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The American Leonardo: A Tale of Obsession, Art and Money

av John Brewer

MedlemmarRecensionerPopularitetGenomsnittligt betygOmnämnanden
561368,102 (3.5)1
In 1919 a returning World War I veteran named Harry Hahn and his French bride attempted to sell what they thought was a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci in New York. Renowned art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen declared the picture-La Belle Ferronni#65533;re-a fake without ever seeing the canvas. The Hahns sued Duveen for slander, setting off a legal battle that would last for decades. In The American Leonardo, John Brewer traces the twisting path of the Hahn La Belle-a painting of famously uncertain origin--as he illuminates the workings of the twentieth-century art market, exploring such larger questions about the art world such as how attributions are made, how they affect both the status and value of artworks, and how the entire system of art dealers, curators, and connoisseurs authenticates works of art. In the early twentieth century new methods of scientific analysis developed, which meant that for the first time, the critical eye of the connoisseur had to contend with an emerging array of scientific and forensic tests that (however crude at their inception) promised a degree of objectivity and reliability unattainable before. Brewer shows how the tension between the two methods of attribution lay at the heart of the Hahn La Belle dispute, which continues to this day. The painting currently languishes in an Omaha storage vault awaiting the resolution of the most recent lawsuit. For artists and art-lovers, collectors and curators--and for anyone who's ever stood in front of a painting and wondered about its story--The American Leonardo offers a discerning and entertaining view into the art world.… (mer)
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When the legendary dealer and confidante of connoisseurs, Joseph Duveen (fig 2) declared a painting of the woman known as La Belle Ferronnière a copy (fig. 1), after seeing a photograph, he found himself sued by Mrs Andrée Lardoux Hahn, the owner of the picture. The case was eventually settled with Duveen paying $60,000, something like $650, 000 today. The trail in 1929 fielded a formidable team of connoisseurs, including the most famous of all, Bernard Berenson (fig.3). Yet, to no avail as the presiding magistrate, Judge William Harman Black, dismissed all the expertise of the connoisseurs as inadmissible; and Black demanded much more rigorous methods to prove the ability to determine the authorship of paintings. Enter science, particularly x-rays to make connoisseurship transparent to a lay public. Brewer’s account of the famous trial of Hahn v Duveen and its consequences demands to be read by anybody- within or without the profession- interested in the machinations of the Old Master market. Not only does the author place the trial within the context of art history, but also within the culture of modern American capitalism. As he reminds us at the start of the book, this was the age of conspicuous consumption: a tine during which wealthy Americans chased valuable works of art, the sort of milieu described in the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James. In the scramble for worldly goods, modern wealth became linked to high culture; the renaissance, which was seen as the epitome of this, was co-opted by dealers and financiers; while with the growth of the public sphere and modern communications powered by capital, the American public shared in the debates about art covered by the modern press.

1.La Belle Ferronnière, Private Collection, USA,

In one of the most important parts of the book, Brewer dissects the “culture of connoisseurship.” Identifying two types of “scientific connoisseurship”: firstly, the type that depends upon a barrage of technology such as X-rays, infra-red, microscopy etc which is common to us today; secondly, the connoisseurship of the nineteenth-century organised around systems and hierarchies, sub-divisions of schools following a taxonomy borrowed from the life sciences. It was this latter type of connoisseurship that found itself unwittingly on trial since its Morellian methodology was seen as kind of “magic” by Judge Black. Berenson’s “magic”, which to use Brewer’s words was “a subjective technique dependant on the eye”, could not be verified objectively; a way of scientizing attributions was therefore demanded. As Brewer amusingly puts it, Berenson and the connoisseurs were eye rather X-ray. It was ok to detect the ghost in the machine by technological devices, but not by what was perceived as the mysticism of the experts. Introducing technology into the trial, as well as the forensic skills of the Hahn’s lawyers, helped to undermine the consensus of connoisseurs. Not that you need a lawyer to break a consensus; James Beck showed how fragile such groups are in his discussion of the Madonna of the Pinks, incidentally mentioned by Brewer in his introduction.

2. Joseph Duveen visits the races..

There have been many consequences arising from the Hahn v Duveen trial. For one thing, here we have the uninformed owner of art going head to head with the experts, usually with the objective of financially benefitting from it. This may have been an intention of the Hahns, although they were almost certainly goaded by Duveen’s arrogance and contempt for the non-expert. He pronounced their picture a copy, though he shot himself in the foot by saying that the Louvre version was not by Leonardo, but somebody “close to his hand-possibly it was painted by Boltraffio.” The pressing of science on the trail came out of this; it was a way of democratising the culture of connoisseurship. However, Duveen didn’t completely renounce technology; after being sued, he called for more photographs of the Hahn La Belle, since he had little faith in his pre-trail experts; Valentiner was too young; de Ricci knew more about manuscripts than painting, Duveen sent large photographs of the painting to more established experts in Europe like Sir Charles Holmes (former editor of The Burlington Magazine), Roger Fry, part of the Bloomsbury set and former curator at the Met in New York, Sir Claude Philips, retired keeper of the Wallace Collection. Photographs would prove problematic however to Duveen since they would be challenged as evidence in court.- technology can be a double-edged sword. Eventually the Hahn picture and its more famous Louvre variant would be examined side by side behind closed doors by an assembly of curators, connoisseurs and lawyers in 1923, which presages another trend in the modern art world- the appearance of disputed art works in litigation.

3.Bernhardt Berenson inspects a painting.

One of the main threads running through this account is the relationship between science and art. The rift between scientific connoisseurship and traditional connoisseurship is wide, and really shows no signs of narrowing at the present time, with good reason. Despite the hoped for Holy Grail of objective scientific testing, such procedures cannot validate attributions on their own. In a thoughtful afterword, Brewer calls on a method that incorporates both objective scientific testing and the subjective techniques of the eye, a harmonised methodology suggested by someone who was a conservator, and the “father of cleaning pictures” in the U.K., Helmut Ruhemann. I recall that in an essay on Berenson, Sydney J. Freedberg called the intuition of the connoisseur “computerlike in its swiftness” since the connoisseur enters data into his memory bank, retrieves, process and analyses this visual information as he looks at the work of art; but all of these computer-like operations demand an aesthetic sense and eye for characteristics in a painting, such as colour, form, gradation of light etc. Ideally, a connoisseur “machine”, calibrated halfway between objective examination and aesthetic subjectivism confronting the work of art. Is it possible to have such a model for connoisseurship in our own time? Retaining the computer analogy, I’m not sure that you could programme one to take account of all the historical, visual, art historical data, complete with stylistic and local variations. “Scientific connoisseurship” is such a slippery concept anyway; Berenson thought what he did was “scientific”, “the isolation of the characteristics of the known and their confrontation with the unknown” as he said in “The Rudiments of Connoisseurship.” That didn’t cut any ice with the formidable Judge Black, who must have believed Berenson’s authenticating method was difficult, if not impossible to substantiate with concrete evidence. Black saw it as smoke and mirrors. Maybe someone should have explained to him that the trick is to strike a balance between analysis based on accumulated knowledge and an empirical means of testing art in the present. There are signs of this in our own time, but as Brewer says, we still have a very long way to go.

The kind of modified Morellian connoisseurship that Berenson practiced can have its disadvantages, since it can encourage a “checklist” mentality, something that aristocratic connoisseurs and museum directors like the formidable Wilhelm von Bode, condemned. Von Bode also hated Morellian connoisseurship because it threatened to make connoisseurship available to all; the last thing he wanted was his Berlin museums to be filled with crowds pronouncing on Botticellis and Raphaels, aided by manuals of “mechanical connoisseurship.” All one had to do was draw up a catalogue of physiognomic details, hands, eyes, ears, memorably called by Charles Eliot Norton, Berenson’s teacher at Harvard, “the ear and toe-nail school.” One of the worst examples of this DIY connoisseurship was the “fakebuster” and friend of Ruhemann, Maurits van Dantzig, who helped to detect the master forger Van Meegeren. Van Dantzig found art history unaccommodating when he introduced his method of “pictology,” a technique derived from graphology and psychological testing. Interestingly, Van Dantzig’s methodology developed out of his use of psychologically profiling employees in his company. Just like F.B.I. profiling, the data was used to build up a picture of an individual; the same principle was applied to hunt down the artist within the work. Pictology might be termed a blend of science and aesthetics that announced it could identify the painter through a worksheet of “characteristics”- van Dantzig claimed over 70 in a Leonardo painting! Inevitably, as Brewer recounts in his chapter on Ruhemann and van Dantzig, the latter ran foul of art historians, not just for his mechanistic connoisseurship, but because of his contentious personality. Van Dantzig significance to the Hahn La Belle was that he tried to use it in his war against art historians, while the more placid Ruhemann tried to get on with them; he could boast Philip Hendy, a director of the National Gallery who actually saw the Hahn La Belle in London, amongst his friends.

4.Guardian photo showing crowds outside the current Leonardo exhibition.

Perhaps the most admirable thing about John Brewer’s book is the way it deftly interweaves these debates about connoisseurship with the expansion of the public sphere in modern times. No one can doubt that connoisseurship now occurs in a mass society underpinned by high speed communications and mediatized experience, available to all. Today even leading curators make decisions in the blink of an eye influenced by this electronic matrix; just seeing a sent photograph via e.mail or the web can trigger an acquisition. The internet has exploded art out into cyberspace where most developments in the art world can be discovered, if you know where to look.

The Hahn trial was sensationalized by the New York newspapers and thus involved the public vicariously. At the time of the Hahn trial, scientific connoisseurship stood for a common-sense allied against the collective snobbery of the experts; this seems to have continued into our time with such cases as the Jackson Pollock woman who battled the Manhattan elite and much more recently, David Joel, who went up against the mighty Wildenstein Foundation in an episode of the BBC’s Fake or Fortune?

I wrote this post on connoisseurship and the public after visiting an exhibition of renaissance drawings last year, not heavily crowded, though more people in attendance than usual. I’m not sure what I would have written if I’d done it after visiting the Leonardo blockbuster (fig.4), which is breaking all the records for public museum-going- truly a phenomenon of our times. Art in major museums has become big business; exhibitions have turned into commodities and the painter a brand to be sold and consumed, for better or worse. The public has become more aware of all the debates through high gloss catalogues, TV and the internet, and in cases is even engaging via the web, or letters to newspapers.

Where does this leave the connoisseur practicing his or her method in this age of mass consumerism? Wilhelm von Bode must be turning in his grave. Connoisseurship has become popularized by the net, newspapers and television programmes, a development whose seeds may have been planted in the Hahn era where the clouds of mystique were dispersed by democratic scientific connoisseurship demanded by a couple who felt that the the old style of art evaluation was an elitist scam.

5.Hahn La Belle (left); Louvre La Belle, as they appeared in Harry Hahn’s The Rape of La Belle (1946).

The public may never get the chance to see the Hahn La Belle as it resides in a private collection- it was sold at Sotheby’s last year for $1.3 miillion, three times above its pre-sale reserve. Before that the lady resided in splendid isolation at an address in Omaha that Brewer was not allowed legally to disclose. Despite attempts by the Hahns and their supporters to gain the approval of such august personages as Kenneth Clark, it has remained hidden from the public. In 1993 the U.K.’s leading Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp studied it in Omaha, pronounced it a 17th century copy but interestingly said it was more “seductive” than the one deemed authentic, now in the Leonardo show. Looking at the colour reproduction of her (fig 1), as well as this b/w image (fig. 5)- obtained from this site which has good material on the case- which was reproduced in Harry Hahn’s 1946 book about the painting, The Rape of La Belle, I can see what Kemp means. The Hahn lady looks more alluring… Even if this is a copy, I much prefer to it to its more well-known, colder and lifeless twin, not just my opinion, but other art historians. Another important point made by Brewer is that although no one has proved the Hahn La Belle is a Leonardo “at least to the satisfaction of most experts”, nobody has proved it is not. It seems to function as a symbol of the ambiguity of connoisseurship and art history, indeterminate, midway between an original and a copy.

This book is a fine addition to the literature on the history of connoisseurship, especially as it extends that topic out into the era of modern capitalism and the culture industry. Imagine Leonardo in Hollywood, and I don’t mean Leonardo DiCaprio! John Brewer has made a timely and valuable contribution; he deserves to read by anybody interested in the relationship of art and modern society. The chapter on the “cult of connoisseurship” is one of the best summaries of the subject that I've ever read. Highly recommended.

This review originally appeared on my web site Art History Today- go to that for the images.http://artintheblood.typepad.com/art_history_today/2011/12/connoisseurship-on-trail-book-review-john-brewer-the-american-leonardo-a-twentieth-century-tale-of-obsession-art-and-mon.html ( )
  ArtHistoryToday1 | Jan 20, 2012 |
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In 1919 a returning World War I veteran named Harry Hahn and his French bride attempted to sell what they thought was a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci in New York. Renowned art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen declared the picture-La Belle Ferronni#65533;re-a fake without ever seeing the canvas. The Hahns sued Duveen for slander, setting off a legal battle that would last for decades. In The American Leonardo, John Brewer traces the twisting path of the Hahn La Belle-a painting of famously uncertain origin--as he illuminates the workings of the twentieth-century art market, exploring such larger questions about the art world such as how attributions are made, how they affect both the status and value of artworks, and how the entire system of art dealers, curators, and connoisseurs authenticates works of art. In the early twentieth century new methods of scientific analysis developed, which meant that for the first time, the critical eye of the connoisseur had to contend with an emerging array of scientific and forensic tests that (however crude at their inception) promised a degree of objectivity and reliability unattainable before. Brewer shows how the tension between the two methods of attribution lay at the heart of the Hahn La Belle dispute, which continues to this day. The painting currently languishes in an Omaha storage vault awaiting the resolution of the most recent lawsuit. For artists and art-lovers, collectors and curators--and for anyone who's ever stood in front of a painting and wondered about its story--The American Leonardo offers a discerning and entertaining view into the art world.

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