Picture Titles

When I paint a landscape or seascape, I never have a title in mind; for that matter, I sometimes don’t have a final image in mind. The paint, the brushes, and canvas lead me to a final painting. In this regard, painting is a very different process than writing (for me, at least). I usually have a title in mind when I write, along with a working outline or detailed notes, as I develop an essay. However, it surprises me that I had not really thought much about how paintings acquire their titles, that is, until I read Ruth Bernard Yeazell, Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015). The book was a gift, given to me because of the heavy reliance on archival materials and my interest in art.

Yeazell, an English Professor, describes how the need for titles developed because of the large numbers of paintings that eventually began to circulate and the need to describe them in dealers’ catalogs, the museums and their exhibitions, and in the emerging art criticism from the late Renaissance to the present. As it turns out, many artists did not and do not provide titles, and the titles of many of our best known major works either were named by dealers, auction house staff, notaries (for wills and probate inventories), publishers and printmakers, or curators or, in fact, possess multiple titles. As the author of this volume states,“While there are clearly exceptions to the rule, the baptism of a painting is apt to be a messy affair: post hoc (sometimes very post hoc), informally negotiated with the artist’s public, and even repeatedly negotiated as the image itself travels from one context to another. Any theory of picture titles, in other words, will always find itself entangled in a history of reception” (pp. 5-6). As museums felt compelled to add labels to identify paintings, the notion of titles became more entrenched, even while many artists ignored the need to provide their own names.

Archivists have been long interested in art works because they either view paintings – landscapes, seascapes, portraits – as documentary materials, or because they have become involved in establishing and sustaining museum archives. But archivists will find this book of additional value because of its use and discussion of archival sources. Also, archivists themselves are involved in naming collections, and they will see parallels to their own descriptive work: “Paintings are material objects and the more they circulate, the more important it becomes to devise some means of identifying and tracking them” (p. 25). The use of conventional genre terms, such as still life or landscape, will remind archivists of how they utilize similar genre terms, papers and diaries. “Studying the history of picture titles makes one acutely aware that no work enters the public sphere without the collaboration of others” (p. 265). This alone makes this book worth reading by archivists and other information professionals. The detailed studies of paintings of artists such as Winslow Homer and J.M.W. Turner, also makes this an engaging and informative reference.

This was a nice gift.

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