Gary Schwartz’s Scrupulous Art History

Self-Portrait in a Cap, Wide-Eyed and Open-Mouthed, by Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1630 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Self-Portrait in a Cap, Wide-Eyed and Open-Mouthed, by Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1630 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Gary Schwartz, a Brooklyn-born resident of Holland, is an independent scholar who writes about Dutch art. He is the author of a classic book on Rembrandt. Long ago when I reviewed his book on Pieter Saenredam, I was fascinated by his account. Not flashy, and certainly not in fashion, he deals with the central issues in a decisive, honest way. To properly understand his splendid new book, Rembrandt in a Red Beret: The vanishings and reappearances of a self-portrait (W Books, 2023), it’s useful to begin by discussing art attributions in a general way.

Connoisseurship, the study of attributions, is the essential basis of art history. Until we reliably know what works were made by an artist, we cannot reliably reconstruct her or his career. Often, of course, major artworks are stolen, damaged or tampered with. And as the pigments age, and when pictures are restored, often changes occur. Often, then, the connoisseur has to take into account these changes in making attributions.

Forgeries are a real problem for connoisseurs. Small differences, which may be initially difficult to detect, between two pictures, good forgery and original, may ultimately be of great importance. The philosopher Nelson Goodman has offered the key argument. Even if today you cannot tell the difference between the original picture and a forgery, knowing that there is a difference will inspire further looking. (Goodman, it’s worth knowing, was a former art dealer and a collector.) What’s philosophically complicated about doing attributions is the ways that your beliefs enter into this process. If you want to believe that a picture is by Rembrandt, rhen you probably will see the picture differently than if you think it a forgery. And, to further complicate the situation, if your concept of a genuine Rembrandt depends in part upon accepting some mistaken attributions, then your present judgment will be biased.

Attributions are exercises in inductive reasoning. One crucial concern is how much variety we attribute to an artist. Knowing many genuine Rembrandts, we consider adding another to his oeuvre. The goal of connoisseurship is thus to trace development. When an artist is young, or old, or experimenting, perhaps her or his works will vary in surprising ways. Ultimately what’s demanded in the marketplace is a decisive solution- this is, or is not, a Rembrandt. In this situation expression of doubt is out of place. Connoisseurship has an uneasy relationship with the market economy. In general, while a work by a famous ‘name artist’ like Rembrandt is very valuable, a work by his pupils or some little known contemporary has little value. And forgeries are valueless. So curators need to be decisive.

Art history in general is nowadays a leftist discipline, much devoted to art, especially contemporary art, that is politically critical. But unavoidably art criticism functions as a servant of the art market. To study some previously little known figure, like doing revisionist interpretation of a famous artist, is to validate the market value of those works. Hence the guilty conscience of art historians. Bernard Berenson, the greatest twenty-century connoisseur, was bitterly criticized for role in the marketplace. And yet, unless you have an independent income, you cannot escape the need for a job. When Meyer Schapiro, the Columbia professor, who was a bitter critic of Berenson, wrote about Paul Cézanne and championed the Abstract Expressionists, he too unavoidably had a place in the art market. The same is true of the most famous living art history, T. J. Clark, when he writes leftist accounts of Impressionists. And the same is true of anyone, myself included, in my modest role as a much published art critic.

One might, of course, imagine an art history and museum system detached from focus on individuals in this way. It might be possible, for example, to display and interpret Dutch Golden Age paintings without doing attributions to Rembrandt, Vermeer and Saenredam. Art museums generally show the best works, while anthropologists depict typical samples. But it’s not easy to imagine what such an art world without this concern with excellence would be like. And there are no signs that such changes are on the horizon.

Often the complaint is made that famous pictures are too expensive, no doubt much too expensive. (What, it might be asked, is the fair price? And who would determine it?) And since the value of artworks is determined by the market system, inevitably these discussions of art relate to the larger pressing issue of economic inequality. It’s the superrich who pay inflated prices at art auctions. True enough, and to flatly state that economic value directly reflects aesthetic value makes people uneasy. And yet, that conclusion, which inspires uneasiness about the obvious identification of the art museum as the well guarded home for posh artifacts, is I think unavoidable.

Rembrandt in a Red Beret (1643) is a good but not-famous painting with a fascinating, somewhat unusual history, recounted in full by Schwartz’s book. This work has a complicated account involving German nineteenth-century history, art theft, and recent day Rembrandt connoisseurship. In brief, after making its way through various princely collections, the painting was stolen from a Weimar museum in 1921, and disappeared until the 1940s, when it reappeared in Dayton, Ohio, by someone who claimed to have purchased it from a German sailer in New York in the 1930s. (This painting thus was not war loot, for it was exported before the war.) Then after additional bureaucratic complications, when it was stored in Washington by the American government, in the 1960s it was returned to Germany. And there, after additional questions involving the division between East and West Germany, it was returned to a heir, who recently sold it to a collector.

All of these perambulations have resulted in a great variety of reasoning about attribution, which Schwartz discusses in close detail. During the time of the Third Reich, for example, it’s instructive to compare the accounts, as he does between Nazi and emigrant Jewish scholars. And Schwartz uses this discussion to stage an instructive account of the Rembrandt Research Project, which sought to offer connoisseurship by committee, a doomed process (I think), if I understand his account. Schwartz’s book is a virtuoso performance. Very complete, never boring, it shows how complex is the activity of connoisseurship. And on the cover one sees this Rembrandt which now, after restoration, looks great. Now, as Rembrandt in a Red Beret says, in conclusion,

At the center of (all this discussion) is that one work of art, capable of putting small and large forces into motion, while making available soon again, I hope — the most important interaction of all: the contemplation of a painting that allows us to gaze into Rembrandt’s eyes as he looks out at us.


My review: G. Schwartz and M. Jan Bok, Pieter Saenredam. The Painter and His Time, Leonardo, 244,2 (1991), 492. This essay extends the argument of my “The Fake Artwork in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” reprinted in my The Aesthete in the City: The Philosophy and Practice of American Abstract Painting in the 1980s (1994), Ch. 6 and“In Praise of Connoisseurship,” J. of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 61:2 (Spring 2003): 159-69.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.