By Marjorie Munsterberg

Writing About Art

Personal Style

The idea of a personal style, which in the Western tradition goes back to the Greeks, seems to apply easily to the work of many artists.36 All art historians rely on it.  Countless lectures, books, and exhibitions define the style found in art made by a single person.  Inevitably, however, any definition of style puts as much outside as remains inside its boundaries. The usual way to minimize this problem is to create more divisions, perhaps a chronological ordering into early, middle, and late.  The late or “old age” style has come to be valued as an especially interesting phenomenon, sometimes even as the culmination of an entire career. Other methods of organization may group the works of an artist by subject or medium.

Personal style is limited to the production of one artist, a specific historical individual. Works by others that look similar can be considered part of a school, or described as “in the style of.” For some art historians, style can be found in the “touch,” the viewer’s sense of the hand of the artist working the material.  Roger Fry, for example, argued that Cézanne’s genius began with the way he applied paint.  A late 19th-century art historian named Giovanni Morelli (1816-1891) found recognizable individuality in details too insignificant for the artist to have considered consciously, such as the shape of ears.37 There are many ways to conceptualize the relationship, and most art historians use a mix of qualities to define a personal style. 

The traditional approach to deciding whether a particular artist painted a particular work, in the absence of documents that link them explicitly, is called connoisseurship.  After careful looking and using many other relevant examples as the basis for comparisons, the art historian making an attribution comes to a decision based not so much on research as on intuition.  The work “feels” right, meaning that it seems to resemble other works that can be identified conclusively as being by the artist. Sometimes another connoisseur challenges that judgment, “feeling” something else entirely and redefining the personal style.  The history of art is filled with such changes in attribution. Usually the person who undertakes the job of gathering all of the works associated with one particular person decides what to include and what to leave out.  This collection, often called by its French name of catalogue raisonné, reflects and, over time, shapes a general consensus.  Since attribution influences the value a work has on the art market, it may matter a great deal.38

Attribution is, for the most part, a scholarly activity.  Nonetheless, just knowing the name of the artist can transform what a work looks like. This is an important example of seeing based on expectations.  A very famous instance of false attribution happened with the 17th-century Dutch artist Jan Vermeer.  Previously unknown paintings appeared in Holland during the 1930s and were attributed to him.  At least one senior scholar proclaimed one work to be by Vermeer, which led to others being associated with the one that had been declared authentic.  After World War II, they were revealed to be forgeries by an unsuccessful artist named Han van Meegeren.  He painted a new fake in the courtroom during his trial to prove that he was, in fact, the one who had made the pictures.   It is hard to imagine today how anyone ever associated them with Vermeer.  The change in taste that inevitably comes with the passage of time has made them seem awkward and even ugly.39

An understanding of personal style also influences how historians relate an artist to his or her contemporaries.  In 1979, Robert Herbert described Claude Monet’s style in a lengthy and extremely detailed analysis.  He began his article:

The belief that Monet’s art was one of improvisation is so firmly established that it dominates the 20th-century view of Impressionism.  Monet planted his easel in front of his motif, we are told, and devised a method of instant response to nature, despite rain or winter frost.  He was so determined to seize a special moment of color-light that he abandoned his canvas when conditions altered, and turned to another, only later going back to the first when the same moment was again available.40

Furthermore, according to this belief, Monet’s interest in color-light overwhelmed all other considerations, including choice of subject. Herbert set out to prove the contrary – that Monet’s art was the result of as much calculation and study as a Renaissance landscape, or one by Paul Cézanne.  “If it could be proved that Monet’s art was not spontaneous, if it could be proved that it involved a long process,” Herbert wrote, then the conventional opposition of Monet’s technique to Cézanne’s, and of Impressionism to Post-Impressionism, in fact the “whole edifice of Impressionist criticism would come tumbling down.”41

Herbert analyzed the whole of Monet’s career with immensely close readings of important paintings. In this respect, his study resembles Roger Fry’s of Cézanne’s art, but Herbert did not use the categories of formal analysis, and subject was very important to him.  On the important question of the speed with which Monet worked, for example, he wrote:

In the mid-1870s at Argenteuil, some [of Monet’s] paintings were done very quickly, in large buttery strokes, but more numerous are canvases like the famous Bridge at Argenteuil [Musée d’Orsay, Paris], which were worked on repeatedly, with drying time between the sessions.  Their brushwork is varied to suit the imagery: smooth for sky, choppy for foliage, horizontal with lapping curves and diagonals for water, and directional strokes for boats and bridges.  In each successive session Monet applied his paint quite frankly in strokes of one color, but frequently he wanted to change or enrich the color while retaining the underlying texture of “spontaneity.”  He therefore added thin surface colors.  In the canvas [Bridge at Argenteuil], separate surface hues can be detected easily along the furled sail and, in the water, among the reflections of the toll house.  The most remarkable spot is just ahead of the bowsprit of the farthest sailboat.  There one stroke was allowed to dry, and then was artfully colored over (reading from left to right) in pale blue, peach, medium blue, orange-tan and then medium blue again. 

These complexities of technique became greater and more prominent as Monet’s career went on, so that by the early 1880s, “paintings that were really done very quickly were very rare.”42 Based on these and many other similar analyses, Herbert created a new understanding of Monet's art. He also changed the way historians view the art of Monet's contemporaries and the style of painting called Impressionism.