IN 2007, the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, France, using a combination of state funding and private sponsorship, acquired a late work by the great French classical master Nicolas Poussin. The Flight into Egypt, painted in 1657–’58, depicts the Holy Family on the path into exile from Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents. A weightily corporeal angel hovers at head-height above the group, indicating the way to safety. While Saint Joseph attends to the divine messenger’s pointing finger, the Virgin Mary looks back in gentle regret at the land they have left, the Christ-child clinging to her but gazing out at the viewer. The ruins of classical architecture and distant countryside that form the painting’s backdrop, together with a watching youth reclining unperturbed against a rock, situate the scene in a landscape that bears a passing resemblance to the central Italian locale where Poussin spent 40 years of his career.

Close laboratory analysis of the painting has revealed evidence of the shaking hand with which Poussin was afflicted in later life, as well as the elegant long washes of his brushstrokes in the cloudless blue sky. When the Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini viewed the canvas after Poussin’s death in 1665, he candidly found it to be an embarrassment, the technical frailties of the painter’s tremor all too evident, and was moved to wonder why artists insisted on still working when they were no longer in full command of their powers. Nonetheless, it was bought for the Lyon museum at a cost of €17 million ($19.3 million), representing a considerable municipal coup for the city’s art collection, whose Poussin holdings had previously only amounted to two drawings.

What adds art-historical interest to this story is that the painting the museum acquired was one of three versions that have laid claim to being the original autograph work, the one painted by the artist himself. A version owned by a New York collector, Émile E. Wolf, was declared the original by British art historian Christopher Wright in 1986, but his verdict has been unanimously dismissed by other experts, who claim it is an obvious copy, and a poor one at that (it was eventually sold as such in 2001). A version with an apparently much stronger claim to being the autograph work was bought in 1989 by Barbara Piasecka Johnson, the Polish-American widow of John Seward Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson baby lotion and pharmaceutical fortune. This version was publicly authenticated in 1983 by none other than Anthony (formerly Sir Anthony) Blunt, one of the world’s foremost authorities on 17th-century French painting, Poussin in particular. Blunt, who had served the queen as surveyor of the royal collection, had been unmasked in 1979 as a member of the Soviet spy ring that had penetrated the heart of the British establishment during the Cold War.

A comparative viewing of the two principal rivals was held at the Ritz Hotel in Paris in March 1990, an event that would subsequently become a bone of contention in the dispute over the work’s attribution. The version now in the Lyon Museum was housed in a small but highly reputed private gallery in Paris belonging to two brothers, Richard and Robert Pardo, who had bought the painting in 1986 from a family that had had it hanging on the dining-room wall since the mid-1930s. They considered their version to be the correct one, and the consensus of experts who viewed the works side-by-side on that day supported them.

The Pardo brothers tirelessly lobbied the Louvre for official recognition of their painting. When a major exhibition of Poussin’s works was mounted at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1995, a photograph of the Pardo brothers’ painting was printed in the catalog. This surreptitious act of authentication alerted the son of the original owner to demand restitution by successfully applying to have the 1986 auction sale annulled. An appeal by the Pardo brothers failed, and after a long judicial process, the work was returned to its original owners in 2003. They would eventually benefit handsomely from its acquisition by the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, while the Pardo brothers, financially ruined by the protracted proceedings, lost their business along with the court case and the painting itself.

Bernard Lahire’s This is Not Just a Painting is a superb and exhaustive account of this story, based on finely detailed researches in art history, institutional culture, and case law regarding art treasures, as well as extensive interviews with many of the principal players. An academic sociologist, Lahire became interested in the affair because of the stark relief into which it throws the status of highly valued works of art, illuminating the complex cultural, juridical, and discursive mechanisms by which a particular application of oil to a rectangular piece of canvas, executed three and a half centuries ago, can come to acquire such gigantic significance in national affairs and private fortunes.

Lahire’s investigation goes right back to first principles. He argues that, in the earliest stateless (what used to be known as tribal) societies, the gods were ancestors, friends of the living, but when societies developed separate institutions of power, to which their everyday transactions were referred for legitimation and regulation (i.e., when they became states), they established rudimentary hierarchies. In these forms, the gods became progressively more distant and terrifying, their actions mysteries that needed to be interpreted by priestly and scholarly elites. In a literal sense, Lahire argues, the gods, and God himself eventually, were remade in the image of the sovereigns of these hierarchical states. In a knowing elaboration of Marx’s dictum about class struggle, Lahire writes that “[t]he history of all societies up to the present day is the history of the transformation of the sacred.” This category includes the sacraments of religion, the holy relics (both spiritual and secular) that are the material evidence of a people’s history, the institutions that govern society, and the cultural artifacts they valorize. A watershed moment in the elevation of the artist to the realm of the sacred was Petrarch’s coronation by laurel wreath in the Roman Capitol in 1341. Referring back to ancient times, the tradition of the poet laureate indicates that the worship of divine creation had begun to invest artists themselves with a quasi-divine aura.

Much of this argument is persuasive, not least because it has been the common currency of the sociological investigation of art for at least the past century. What Lahire brings to his analysis of the Poussin affair is a deeper reflection on the almost magical processes by which the utterances of art experts, museum directors, and even art journalists become imbued with the status of holy writ, in turn investing the works under their consideration with vastly increased — or vastly reduced — financial value. Fusillades against the art market have been a feature of dissident Western aesthetics since at least the 1960s, and Lahire looks back, not uncritically, at French painter Jean Dubuffet’s collection of polemical essays, Asphyxiating Culture, to find an ideological critique of the compact between art and capitalism in the modern era. Through meticulous reasoning, combined with a libertarian concern for the Medusa’s gaze that social and cultural hierarchies cast on their clients, Lahire adds significantly to these arguments, broadening them into a plea for sociological research to think more speculatively and with greater interdisciplinary agility, as in the classic work of pioneers such as Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Pierre Bourdieu.

Polity Press has done an efficient job of bringing this monumental work, first published in France in 2015, to an Anglophone readership, courtesy of Helen Morrison’s translation. Reading it is, however, something of an arduous task, in large part because of its relentless repetitions. All of the main personages are reintroduced with their professional credentials at their every appearance, and events and their dates are obsessively reiterated, long after even a minimally alert reader could be presumed to have internalized them. As a result, the book could have been much shorter and not lost any essential information. What is worth treasuring, though, is its cumulative insight, painstakingly posited and sturdily defended, that art has not acquired its sacred status due to any objective quality inhering in artworks themselves, but because that is how we have chosen to view them.

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Stuart Walton is a cultural historian and novelist.