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  Connoisseurship (from French, ‘one who knows’ or ‘one who understands’), as a methodology within art history, is inseparable from notions of quality and authenticity, which form part of that discipline\'s construction of ‘the work of art’.

The appreciation of works of art for their intrinsic qualities (aesthetic value) rather than for their functional or devotional purpose (cult value) led to their being considered in a different way, at least by experts in the West. By the Renaissance it was commonplace to value works for the skill they exhibited rather than the materials used, and it follows that the connoisseur\'s interest in ‘fine’ art is an interest in the skills and practices used. From the 16th century to the 18th century connoisseurship implied both discrimination and knowledge, not much different in fact from the skills of the 18th-century amateur (a word which in those days meant ‘enthusiast’). The 18th-century connoisseur made the same kind of value judgements common in, but not synonymous with, those of criticism: the difference lay in the connoisseur\'s specialized knowledge of the subject, without the subjective and perhaps excessive enthusiasms of the amateur or the impersonal pronouncements of the critic—although it must be noted that connoisseurship has often confused personal enthusiasm with the disinterested appraisal of competence. The most striking example of this in recent times was the acceptance, against the signal evidence (at least to modern eyes), of the work of the forger van Meegeren as authentic ‘Vermeers’.

A second meaning of connoisseurship, closer to today\'s, is that of the art expert able to distinguish between the authentic and non-authentic, for example between an original and a copy. This implies that an authentic work of art demonstrates qualities or—and this is not the same thing—quality which an imitation cannot. As a consequence of this some works of art are called ‘authentic’ (meaning original works by a given artist), while others are called copies. This definition of the work of the connoisseur is narrow, but it has had great impact on the study of art history and museology, where collections have long been valued for the integrity (that is, authenticity) of their holdings. In this limited sense connoisseurship goes little beyond attribution or establishing the provenance of a work.

Today the meaning of connoisseurship retains at least an element of the critical/aesthetic interests of earlier centuries. And while it is not correct to imply, as one might with the phrase ‘art expert’, an element of commerce (and the valuation, rather than evaluation, of works of art), limiting connoisseurship to the narrow confines of authentication has proved a regrettable restriction. While in the past connoisseurship provided many of the parameters still regarded as the norms of art history, the continued uncritical application of such notions today does little to advance the study of the history of art. MG PD

Further reading M.J. Friedländer, On Art and Connoisseurship (1942).



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