What is a catalogue raisonné of an artist’s work?
The most basic definition is … a catalogue raisonné is an organized, annotated publication of all the known works of an artist. After this, it gets more complicated.
For artists who were prolific (like Picasso, Miro, etc.), there are often multiple volumes for an artist. And these volumes usually organize information on an artist’s works for a given medium. For example, there will often be a catalogue raisonné for an artist’s paintings, another catalogue for their graphic works, another for their sculptures, etc. (In reality, for someone like Picasso, the catalogue raisonné for just the graphic works spans multiple volumes.)
The compiler of a catalogue raisonné usually organizes works chronologically. Some create separate sections/chronologies for etchings and lithographs (for example, Mourlot’s catalogue on Miro’s lithographs only include the lithographs), while others combine all graphic works into a single section/chronology (for example, Bloch’s catalogue on Picasso’s graphic works, which combines etchings and lithographs). Catalogue raisonnés include the most important identifying information for each work, like title, dimensions, date, etc. This information often includes paper type and edition size for graphic works. If the information is available, catalogues inform the reader if the original plate (or matrix) was cancelled or still exists, and whether the edition(s) were signed and/or numbered.
Over time, newer catalogue raisonnés for artists are published, which build on earlier ones. The first-generation catalogue raisonné for an artist typically has information gaps. Later catalogue raisonnés fill in additional information, and can correct mistakes in earlier ones. In some cases, later catalogues include research by art scholars that challenge earlier conclusions regarding titles, dates, etc.
You can identify catalogue raisonnés from a dealer’s descriptions of works of art they offer. For example, for a Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph, you might see the following in a web page description …
References: Jean Adhemar, Toulouse-Lautrec: His complete lithographs and drypoints, 44; Gotz Adriani, Toulouse-Lautrec: The Complete Graphic Works, 46; Wolfgang Wittrock, Toulouse-Lautrec: The Complete Prints, 31.
This refers to three different catalogue raisonnés for graphic works by Toulouse-Lautrec, each by a different compiler (Adhemar, Adriani, and Wittrock). The numbers (44, 46, and 31) actually refer to the same work. But since a compiler can place works in a slightly different order than a previous catalogue, the numbers don’t match.
Catalogue raisonnés can cost a lot if the artist is popular and the edition size of the catalogue is small. But you can often find catalogue raisonnés at public libraries. The website www.worldcat.org is a good place to start looking for copies in libraries. Once you identify the catalogue you are looking for by author and title, you can enter your zip code to search for libraries closest to you that have a copy.