What is connoisseurship?

Sunday 19 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Conservatory, Barbican Creative Conundrums

Connoisseurship is a slippery concept, but in simple terms a connoisseur is an expert judge. In the field of art, it means particularly the ability to distinguish the work of different artists, but can include knowledge of the physical characteristics of works of art (technique, condition, restoration), and their place in art history (period, style, school). The term was first used widely in the eighteenth century, often as a term of derision against new ‘experts’ who were usurping the traditional authority of artists to judge each other’s work.

Today, controversy about the relevance of connoisseurship persists. Regarded by many as elitist, there is often a cultural divide rather than a debate about the issue, with the two sides rarely engaging directly. Museums and art galleries tell you who painted the pictures on their walls, but they rarely explain issues central to connoisseurship - such as condition and style. Academic art history has tended to reject connoisseurship, with a turn towards theory and social history. Connoisseurship only really thrives in commercial art, and many of the most sensitive connoisseurs are in the art trade.

Has the connoisseur has his day and, if so, who can help us judge fine art? Is the question of judgement really just down to us, how we feel about a picture? Do we lose something by not turning a connoisseurial ‘eye’ on art? Can anyone be a connoisseur? What makes connoisseurship a worthwhile approach to studying art?

Martin Kemp
emeritus professor, University of Oxford; broadcaster; author, Christ to Coke: how image becomes icon

Dr Martin Myrone
lead curator, Pre-1800 British Art, Tate Britain

Dr Michael Savage
blogger, Grumpy Art Historian

Sarah Wilson
professor, History of Modern and Contemporary Art, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Produced by
Angus Kennedy convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination
Recommended readings
Not in my name

Curmudgeonly criticism, mostly about art.

Michael Savage, Grumpy Art Historian, 9 June 2014

The case for old-fashioned connoisseurship

The stifling of expert opinions is like having fully trained doctors who can’t make a diagnosis

Bendor Grosvenor, Art Newspaper, 5 June 2014

Why connoisseurship matters Bendor Grosvenor, Art History News, 5 June 2014

The Mark of a Masterpiece

The man who keeps finding famous fingerprints on uncelebrated works of art.

David Grann, New Yorker, 12 July 2010

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