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What Is Connoisseurship Nowadays? Ask Minneapolis Institute of Arts

To hear some people tell it, connoisseurship is a concept that has been lost by much of the art world — or at the very least, underplayed. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts this week opens an exhibition that instead puts connoisseurship back in the spotlight.

mia_Chien2.jpgIn Pursuit of a Masterpiece, which opened on Sunday, has been designed to help visitors take a closer look at nearly two dozen paintings, prints and other objects in the museum’s permanent collection and compare their quality, their form and the techniques used to produced them. They come from seven curatorial departments.

The first section, called “Changing Historical Definitions of a Masterpiece,” includes pieces like the Chinese ritual water basin at left — which was not labeled a masterpiece when it entered the museum’s collection — and considers how that decision was made. This area also MIA_Courbet2.jpgincludes pieces that were “masterpieces, only to be revealed as fakes.

The second section, “Connoisseurship: Knowing a Masterpiece When You See One,” contains works never doubted as to quality or authenticity. Courbet’s “Deer In The Forest,” right, is an example.

The third section is called “Taste and the Evolution of Knowledge,” and it’s probably the most interesting. It explores how taste and new scholarship have altered the “art historical canon.” For a start, it’s fascinating that a museum would today acknowledge that there is a defined art historical canon, let alone attempt to define what’s in it and what’s not in it. But MIA has placed several works in this category, including a mia_Djenne2.jpgDjenne horseman sculpture from 15th Century Mali (left), a Francis Bacon painting it acquired in 1958, when Bacon was not widely admired, and Jasper John’s Figure 2, purchased in 1970.

Another entry consists of two prints of the same photograph by Ansel Adams, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, one printed in 1961 and the other some time in the 1970s. The quality difference is discernable. 

The exhibit accompanies a loan show called The Louvre and The Masterpiece, and is another example of a museum using its permanent collection creatively. MIA director Kaywin Feldman is the curator of In Pursuit of A Masterpiece.

Photos: Courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Arts


  1. I am traveling to the Twin Cities in early November with a group of 32 for three days of museums and theater. One of our stops will be an afternoon at the MIA to view “The Louvre and the Masterpiece.”
    I was unaware of “In Pursuit of A Masterpiece” and will be sure to share this article with the people who will accompany me. The exhibition sounds fascinating.

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