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Definition of connoisseurship, its components and relation to the study of art history

According to Ebitz and Opperman, contemporary connoisseurship, in practice and in study, draws many parallels to scientific research. Today, connoisseurs do not rely solely on “a good eye,” they also rely on new technological methods, such as x-rays and infrared reflectography. Opperman says, “Connoisseurship differs from other, more purely theoretical approaches in its insistence that all hypotheses must constantly be tested against the reality of the physical work of art, the standard not just of connoisseurship, but of the history of art.”

The practice of connoisseurship fosters the ability to discriminate and judge artworks based on quality. Some argue this ability is inborn and will only blossom if the talent is practiced. Therefore, connoisseurs acquire the skill to judge the quality of an artwork quickly and intuitively by exercising their innate abilities. Zerner writes, “Connoisseurs, artists, and historians will continue to spend their lives cultivating an elusive and mysterious skill they can only begin to define.” 

The tools for evaluating and attributing works of are:  “a good eye,” dendrochronology, x-rays, infrared reflectography, and chemical and spectral analyses.

Art historians criticize connoisseurship for its purely commercial involvement, “its emphasis on intuition and skilled practice rather than on intellect and knowledge of text”, its attachment to the object and the quality of that object, and its association with the elite. Ebitz counters these criticisms by discussing how the connoisseur must go beyond the textbook, and determine materials used, technical procedures etc. Ebitz claims that connoisseurship is a science, which classifies, discriminates, and judges based on quality. Opperman says, “Seeing cannot be separated from knowing.” The connoisseur arrives at the truth by looking at the object, always utilizing all other sorts of knowledge. Zerner claims that connoisseurship is the foundation of art history. Art history relies on the written word and strays from visual cues. Zerner believes we must change this if we want to get something out of our “visual legacy.”

“A good eye” is a term used to describe the ability to look at art in a superior way, in which quality is measured quickly and instinctively. One with “a good eye” will make immediate associations. According to Eugene Thaw, you are born with “a good eye,” but, as with any talent, “it has to have exercise.” Therefore, if you are born with a good eye, it must be practiced.

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