I read a fascinating article this morning regarding what many consider to be the first attempts by Gustav Fechner to utilize empirical methods to study the appreciation of art. In doing so, he founded the field of empirical aesthetics—150 years ago.
The experiment was motivated by a heated academic controversy over the authenticity of two works. Specifically, the debate was over whether or not Hans Holbein the Younger was responsible for the works, “Madonna (also known as the Madonna of Jakob Meyer zum Hasen)” purchased for Dresden Gemälde galerie in 1743 and another version of the painting which emerged in 1821, held in private collection first in Berlin and then in Darmstadt. (Later, these works became known as the Dresden Madonna and the Darmstadt Madonna.) Being very interested in the controversy, Fechner believed that data from a well-crafted experiment could shed some new light on the conflicting claims of authenticity.
The experiment was to take place within a massive exhibition held between August 15th to October 15th, 1871, in Dresden’s Prinzen Pavillion. Both paintings were displayed for the first time side by side. In the hall which held the paintings, Fechner placed an announcement of his study, a table with writing materials, the instructions for potential participants, and a booklet for entries. The instructions asked for participants to provide information about themselves and to “state which of the two Madonnas made such an appealing and positive impression as to grant it a place in their room for constant or repeated contemplation.”
When it was over, the collected data showed a generally preference for the Darmstadt Madonna, however of the 11,842 visitors to the exhibition, only 113 chose to participate—and even less followed the instructions as presented.
Nevertheless, many consider this exercise to be the launching point for a fascinating realm of inquiry. So without knowing if either, neither or both are in fact authentic Holbein works—which do you “like” better? Shown: 1. Dresden Madonna 2.Darmstadt Madonna
If you are curious about how some resolved the controversy— For more than a century after it was completed in 1528, the original ed a quiet life, escaping the religious wars that left many devotional art works in splinters. Then it fell into the hands of an art dealer named Le Blond, of Paris. Recognizing its worth, he secretly commissioned a copy, then sold one work to Marie de Medici, the widowed Queen of France, and the other to an Amsterdam merchant. Both works found their way to Germany.
The Queen’s Madonna passed through at least two hands before being purchased for the Count of Saxony and put on display in Dresden. (The Dresden Madonna)
The merchant’s version was soon sold to an even richer Amsterdam merchant. It disappeared until 1822, when Prince William of Prussia bought it from a Parisian dealer as a present to his wife, Princess Marianne. (The Darmstadt Madonna)
The mystery raged until 1871, when both works went on view in Munich. Art historians assembled before the two paintings. For about three weeks, they scrutinized and debated. They decided in favor of the one purchased by Prince William, which by that time had passed through inheritance into the hands of Grand Duke Ludwig of Hesse. And they issued what may have been the first art press release. The deciding proof was in the timing. Holbein had started the work in 1526, and when he returned to it to finish it two years later, it required some changes. His daughter had wed, for example, and now wore the modest hairstyle of a married woman.
Later the Dresden Madonna has since been attributed to Bartholomäus Sarburgh 1635-1637. The second is the one attributed to Holbein.
For a much closer look at the issue and resulting conclusions I recommend this read: