Art History For Dummies
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There have been many gifted and sharp-eyed curators (keepers and protectors) in the 129-year history of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art — hundreds of them, experts in fields as diverse as ancient Egypt, Arms and Armor, and Prints, Drawing, and Photographs.

Line up the letters designating the advanced degrees held by the curators who worked at the Metropolitan over the years — those M.A.s, M.F.A.s, and Ph.D.s — and they'd stretch from Maine to Oregon. Yet, the single most accomplished curator in the history of the grand institution had no advanced degree and was self-taught in art history. He was, for most of his life, a stockbroker. His name was William Ivins, and he was responsible for establishing the all-encompassing Prints collection. He was perhaps the most legendary "eye" or connoisseur in the history of the Metropolitan.

What is an "eye?" Simply, someone who can instantly spot quality in art in all its subtle gradations. How did Bill Ivins become such a special "eye?" First, he had the urge to know about art, and second, he possessed an inborn talent for appreciating art, which he may not have recognized for some years. But he needed more than that. He recognized he'd never be able to appreciate art in the right way if he didn't get saturated.

The bottom line of connoisseurship and art appreciation is saturation — seeing it all. Ivins immersed himself in prints, tens of thousands of them of all kinds and levels of quality. Soon, he was cataloging in his keen mind every unique quality — the strokes of genius and the glitches, too.

If you examine every one of the thousands of existing prints of Rembrandt van Rijn — those in great condition, the messed up ones, the genuine articles, the copies and fakes — in a shorter time than you think, you'll be able to recognize quality. Ivins did, just by opening his eyes and looking.

Distinguishing the good from the bad

If you keenly examine every painting, sketch, or drawing by that grand Flemish master of the 17th century, Peter Paul Rubens — there are hundreds — you'll be able to distinguish yards away which one is real and which is questionable.

If you saturate yourself in absolutely everything Claude Monet ever painted, no matter if that painting is hanging in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, in the Getty in Los Angeles, or in the bedroom of some wealthy private collector on Park Avenue, you'll become an expert in Monet. After a total immersion, you'll be able to spot a top piece — or a phony — 100 feet away.

You don't have to start at such heights. If you saturate yourself starting with those ceramic green frogs or clowns on black velvet, you'll soon gravitate to something better and better, and before you know it, you'll be blissfully soaking up Rembrandt prints, or Monet paintings, or drawings by Peter Paul Rubens. Gravitating upward is the normal process — it's all but automatic with the passage of time.

Examining the real thing

Book learning and attending countless lectures by the best art professors and scholars may help sharpen your eye. But they won't equal a gradual and complete saturation. When you look at works of art, grill them as though they were living human beings. Ask questions. Why is something this way, and something else that way? Peel the work of art like an onion with your eyes. Interrogate it.

For example, a certain piece had been given to the Metropolitan in the early 1930s by a wealthy industrialist who'd specialized in collecting medieval reliquaries. Finger reliquaries are the rarest of the rare — and ones embellished with emeralds were unique. This object was stunning and very costly, but it was not 13th century. It was a fraud. To find out something like this, you might ask questions like the following:

  • Why can't the emerald ring be removed? That was a bad sign, for no genuine finger reliquary would ever be adorned, when it was made, with such a secular ornament. Rings were always added later in homage to the saint whose finger bone was preserved in the finger.
  • Why were there three small silver hallmarks on one of the feet? The problem was that they were typical export marks only applied to gold, not silver, and during the 18th, not the 13th, century, in France, not Germany.
  • Why was the black material making up the inscription (which happened to be unreadable, by the way) actually made of common tar? The material should be a hard jet-black enamel (called niello).
The problematical answers to the questions all summed up to the reliquary being a fake, made, no doubt, to trap the rich collector who had to pay dearly because, naturally, the emerald was real. In time, through saturation, art connoisseurs can conduct their own interrogations and find whatever inconsistencies existed. You can't learn how to do this by reading books or attending seminars.

Keeping your eye in tune

It doesn't matter how you go about gorging yourself. To see originals is vital, but photographs can keep your eye constantly trained. One of the keenest great, late art dealers never went to sleep without poring through dozens of photographs of a wide variety of works, keeping his eye in tune.

Saturation means not only examining all the originals of the artist or period. It also means a judicial reading of the scholarly literature and picking through specialist magazines. But the bottom line is looking, looking, and more looking. Looking will transform a totally untrained person with a keen mind and good vision (for it helps a lot to have great eyesight or polished glasses) into a superior art expert. And the beauty is that anyone can do it with a little obsession and a little time.

The bottom line is never pass up the opportunity to look hard at any work of art (even those frogs), and pass your fingers over its surface (if you're allowed), and ask a bunch of sharp questions. You will invariably discover something revealing and profound.

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