Next time you’re in an art gallery, try wearing sunglasses. It might sound strange, but it makes sense when you think about it. After all, many great historical paintings would have been produced – and viewed – under the natural light of the sun or by candlelight.
The first electric light was not invented until 1802 – by Humphry Davy – and the designation of “Old Master” (which includes such diverse names as Fra Angelico, Raphael, Titian, Hieronymus Bosch and Rembrandt) had a generally acknowledged cutoff point around 1800.
In the great baroque paintings, such as those of Caravaggio, the dramatic contrasts between light and dark (known as chiaroscuro) can be much more effective when viewed with a bit less light. So instead of asking the museum staff to turn the lights off, try donning a pair of shades to get a more accurate sense of what such works may have been like when they were just painted, hundreds of years ago.
Sunglasses are just one of the innovative strategies encouraged by Chantal Brotherton-Ratcliffe who, as an Old Master expert and faculty member at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London, is on a mission to encourage people to look much more closely at the art of the past.
Brotherton-Ratcliffe initially trained as a painting conservator, which she credits for introducing her to the importance of materials and technique, before completing her PhD at the Warburg Institute in London. Her main area of expertise is 16th- and 17th-century painting, and since 1989 she has taught at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, where she is especially passionate about communicating her expertise to the next generation of students and art professionals.
“It’s much less difficult to start people becoming connoisseurs than you’d think,” says Brotherton-Ratcliffe. “All you have to do is teach people to look, to use their own eyes.” But in an age when emails, advertising and mobile phones compete constantly for our attention, might this be easier said than done? Even in museums and art galleries, where we supposedly go to slow down and take time to look at beautifully made objects, the mean time spent actually looking at an individual work is just 28.63 seconds.
This is where the approach championed by Sotheby’s Institute of Art proves so effective. The Institute was founded in 1969 by Sotheby's, one of the world’s most respected auction houses. Today, the Institute offers a diverse array of programmes from its campuses in London, New York and Los Angeles, as well as a range of online courses. The focus is on connoisseurship and professional skills: understanding how art is made, conserved and displayed, as well as the role of curators and the changing nature of the market.
Programmes are tailored for different needs, from short courses for private collectors and art professionals to summer study programmes, aimed at students or those looking to start a new career, right up to the full master’s programme, currently offered in four areas in London: Art Business, Contemporary Art, Fine and Decorative Art and Design, and Modern and Contemporary Asian Art.
Where Sotheby’s Institute of Art differs from other institutions is in its hands-on approach. “Art history courses tend to prioritise theory. We’re rather rare in taking an object-based approach,” says Brotherton-Ratcliffe. This means a lot of time spent in galleries, looking. In addition to sunglasses, Brotherton-Ratcliffe recommends getting right up close to paintings so that you can see the grain of the canvas. This helps to remind us that paintings are three-dimensional, material objects, something that can easily be forgotten when we view reproductions online or in books.
“Technology makes it so easy to use electronic or digital eyes, and not our own,” says Brotherton-Ratcliffe. “So how do you make someone really look at a painting and see it as an object?” Another approach is to ask students to draw details from different works, say folds of drapery or leaves, as a way of analysing techniques of painting. Once you begin to look closely, you’ll discover how artists in different times and places approached such challenges in very different ways.
It’s not just about paintings. Being connected with a world-famous auction house allows students access to objects on sale and leading art-world experts. In museums, objects are shielded from the public behind glass, but in the auction house, students can take a much more hands-on approach: handling ceramics to get a feel for weight and texture, or opening the drawers on a Regency desk to better understand how the furniture was originally made. The Institute even maintains a unique collection of its own: the Kiddell Collection of fakes, forgeries and reproduction, built up over the decades by former Sotheby’s director Jim Kiddell. It is an invaluable teaching aid.
“I tend to find that the more you study something, the more interesting it becomes,” says Lilian Cameron, formerly of Tate Modern, now a faculty member at Sotheby’s Institute. The more you learn about ways of looking at art, the more there is to see. And that’s how the journey to connoisseurship begins.
To begin your journey to connoisseurship, visit sothebysinstitute.com