What is a Catalogue Raisonné and Why is it Useful?

Catalogue Raisonné Defined

A “catalogue raisonné” is a compendium of an artist’s complete works or a defined subset of works, sometimes with additional information or commentary included in the publication. Some publications list each work with a title and a basic description of its physical properties, such as medium and dimensions. Other publications contain provenance, exhibition, and bibliographic histories for as many works as possible. Analytical texts and comparative images might also appear in a catalogue raisonné. While the amount of records and scholarly commentary varies among catalogues raisonnés, all provide a list of works completed by an artist, which benefits scholars, the art market, and anyone interested in learning about a particular artist’s work or art history at large.  

Carefully Preparing Catalogues Raisonnés

Careful reasoning goes into the selection, arrangement, and display of artworks and related data in these publications, as implied by the French title “catalogue raisonné.” (The direct translation of “catalogue raisonné” in English is “reasoned catalog.”) 

Scholars or groups of scholars who recommend artworks for a catalogue raisonné do so on several grounds. Material proof sometimes exists in an archive or foundation that relates an artwork to an artist. When an artwork doesn’t have this direct link to an artist, scholars may still include it based on their educated opinions formed through examining related archival documentation and the physical qualities of the work. Scholars may also exclude particular objects, like an artist’s juvenalia or ephemera, from a catalogue raisonné based on their understanding and interpretation of the artist’s intentions and preferences. Because of this reasoned approach, catalogues raisonnés often acknowledge the authors’ biases and narratives. Readers are encouraged to consider the compendiums as authored publications rather than objective resources.  

Determining what artworks belong in a catalogue raisonné occurs through a rigorous process at the Wildenstein Plattner Institute. We work with groups of scholars who have developed in-depth knowledge about specific artists through decades of research. These scholars conduct methodical studies of primary sources and holistically consider an artist’s creative process, materials, influences, and biographical context. They also physically inspect work when possible. At the WPI, we stress that inclusion in a catalogue raisonné does not guarantee a work’s authenticity even though extensive research and scholarly opinion produce these publications.

The collection of this knowledge requires time, collaboration, and financial resources. Accessing artworks and archival materials for extended study and verification involves extensive travel and the cooperation of stakeholders. Digitalization, documentation, writing, and editing follow this first step. Because of this complex process, producing a catalogue raisonné is a multi-year enterprise — and the publication always needs updates or refinements as time passes.

The History of Catalogues Raisonnés and the Art Market

The art market has broadly recognized the value of catalogues raisonnés, which is understandable considering the origins of these publications. 

The first known catalogue raisonné coincided with European connoisseurs’ interest in documenting the physical properties of prized objects in the eighteenth century. Art dealers occasionally published catalogues raisonnés as lists when selling similar objects, such as the “catalogue raisonné” merchandise for sale by the French art dealer Edme-François Gersaint (1694–1750). Gersaint published “Catalogue raisonné de coquilles et autre curiosités naturelles” in 1736 when he offered all of the listed objects for sale in his gallery on the Pont Notre Dame. 

Page from a “catalogue raisonné” of shells and other curiosities of nature, published in 1736 by M. Gersaint, a Parisian art dealer. Connoisseurs were encouraged to see these curious objects for themselves at Gersaint’s gallery on the Pont Nôtre-Dame. Images courtesy of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, Inc. 

By the nineteenth century, art dealers created and used catalogues raisonnés to influence an artist’s financial success. In her article on the history of catalogues raisonnés, Antoinette Friedenthal describes how the art dealer John Smith, an experienced connoisseur, believed it was his duty to identify authentic works to ensure the integrity of the growing art market. Smith’s vocational calling resulted in his 1836 catalogue raisonné on Rembrandt van Rijn’s paintings, which played a crucial role in the market’s reception of the artist’s work. 

Some dealers claimed they were performing research for a catalogue raisonné when, in fact, they were identifying objects that they could sell. Dealers also referenced catalogues raisonnés in marketing materials as validations by a third-party authority. As Friedenthal concludes, “Rarely does the interaction of market and scholarship become so evident as it does here.” 

This symbiotic relationship came into full view in the late-twentieth century when auction houses made public statements about a work’s planned inclusion in a forthcoming catalogue raisonné to bolster the confidence of potential buyers. Without explicitly stating as much, the market pointed to these publications as de facto guarantees of authenticity. Dealers, auction houses, and sellers interested in influencing the market invested considerable finances into these scholarly cataloging projects. 

Using Catalogues Raisonnés in Scholarly Research

Researchers interested in art history, biography, or cultural heritage heavily rely on the rigorous documentation in catalogues raisonnés. Their detailed lists of objects, people, places, events, and texts illuminate obscure networks of influence and overlooked moments in history. References to erstwhile exhibition venues, obscure publications, and long-forgotten figures offer opportunities for further exploration that leads to unexpected discoveries. In this regard, they serve as effective tools for orienting independent scholars, curators, and art market professionals in pursuing new information.

For critical researchers, the provenance, or ownership history, of works in a catalogue raisonné offers enormous value. Provenance describes the people and institutions that have owned an artwork, and it has become a hot topic in art history in the last 25 years with the increased interest in the restitution of looted art. Detailed provenance listings help researchers track the location of a particular work after it left the artist’s studio. They also place the object within the larger scope of cultural history. 

Overcoming the Challenge of Frequent Updates: Digital Catalogues Raisonnés

The information in a catalogue raisonné can directly impact an artwork’s historical significance or market value. Because of its impact, the information must be accurate and verifiable to meet users’ needs — but it’s also subject to change. Works of art will continue to be lent, exhibited, published, bought, sold, lost, and destroyed, and scholars will continue to discover new information that could enhance and discredit the historical understanding of a work’s attribution. Catalogues raisonnés need regular updates with clear explanations of who makes those changes and on what grounds, which is why digital publications offer so much value.

Digital catalogues raisonnés enable scholars and researchers to modify the publication with recent findings and new opinions. Cited archives and publications can be hyperlinked to offer readers access to primary source materials and new perspectives. Readers can even consult the same archives that scholars used to make their determinations, and links to newly digitized archives can be added as they become available. With such capabilities, the online catalogue raisonné can be an ongoing research project that is continually updated and never truly finished.  

The WPI has leveraged the flexibility of digital publications and developed a new approach to creating catalogues raisonnés. The “digital corpus” approach allows researchers to publish sections of a catalogue raisonné as they’re prepared rather than waiting years to release the entire project. You can explore the Tom Wesselmann Digital Corpus to see the approach in action. Our work at the Wildenstein Plattner Institute seeks to demonstrate these dynamic publications’ many possibilities and benefits and how they can open new avenues of art historical inquiry.  

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