A couple of years ago I was bemoaning to a colleague that, while I see a lot of really good, solid work, it is becoming less and less frequent that a photograph or series wows me. I told her, quite honestly, that I was worried that I was becoming a snob. My colleague, a woman who began her career in the 1970s and worked with such luminaries as André Kertész and Jacques-Henri Lartigue, replied emphatically, “Darling! You’re not a snob—you’ve become a connoisseur!”
While many perceive a connoisseur as an “arbiter of taste” and stalwart academics think of them more as aesthetes, the term, for me, has taken on a quality that hints of authority. By this I mean that connoisseurship can refer to someone’s understanding of the physical object, in that they have first hand knowledge of the artist’s (or atelier’s) creations. Whether it’s photographs or paintings, fine or decorative, craft, couture or mass-manufactured, collectible objects have a physical life and a connoisseur is often familiar with particulars beyond image, title and date, such as techniques the artist implemented, their evolution of process, the nuances of aging, and/or the specifics of attribution (e.g., signature styles, usual provenance, etc.).
It was only recently that I started to think about the different definitions we have for the term connoisseur. It began in the course of conversation with an editor of art history books; both scholarly and mass market publications. Smart, articulate and exceptionally well read, he had recently completed the appraisal studies program and had started working with a senior appraiser of Old Masters. When I asked about his exposure to early 14th to early 19th century artworks, he replied that he had edited a number of books about several Old Master painters. After a bit more prodding, it became clear that connoisseurship for him meant an intellectual understanding of an artist’s production and creative evolution, versus extensive and regular examination of and exposure to the paintings themselves.
It’s a living language; definitions evolve over time and connotations proliferate. Some may consider connoisseurship to be reflective of an amateur with a keen interest and a collection of anecdotal tidbits. I disagree. To my mind, the true understanding of any artwork is not just its image and data details, but also its physicality and history.