As the debates about authentic musical performance still go on, and we are now encouraged to use the term ‘historically informed’ to describe performances of early music which reach for authenticity, I reach for a hard hat as I attempt to sketch in a parallel line. I’m not a musicologist and do not know enough about early music’s sound history to contribute directly, but I thought it might be interesting to approach this issue from my own art-historical viewpoint and leave the musically informed to see the similarities.

For the same reasons that we cannot reconstruct the exact conditions of early music’s performance, so, when we view a work of art, we cannot see it in the same way as those for whom it was painted or made. With dedicated scholarship we can get close. We have to reconstruct, from evidence, the social, visual and cultural world from which the work of art emerged.

Art historians endeavour, through documentary research, through reading treatises of the time, biographical accounts, letters and so on, to get as close as possible to understanding the way in which a painting was commissioned, produced and received. One tries as far as possible to get behind the eyes of the artist who made it and the person who saw it. There are pitfalls. Documents are not always reliable. Spelling was not standardized. Vocabulary changes quickly and so theoretical and technical terms are not always understood. Amanuenses miscopied and misspelled names, dates and facts. Conventions shift: epistolary letters in the 17th century, for example, are mostly written with regard to certain formal structures and phrases, and a good deal of flattery. Repeatedly used, we cannot always tell whether these have face value or are dissembling.

Part of one’s skill is to become familiar with this sort of parley, and every piece of evidence needs to be read very closely in order to understand everything it has to convey. Art historians can get frustrated when artists don’t tell us enough, in their own words. When Rembrandt writes to his patron, the Stadhouder’s Secretary Constantijn Huygens, in 1639 that, in his two paintings of the Entombment and the Resurrection, ‘the greatest and most natural feeling has been expressed, which is also the main reason why they have taken so long to execute’, art historians are frustrated. Not because Rembrandt is so obviously making the excuse of his great talent and application for his lateness of delivery, but because Rembrandt rarely wrote anything about his work, and this unspecific cliché about authenticity of feeling is, to say the least, an anticlimax. But Rembrandt is simply using the leitmotif of the time to claim that he has succeeded in producing the quality in his pictures that is most sought after in that subject.

Turner was another artist who could be abrupt and elliptical in speech, though he wrote many letters. As his friend George Jones pointed out, Turner’s thoughts are in his sketches and his paintings. ‘Turner’s thoughts 18 were deeper than ordinary men can penetrate and much deeper that he could at any time describe’[1]. This is where one must return to the pictures themselves, the primary evidence, and let them speak. Often, it is the very first encounter with a painting that raises the most apposite questions, the ones that hold the key to its meaning and power. To gain those insights, you need to bring yourself to a work of art with an open mind. Only then, when you have enabled the painting to show itself, can you bring to bear what you know. Good art history is, to my mind, as much about looking properly, openly, thoroughly, as it is about reading.

The pursuit of authenticity, if allowed to override, can get in the way. Like music, art has an ongoing life. Of course, it is our job to reconstruct, as far as we can, the conditions of life into which a painting was born. But if we then try to forget, or ignore, everything that has come to pass between, say, the renaissance and now, everything we have seen in our own lifetimes which the artist who made the picture did not see, everything we have come to understand about human relationships because of what has intervened, then we deprive art of the life it has now, in our own time. The sound-world of early music probably came back to our ears in the late 20th century because of the contrast it offered, at that particular time, to prevailing performance aesthetics in classical, contemporary and folk music. It, in turn, has influenced composers of the last few decades with its representation of polyphony, rhythmical variety and tonal suspensions and clashes.

At its best, art transcends personal experience and gives us another view of life, una grande bellezza, a beauty that gives us hope. If we try to be too purist about our idea of the authentic work of art, we hobble it by imagining that there is only one way to see it, only one way to understand it, the ‘authentic’ way in which it was made and seen in its own time. Similarly, if the only truths we can safely establish about a work of art are those verified by a document, then we risk not looking properly at the thing itself, not ‘hearing’ what the painting has to say.

It has been said before that the search for purity in authenticity is, in any case, a modernist view, and entertains a view of the past that is only conceivable from a modernist (or now post-modernist) present[2]. Before the luxury of recordings, and the experience of hearing the same performance repeated, so that one can learn the performance as well as the piece, every performance was obviously ‘live’. There was a feeling of excitement in the impermanence, in knowing that next time it could be different. You don’t have that in art: once made, the painting is always the same, notwithstanding changes of context and frame. Of course, it ages—one only has to think of the furore that greeted the cleaning of the Sistine ceiling; many, many people preferred the old, dirty, yellowed (or, in their view ‘mellowed’) colours, to the colours that Michelangelo actually used. What changes with paintings and sculpture are the locations and the viewers. Late styles, of artists such as Titian, Rembrandt, Turner, are enjoying a vogue at the moment, but in their own time, only the most devoted and discerning viewer admired what others saw as deteriorating powers in, for example, Titian’s Death of Actaeon, Rembrandt’s Portraits of Jacob and Margarathe Trip[3]. Were we to return to the ‘authentic’ view of these paintings, we would underestimate and even reject them. As it is, we can appreciate them as documents of experience, violence, humanity, and of consummate skill in old eyes and old hands.

As regards ‘authenticity’ in musical performance, I’m interested in the debates, but I remain open to the music and enjoy bringing to it, as a performer and a listener, what I hope is a discerning ear and eye. Most of all I look for the life in it. Sometimes that life is more vibrant for getting closer to what we know of ‘authentic’ sound, and it’s the same with art. Some of it is so locked up in its context, and so exclusive in its style and iconography, that without art history it would be opaque to many and would struggle to live for the 21st-century viewer. I do believe, though, that truly great art transcends all of the chatter and hubble that gets in between. Good art history unlocks visual puzzles and opens up works art to students and viewers, providing a level of discourse that exists alongside the art itself. Good art, however, like Turner’s, speaks more eloquently and with more longevity than the vicissitudes of temporal discourse.

– Lindsey Shaw-Miller


  1. See Jones’s account fully reproduced for the first time in J. Gage (ed.), Collected Correspondence of J. M. W. Turner (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1980)”.
  2. ‘Twentieth-century Early Music revivals that saw as their goal the objective discovery of the historical musical past were themselves a part of their own contemporary music-making world.’ Dr Elizabeth Upton, Ethnomusicology Review Volume 17 (2012). R. Taruskin, ‘On Letting the Music Speak for Itself: Some Reflections on Musicology and Performance’, Journal of Musicology, Vol. 1 (1982), 338–49; contribution to ‘The Limits of Authenticity: A Discussion’, in Early Music, Vo. 12 (1984), 3–12; and ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’ in Nicholas Kenyon, ed., Authenticity in Early Music (Oxford, 1988), 137–210.
  3. All in the National Gallery, London.