By Maryan W. Ainsworth

Anyone interested in the early development of connoisseurship will find detailed historical accounts in the excellent volume Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage (Getty Publications, 1996). In this anthology, one can follow the issues and the chief players in this admittedly subjective field of study that, nonetheless, is the foundation of object-based art history. Yet, it is undeniable that connoisseurship has gotten a bad name over the years. This is partly due to the conflict of interest that can develop in relationships between curators and dealers (the names Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen readily come to mind), the undeniable connection of monetary value with attribution, and the inexact science of it all. Perhaps most perplexing is the seeming exclusivity of connoisseurship, fed by the notion that some have "an eye" (often touted as an inborn trait) and others do not.

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The development over the last century of the scientific examination of works of art has completely altered the way that we evaluate objects. Employing an increasingly wide range of analytical tools, researchers from the fields of art history, conservation, and conservation science are demonstrating the value of working together in an interdisciplinary manner. Originally simply called "technical studies," these collaborative efforts now compose a burgeoning field of study called technical art history.

Early Developments

Just when Berenson was gaining both renown as a connoisseur and personal wealth by advising, among others, Isabella Stewart Gardner in her purchases for her famous Boston villa, Edward Forbes was promoting the new field of technical studies nearby at Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum. With great foresight in 1920, Forbes—then the Fogg's director—articulated his vision for the future: ''I hope that some day a technical school may be established, perhaps at Harvard, where painters, restorers, and museum officials may learn about the chemistry of paintings and the care of them, on truly scientific principles." In 1928 he established at the Fogg the first department for conservation research in the United States, hiring George L. Stout as the head of the department and Rutherford J. Gettens as chemist and fellow for technical research. In 1931 this unit officially became the Department for Conservation and Technical Research, and it is today known as the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. Calling attention to investigations of the materials and techniques of art, as well as to issues of origin and manufacture, the Fogg's journal, Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts, which first appeared in 1932, helped establish conservation science as a new academic discipline in the United States.

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Concurrently at Yale University, Professor Daniel V. Thompson was providing translations of the early sources about the technique of painters—initially with the 15th-century Craftsman's Handbook ''Il Libro dell'Arte" by Cennino Cennini, which appeared in 1933, dedicated to Edward Forbes. Thompson followed this in 1936 with The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, which, in its 1956 Dover edition, carried a forward by Bernard Berenson, then a venerable old man. Berenson admitted there: ''I regard all questions of technique as ancillary to the aesthetic experience. Human energy is limited, or at least mine is; but if I had greatly more, there is nothing about all the ancillary aids to the understanding of a work of art that I should not try to master." Somewhat begrudgingly, he finally acknowledged the importance of understanding the technique of the painters about whose works he so readily gave pronouncements.

Slowly, new scientific techniques—especially X-radiography, applied through the efforts of Alan Burroughs of the Fogg at a number of American museums—began to play a more significant role. The resulting studies, which provided a real impetus for art historians and curators to work more closely with conservators and scientists, are still consulted for their observations; they formed the foundations of our knowledge in certain fields of study. In my area of concentration, northern Renaissance painting, key studies include scientist Paul Coremans's 1953 volume on Jan van Eyck's Ghent altarpiece, L'Agneau Mystique au laboratoire: Examen et traitement, one of the early publications of the ongoing series of technical studies of early Netherlandish painting from Brussels's Centre National de Recherches, ''Primitifs Flamands" (as it was initially called). Equally influential on the field (but mainly after it was published some 20 years later in a 1976 issue of the Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek) was Johannes Taubert's art history dissertation for Marburg University (''Beobachtungen zum schöpferischen Arbeitsprozess bei einigen altniederländischen Malern"). Taubert's dissertation was among the first discussions of the interpretive value of underdrawings for connoisseurship questions in early Netherlandish paintings. Therein lay the seeds of Dutch physicist J. R. J. van Asperen de Boer's interest in harnessing infrared technology (then used for military surveillance purposes) to serve the study of underdrawings in panel paintings.

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Since van Asperen de Boer first developed infrared reflectography in the 1970s, there have been enormous advances both in new equipment and in technology, and in the publication of the results of these studies. In the mid-1980s came the development of dendrochronology for the dating of wood panels, mainly through the efforts of Peter Klein, wood biologist at the University of Hamburg. A little earlier, in 1976, the Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek devoted a volume to the ''Scientific Examination of Early Netherlandish Painting: Applications in Art History," which laid out the basic scientific tools available for providing new information for art historians to use in their assessments of the paintings of northern artists. It included models of interpretive studies for artists such as Jan van Scorel, Cornelis Engebrechtsz, Lucas van Leyden, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The 2003 volume Recent Developments in the Technical Examination of Early Netherlandish Painting: Methodology, Limitations, and Perspectives (edited by Molly Faries and Ron Spronk), provides an up-to-date evaluation of the enormous debt owed to new technical investigations of studies in early Netherlandish painting. The oeuvres of individual artists are still being redefined, and great strides continue to be made in our understanding of the workshop practices of these painters.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration

From the early days of Edward Forbes at the Fogg Art Museum, cooperation or collaboration between conservators and museum curators advanced cautiously without a clear modus operandi for interdisciplinary investigations until the 1970s. In 1972 the National Gallery in London began to publish the National Gallery Technical Bulletin, which has shown a steady increase in the exemplary collaboration of the gallery's curators, scientists, and conservators for the study of paintings. Greater impetus for building the conservator-curator relationship in the United States came with the 1975 appointment of John Brealey as the chairman of the Paintings Conservation Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A garrulous man and a gifted orator, Brealey was passionate about every aspect of painting. He took it upon himself, in crusade-like fashion, to educate art historians about the physical characteristics of paintings and the profession of conservation. He began with graduate art history students at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts; the Met's galleries were his classrooms.


By the early 1980s, Brealey realized that while it was important to teach predoctoral students, a more immediate need existed among those already in curatorial positions in major museums across the country. To address this need, he set up weeklong intensive seminars for museum curators and directors. These were held in the Paintings Conservation Department of the museum and were taught by Brealey and his entire staff. The invitation to join one of these seminars was much sought after, and those fortunate to attend still tell of their impact. Chief among the lessons was learning the language to use in discussing a painting's state and condition with conservators. The results of new and more effective communication between curators and conservators were manifest particularly in one aspect of the curator's job—that of acquisitions. Auction houses and private dealers soon discontinued the routine practice of cleaning paintings before their sale, instead leaving them for the careful consideration of the buyer's own conservator. Today better-educated and discerning buyers increasingly resist acquiring works in poor condition, even those by important artists.

Brealey was also a great proponent of interdisciplinary study and research, and he supported two research projects in technical art history. With the Met's research scientist, Pieter Meyers, and the then curator of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painting, Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, Brealey initiated a study of the museum's Rembrandt paintings using neutron activation autoradiography. Hired as the principal investigator for this three-year project, I quickly learned that this confluence of different disciplines and new technologies could not be learned from books. Nothing in my art history graduate study at Yale had prepared me for this. It was strictly on-the-job training—a component, I came to understand, of any interdisciplinary project involving curators, conservators, and conservation scientists. By the time we had completed the Rembrandt study and published its results in 1982, Brealey had decided that the interdisciplinary approach was indispensable for the study of paintings. He added a research scientist to the Met's Paintings Conservation Department, as well as an art historian. In the latter position, I took up the research of the Museum's early Netherlandish paintings with van Asperen de Boer's newly developed technique of infrared reflectography. The conservators, the scientist, and I all took on interns to train, thereby spreading the department's interdisciplinary approach. Today many graduates of this program head conservation departments in American museums—including the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Seattle Art Museum, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. At least 15 former art historian interns have taken up positions as curators in museums and as professors of art history in the United States and abroad. Departments of scientific research sprang up at the Getty Conservation Institute, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., under René de la Rie, and most recently again at the Metropolitan Museum of Art under Marco Leona. The enlightened view and support offered to scientific research by the Mellon Foundation, in particular by Angelica Zander Rudenstine, has been pivotal for new developments in instrumentation and techniques, treatment methods, and museum environment research.

Although it is the conservators and scientists who have the knowledge and skills to provide new technical information that can alter interpretations in art history, their day-to-day duties seldom permit them to devote time to in-depth research. Special projects, such as the preparation of the scholarly catalogues of a collection, offer such an opportunity, as do reinstallations—like that of the Gubbio Studiolo at the Metropolitan Museum—that involve the close physical examination of the components of a room, their treatment over the years, their original placement, and questions of authenticity. The joint study of the Gubbio Studiolo by curator Olga Raggio and conservator Antoine Wilmering led to its reconstruction and installation. The arrangement of the paintings of the Liberal Arts by Joos van Wassenhove and Pedro Berruguete in the Studiolo, however, has been challenged by Lorne Campbell, research curator at the National Gallery in London, on the basis of inconsistencies he sees in the coordination of real and faux architectural details and the placement of the intarsias (mosaic inlaid elements in wood). This lively debate continues, demonstrating that it is not just the technical information per se but also the interpretation of it that are open for discussion.

The recent reconsideration of the early Italian Renaissance paintings collection at the Yale University Art Gallery, including the Jarves Collection (acquired by Yale in 1971), became the focus of two paintings conservation departments—one at Yale and the other at the Getty—in a collaboration to study and define treatments for the panels. This collaboration involved curators, conservators, and conservation scientists in the reexamination of every aspect of the materials, technique, execution, and current condition of numerous early paintings. The recently published volume of essays, Early Italian Paintings: Approaches to Conservation: Proceedings of a Symposium at the Yale University Art Gallery, April 2002 (edited by Patricia Sherwin Garland), should be required reading for all students of Italian painting and for those interested in the history and care of a collection.

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Representative of the interdisciplinary and collaborative study of paintings are several projects concerning Rembrandt. The Rembrandt Research Project was begun in 1968 by a group of art historians, all with the same background and training. As the project evolved, Ernst van de Wetering took the helm and changed the makeup of the group to a truly interdisciplinary one, with specialists from different fields, including conservation science. The involvement of diverse specialists invigorated the project and enabled more authoritative conclusions that led to changes of mind on questions of attribution and dating, as well as an important reconsideration of Rembrandt's workshop procedures. In 1988-89 Rembrandt was also the subject of one of the National Gallery in London's exemplary interdisciplinary exhibitions and publications in the series of Art in the Making. Here the individual entries do not carry the name of one author but are the product of group discussions, writing, and editing by curators, scientists, and conservators. Such consensus is not always the case; in the Metropolitan Museum's 1995 exhibition Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt, the collaboration of conservator and curator ultimately produced two separate volumes representing disparate views.

In the Modern field, there has been increased dialogue between conservators and curators about artists' working procedures, including those of Gauguin, van Gogh, and Mondrian. Just as important are interdisciplinary discussions regarding the preservation of the works of Modern artists such as Eva Hesse, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. It remains baffling to me why this kind of in-depth discussion between conservators and curators has not routinely become part of the apparatus of a catalogue raisonné or of any monographic exhibition.

Personal Viewpoints, Thoughts about Paintings Conservation (edited by Mark Leonard and published in 2003 by the GCI), offers papers and discussions from a June 2001 seminar of conservators, museum scientists, and curators held at the Getty Museum. The seminar was a welcome initiative in establishing the importance of communication among the fields as a standard, ongoing modus operandi. Such meetings, of course, don't occur without the financial support of a foundation or institution. In the past 20 years or so, the College Art Association (CAA) and the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) have offered a number of sessions that have highlighted projects and studies featuring collaborative work. An incentive for carrying out these investigations has been offered by the CAA, which yearly acknowledges achievement in this area through its CAA/NIC Joint Award for Distinction in Scholarship and Conservation. The number of worthy candidates for this award remains small, indicating the paucity of ongoing collaborative projects in conservation and art history/curatorship.

Such initiatives have been fostered since 1996 through the Kress Paired Fellowships for Research in Conservation and the History of Art and Archaeology, offered by the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery in Washington. In 2000 an additional application was made to the Getty Trust for a three-year cycle of fellowships. Although the Kress fellowships limit the fields of research to Western art up to the early 19th century, the Getty grant allows fellows to pursue research in any branch of art history or archaeology, regardless of field, period, or culture. This exciting (but as yet underutilized opportunity) has enabled new collaborative research on a wide range of topics, from wall paintings along the Silk Road of China, to Renaissance bronze statues, to the history and technology of Renaissance and Baroque hand-colored prints. The benefits reaped from these paired fellowships are not restricted to new findings but encompass the refinement of the very methodologies employed. Support for such groundbreaking studies must continue.

Fostering Communication

How can we encourage closer communication among conservators, conservation scientists, and curators?

First, we need better education at an earlier stage about what these specialists do and about the enormous interpretative value of technical investigations of art. I have often thought that the elective course I teach on technical art history for senior art history majors at Barnard and Columbia colleges ought not only to be required but also offered earlier than the senior year. With the diverse approaches today to the study of art history in colleges and universities, I fear that firsthand investigations of art objects lag behind.

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For graduate students, there is an even greater need for a course in technical art history. The Institute of Fine Arts in New York is one of the few places where graduate art history students are required to take a course in the practice of conservation and conservation science, and the conservators must achieve a master's degree in art history. The effect of the lack of these offerings elsewhere is apparent when we consider applicants for curatorial positions in our museums. Too many applicants have little or no firsthand experience with objects, and they are unaware of judgment calls on the state and condition of works; they may not even know how to talk with conservators about these issues. We need more opportunities for internships at the graduate level in order for students to gain intimate knowledge of interdisciplinary, collaborative work. Since the early 1980s, I have offered an interdisciplinary internship for graduate art history students. It aims to teach an approach that marries the fields of conservation, scientific investigation, and art history. Identifying funding for this ongoing internship is not always easy; supporting new acquisitions, galleries, or exhibitions is a far more high-profile investment for interested donors. Yet the rewards of such an internship program are readily measured. These interns have found important curatorial positions in this country and abroad, where their unique experiences and training have made them stand out from other applicants and have afforded them a more mutually satisfying curator-conservator relationship from the outset.

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Second, we need more opportunities for collaborative study in our museums. Directors must recognize the extraordinary benefit of projects among their curators, conservation scientists, and conservators. Such projects could be part of the yearly objectives of staff members. For those who are unfamiliar with how such investigations work, there should be demonstrations as part of staff training. New curators should become acquainted with the appropriate conservators at the earliest possible moment, in order to begin working in collaboration. This partnership should lead to more opportunities in museums and educational institutions for discussions, interactions, and forums.

Third, institutions should take a more aggressive lead in publishing the results of joint projects in art history and conservation. Despite the great number of art books published yearly in this country, very few deal directly with questions of technical art history. The Belgium publisher Brepols stands out as being notably adventurous in this regard. The Me Fecit series, of which I am the editor, is dedicated to the technical investigation of the works of one artist's oeuvre or of one work, either by a single author or by a group of authors. We need greater recognition at other publishing houses that this topic is essential for the future development of curatorial and conservation work. More publications in this area will provide greater access to information for those who are not part of a museum setting—that is, colleagues in universities and colleges, both students and their professors.

Great strides have been made in the relationship between the conservator and the curator since Edward Forbes first articulated his desire for interdisciplinary, collaborative work. But this mutually beneficial association must be supported and developed in order to maintain momentum toward new discoveries about art and artists. Technical art history—an enhanced and more scientific connoisseurship—provides the foundation for our appreciation and understanding of human artistic endeavor.

Maryan W. Ainsworth is curator of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.