You have seen pictures of this painting, or maybe the real thing, the formal name of which is The Company of Captain Frans Cocq. It was a group portrait by Rembrandt of one of the militia companies responsible for Amsterdam’s defense.
Except you don’t know it by that name, do you? You know it as The Night Watch.
It’s called The Night Watch because it had at some point been covered with a very dark varnish, so everyone assumed that Rembrandt had painted an evening scene. In the 1940s, a restoration removed the varnish and surprise! the painting was not set at night at all, but in the afternoon. Everybody still calls it The Night Watch, though, even though it clearly hasn’t been that for sixty years at this point.
There are other cases where what the artist painted and what the public knows are at odds. A few years ago, the Sistine Chapel was restored. The restoration was controversial: once several centuries worth of accumulated smoke, dirt and varnish were removed, the colors were far brighter — a few critics called them “ice cream colors” — than people realized.
So what is the real painting? Clearly the painting as artist intended, as the artist painted. But does changing how we see the painting change our evaluation of the worth of the painting? Not the professionals, they have their proper evaluation, but the public?
I have often wondered about this in the context of forgery and misattribution. If forgeries can fool people (and very good forgeries can fool even some experts), why are they lesser art? Once people find out a painting is not done by the painter they think it is, the painting automatically becomes worth less.
Why? The painting has not changed. The sweep of the sheperd’s tunic, which is so excitingly detailed, is exactly the same. The unusual treatment of the landscape is no different. Not one atom of the painting is any more or less than it was before.
The explanation I have heard in regards to forgeries makes a bit of sense, which is that forgeries are of a time and place, and tend to resonate with viewers of that time and place, and therefore do not age as well as real masterpieces do. Elmyr de Hory’s Modiglianis supposedly will not be as attractive in one hundred years as the real Modiglianis (although de Hory was renowned enough that there is a market for his forgeries).
But that does not hold for misattributions, especially of Old Masters. What this means is that we are not assigning value based on the intrinsic worth of the painting but on the value of the artist.
Or maybe there are two different things going on here. In the case of The Night Watch and the Sistine Chapel, we rebel against changes in the familiar, in what we know as greatness. (Imagine if a cleaning of the Mona Lisa made it brighter — there would be an outcry that would make the Sistine Chapel a mere bagatelle.)
In the case of forgeries and misattributions, maybe it is because we do not trust ourselves. We need to be told what is great. The old cliche “I don’t know art but I know what I like” is generally perceived at best to be defensive and at worst to be boorish and unsophisticated. Maybe we need to get past the idea that art is what we are told it is.
The problem, of course, is the hesitancy of people to try new things, but that’s not bad, necessarily. It just means the new things have to resonate with people. Isn’t that what art is about?
I mean, maybe it’s me, but I just don’t get color field art. The work of Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler goes right over my head. On the other hand, I find Jackson Pollack engaging, even if he is not my favorite artist. I know a lot of people who don’t. Similarly, I love Jasper Johns. I don’t love Andy Warhol, even though again I know a lot of people who feel differently.
So maybe I like a painting that was originally attributed to Titian but later attributed to his “school.” That’s okay. The change in attribution would not change the value of the painting to me.
Would it for you?
I realize this entire discussion marks me as the rankest of amateurs, but I’m okay with that. I just wish someone would explain to me how a painting can be so changed, not in monetary value, but in perception, when the painting does not change at all.