because it had been exported before the war, it was treated as a trophy of war. ) After further bureaucratic complications, it was kept in Washington by the US government until it was returned to Germany in the 1960s. And there, after further questions regarding the division of East and West Germany, it was returned to its heirs and recently sold to a collector.

These various arguments result in different inferences about attribution, which Schwartz discusses in detail. For example, during the time of the Third Reich, it is useful to compare accounts, as he does, between Nazi and immigrant Jewish scholars. Schwartz then uses this argument to stage a helpful account of the Rembrandt research project that sought to provide a committee appraisal, which, if we understand his account, is a process of fate ( I think so). Schwartz’s book is a masterpiece. Very complete, never boring, and shows how complex the connoisseur’s activity is. And it has this Rembrandt on the cover, and it looks great now that it’s been restored.Now, as Rembrandt wearing a red beret In conclusion, I say this.

At the heart of (all of this discussion) is a work of art that can move forces large and small, and at the same time, we hope will soon be available for use. The most important interaction of all: the contemplation of a painting that gives us possibilities. We look into Rembrandt’s eyes as they stare at us.


My review: G. Schwarz and M. Jan Bok, Pieter Senredam. Painters and their times, Leonardo, 244, 2 (1991), 492. This essay expands on my discussion of “fake artwork in the age of mechanical reproduction.” Urban Aesthetics: Philosophy and Practice of American Abstract Painting in the 1980s (1994), Ch. 6 and “In Praise of the Connoisseur”, J. of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 61:2 (Spring 2003): 159-69.

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