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Beazley’s Connoisseurship: Aesthetics, Natural History, and Artistic Development

L’expertise de Beazley : esthétique, histoire naturelle et développement artistique

Eric Driscoll


John Beazley’s legacy, caught up in anxieties regarding the status of painted Athenian pottery on the art market, has been hotly debated in the past twenty years. Discussion of his methodology tends to be polemical, but in this paper I adopt a more historical approach that explores intellectual tensions within his project and explains how he reconciled these incompatible impulses toward the “scientific” and “aesthetic” dimensions of vase-painting. Beazley transcended the conflict through recourse to a historical narrative of artistic evolution, as his scholarly output developed from the monographic article toward the production of encyclopedic natural histories of the medium. By framing his Painters as players within a narrative of artistic development – partly founded on the connoisseurship of Renaissance painting – Beazley was able to pursue connoisseurship at once as a scientific enterprise and as a project of communion with the “sacred” styles of the artists he conjured out of mute clay.

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“I have tried to find out who painted each [vase].”
Sir John Beazley

The study of painted Athenian pottery in black- and red-figured styles was set on new footing by Sir John D. Beazley (1885-1970), who oriented the field toward attribution studies and the discussion of individual painters. Contemporary opinions on Beazley’s system of connoisseurship diverge widely – even wildly. To the numerous practitioners of connoisseurship and scholarship in his style, it remains the foundation of any serious work in the field. To do without connoisseurship would be purposefully to ignore things we know to be true. To others, it constitutes, instead, a dangerous misadventure which has, at best, distracted from more serious subjects of research, or, at worst, irrevocably subjugated classical archaeology to the conceptual and financial dictates of the art market by transforming artefacts into artworks – not to mention the unfortunate side effect of that transformation, namely, the encouragement of ...


American School of Classical Studies at Athens

© Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2019

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