Menu Close

How the painting got its name

Rembrandt’s famous painting – commonly known as The Night Watch – doesn’t even take place at night. 'Rembrandt' via

I have a confession to make: I rarely walk into a museum or gallery without finding my eyes drifting down to the title of a painting – often before even looking at the painting itself.

Though I feel guilty about this habit, I suspect that I have a lot of company in my fellow museumgoers, who probably also share my sense that there is something illicit about the practice.

But why did pictures acquire titles in the first place, and what accounts for my twinge of guilt when I turn to them? My new book, Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names, is partly an attempt to answer these questions.

The origins of the title

The history of the picture title is a history of the last 300 years: when images begin to widely circulate, the arts market grew, and public viewing spaces, like the 18th-century Salon or the modern museum, were established. At the same time, new technological developments, from popular prints to computer images, allowed for inexpensive reproductions to reach a wider audience.

In earlier periods, when works of art were produced for a small elite, there wasn’t much need for titles: the patron and artist typically negotiated a picture’s subject, and the eventual owners more or less knew what they’d be seeing. (Even today, few pictures that hang in private homes are accompanied by titles.)

Works of art that remained site-specific and visible largely to a local population also didn’t require titles. Think of an altar in a local church, or a fresco in a princely palace.

But all this changed once paintings began to circulate and people began to encounter images at a significant remove – both physical and temporal – from their creation.

Titles, ultimately, are a function of the democratization of viewing; the more heterogeneous the viewing public, the greater the need for titles.

And titles would be useless without people to read them. The growth of literacy rates over the last 300 years is another part of this story. Were it not for paintings’ increased tendency to circulate, a viewer wouldn’t be confronted by an unfamiliar image; but were it not for her ability to read, that same viewer wouldn’t try to interpret what she saw by looking for its title.

Why feel guilty about titles?

From the artist’s perspective, however, the democratizing effects of print culture proved more problematic. The very words that helped explain and market a painting threatened to trump the painting itself.

The result was a startling reversal of old hierarchies: rather than thinking of images as the more popular form (with words the province of the elite), visual artists began to worry that if any layperson could read, reading could take the place of looking.

The guilt I feel when I hastily consult a picture’s title actually has its origins in the 19th century, when satirists first began to mock the public’s tendency to read rather than look. A wonderful satirical cartoon by the French artist Honoré Daumier, for example, shows a man who can scarcely see what’s before his eyes because he’s too busy reading a title. By glancing at the wrong line in his catalog, he confuses a picture of a bull with the portrait of a stockbroker.

Whose title?

We ordinarily think of a painting’s title as originating with the artist, but titling has historically been a matter of reception rather than creation.

In fact, many of the paintings that hang in our museums were not named by their creators, but by those I’ve termed “middlemen”: a group that includes everyone from notaries, dealers and printmakers, to critics, friends of the artist and even members of the viewing public. A number of Rembrandt’s paintings, for example, derive their titles from popular prints produced many years after their creation. It was a critic who titled Claude Monet’s breakthrough painting at the Paris Salon The Woman in the Green Dress (1866): Monet himself had called it Camille, after the mistress who later became his wife.

Even modern pictures often derive their titles from middlemen. Jackson Pollock’s Pasiphaë (1943) appears to have been named after the mythical queen who cuckolded King Minos and gave birth to the Minotaur, and some distinguished commentators interpreted it accordingly. But Pollock had actually intended to title his picture Moby Dick: it was a museum curator who came up with Pasiphaë.

“Who the hell is Pasiphaë?” the artist is reported to have inquired.

Such titles register how a variety of people have classified and interpreted pictures after-the-fact: they may have little to do with the artist’s original intention.

Yet even when modern scholars have good reason to question a traditional title, both that title and the interpretation it implies can be almost impossible to change. As early as the 19th century, commentators realized that Rembrandt’s The Night Watch neither depicted a watch nor took place at night. But who doesn’t know the painting by that name?

James McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, popularly known as Whistler’s Mother. Wikimedia Commons

Artists didn’t typically title their work until the 19th century, and even those who aggressively sought to control the reception of their pictures by titling them haven’t always succeeded. James McNeill Whistler named his most famous painting Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother (1871), for example, because he wished to direct the viewer’s eyes first to the abstract pattern of its tones and only secondarily – if at all – to the picture’s subject.

“To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother,” he conceded, “but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?”

Viewers did care about the portrait, however, not only because everyone responds to the emotional effects of the human figure, but because it is far easier to recall such a picture by what it represents than by a titular abstraction – especially when there happens to be more than one such Arrangement in Grey and Black by the same artist. This particular painting has become widely known, of course, as “Whistler’s Mother.”

We might take some consolation for our use of this popular shorthand from the knowledge that in the privacy of his own letters Whistler, too, routinely referred to “the portrait” – or “picture” – of “my mother.”

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 187,300 academics and researchers from 5,000 institutions.

Register now