Attribution is a considered opinion on the authorship of a work
of art based on textual evidence, connoisseurship—specialized knowledge of an artist’s corpus of work—and, increasingly, scientific analysis. An artwork’s attribution can significantly
impact its economic and art historical value. Experts sometimes reconsider attributions in the course of an artwork’s life.
Shifting attributions pose serious challenges for provenance researchers. Paper trails can reach dead ends when a curator, connoisseur, or auction house quietly reassigns a painting from one painter to another.
Moreover, artists occasionally make copies of their own work, or have assistants working under their direct supervision create copies. Additionally, artists and students make copies of works in public or private collections. These practices produce different categories of attribution, such as “Workshop of,” “Follower of,” and “After.”
A George Romney specialist reattributed this painting of Lady Jane Maxwell in a recently published catalogue raisonné of the artist’s works. Now considered a copy, it is one of three known nineteenth-century copies of the original painting by Romney, which hangs in the National Galleries of Scotland. At least one copy is believed to have been commissioned by Lady Maxwell herself.
A small related pencil drawing complicates the matter of this attribution. Experts believe the drawing, acquired with the painting, was removed from Romney’s sketchbook. It has accompanied KAM’s painting since at least 1898 as a guarantee of authenticity.
Why would Romney’s original drawing be attached to the copy of his painting? One hypothesis is that the original painting’s owner approved the copy and sought to validate its connection to the original.
Author: Nancy Karrels, doctoral candidate in Art History and guest curator of Provenance: A Forensic History of Art, 2017