“Rubens only whispers”: the reception of the Cambridge bozzetti for the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series

2019-03-05T15:40:17Z (GMT) by Meredith Hale
Recent research on the neuroscience of responses to works of art, particularly that on contextual bias and the impact of expertise on aesthetic preference, has raised important questions about the practice of connoisseurship. This work has placed factors such as emotion and empathy, subjects long exiled from art-historical discourse, at the very nexus of factors that affect the individual viewer’s response. This paper examines three instances of connoisseurial judgment exercised on the same set of complex objects—the seven bozzetti by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, for the Triumph of the Eucharist tapestry series—in different historical contexts. I consider the role played by factors other than intellectual assessment in the formation of these aesthetic judgments and the degree to which psycho-social circumstances affected decisions concerning attribution. Documentary evidence provides surprising insights into each of these examples and, taken together, they shed light on the particular challenges to the ‘expert viewer’ commonly associated with Rubens’s oil sketches. These case studies pose larger questions about the formation and formulation of aesthetic judgment.