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Members' Research Report Archive

Art and Uncertainty: The Limits of Technical Art History

David Bomford, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professor, spring 2018

A band of several galloping horses and riders move across the center of this vertical painting. The color palette is dominated by blended earthy brown, green, and pale pink. The horses, which have reddish-brown coats and tails, nearly span the width of the painting. They move to our left with their legs fully extended. Underneath the horses’ flying legs lies the body of a man. The felled rider faces upward, his eyes closed and his legs splayed. He has a light brown beard, mustache, and hair, and pale tan skin. He wears brown riding boots with black tops, white breeches, and a pink jersey with black sleeves. His riding helmet, with a matching pink cover, lies behind his head on the ground. At least three additional horses are in the band, and the two foremost have empty saddles. The two horses beyond them, farther into the picture, have male riders, who wear riding outfits and helmets in colors of smudged and blended orange, lavender purple, and green. They also have brown mustaches and beards. The band races through a field painted with a muddy green interspersed with strokes of orange and white. The horizon line is high, just above the level of the horses’ backs, about four-fifths of the way up the painting. Blue sky peeks out amid a mixture of pale pink and yellow clouds above. There are trees in the background indicated by a few strokes and dashes of paint. The painting style is loose and brushy throughout, without sharp detail or lines, except for the sketched-in black lines that delineate the bodies and tack of the horses.

Edgar Degas, Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey, 1866, reworked 1880-1881 and c. 1897, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1999.79.10

Technical art history is now a well-established area of inquiry with methodologies and a bibliography of its own. Its simple objective is to illuminate and resolve art-historical questions by means of technical examination: to investigate the physical properties of artifacts and works of art in an attempt to establish original authorship, method, intention, and context. Technical art history has been practiced for a long time, but only in the last two or three decades has it come to be identified as a truly rigorous discipline, poised between conservation, science, and art history.

Its successes are undoubted: whole oeuvres, collections, and periods of art are better understood as a result of intensive investigation and publication of results. We now know more than ever before how artists of the past functioned, both individually and collectively. We know their materials, their techniques, their traits, and their unique ways of working.

A little more than twenty years ago, as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University, I gave a series of lectures that explored the outlines of this emerging discipline under the title “Art and Uncertainty: Technical Studies, Art History and Conservation.” I tried to define the future possibilities of our endeavors, as well as look back at the checkered history of conservation, at such mythologies as the invention of oil painting and at the self-mythologizing of the impressionists, and at how realistic it is to think we can judge original artistic intention. These lectures offered a generally optimistic assessment, claiming that technology could address and resolve many of the art-historical puzzles that present themselves.

As the Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professor, I revisited some of the themes that preoccupied me in Oxford. I organized a colloquy, quite deliberately with the same title as my Slade lectures, but with a more cautionary subtitle: “Art and Uncertainty: The Limits of Technical Art History.” It brought together curators, conservators, scientists, and art historians and asked them to consider the reach and limits of technical art history. Now, twenty years on, we are able to acknowledge that technical studies may give us images or analytical results that are ambiguous, unclear, mysterious, or simply inexplicable. There must, of course, be an explanation of some kind because the object in its present form exists; but our methods or powers of deduction may not be equal to the task. Attribution, authenticity, original or later reworkings, finished or unfinished states, replicas, problems of condition: all may be viewed through the lens of technical art history, but not all cases will or can be resolved. The questions in the end are perhaps simple: What can technical art history tell us? And can it tell us why works appear as they do?

The Safra Colloquium aimed both to present case histories that demonstrated the boundaries and constraints of technical art history and to pose fundamental questions. What can we realistically expect from our inquiries? What issues may ultimately be soluble by technical means, and what will remain beyond our reach? By looking at some examples from our professional experiences and through a focused discussion we hoped to arrive at an appraisal of the current state of the discipline.

The pursuit of this topic also allowed me the opportunity to study several paintings in the National Gallery of Art collection with Gallery colleagues, including Edgar Degas’s extraordinary Edmondo and Therese Morbilli (c. 1865), with its multiple reworkings—some by Degas himself and some by a later hand. It is exactly the sort of case history in which technical art history can reveal the complexities of a much-altered work but not readily provide an explanation. This particular painting was the subject of a study session at the colloquy led by conservator and Degas expert Ann Hoenigswald.

The Gallery’s European paintings collection is not only exceptionally fine but also rich in works that challenge our assumptions about artistic intention. As well as Degas (including the incomparable group of wax sculptures), I looked at works by Rembrandt, Manet, Cézanne, and Picasso with curatorial and conservation colleagues and discussed their latest findings. It was an enormously fruitful interchange, and I am deeply grateful to CASVA colleagues for this wonderful opportunity and privilege. The limits of technical art history are still ripe for exploration, but—for me, at least—they are happily a little better illuminated as a result of the discussions that took place during my tenure here.

Degas, Edgar
French, 1834 - 1917
Edgar Degas
Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey
1866, reworked 1880-1881 and c. 1897