April 20, 2016 8:35:49 AM
In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain digresses on the importance of titles of paintings, in particular while telling us about the picture "The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson." While acknowledging the picture's importance because of its authentic portraits of the two men, Twain says the label is important to a historical picture, but only to get the personnel right, and he proposes other titles that would do just as well: "First Interview between Lee and Jackson", "Last Interview between Lee and Jackson", "Jackson Apologizing for a Heavy Defeat", "Jackson Reporting a Great Victory", or "Jackson Asking Lee for a Match". Ruth Bernard Yeazell, in Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names (Princeton University Press) doesn't mention Twain's thoughts on the arbitrariness of this picture's title, but goes on to mention his further thoughts on a famous seventeenth century picture by Guido Reni of a young woman that bore the title, "Beatrice Cenci the Day before Her Execution". Though even in Twain's day the subject and the attribution of the artist of the picture were being questioned, people were still moved by Beatrice's story of martyrdom and were even tearful before her portrait. It isn't a sad picture; it merely shows a pretty young woman in a turban. "It shows what a label can do," wrote Twain. "If they did not know the picture, they would inspect it unmoved and say, "Young girl with hay fever; young girl with her head in a bag."
If he painted that picture, Reni didn't give it its title. One of the surprises of Yeazell's book is that artists didn't get around to giving their pictures names routinely until the nineteenth century. Pictures were just pictures without titles, but by the eighteenth century, changes in displaying, inventorying, and selling pictures necessitated attaching names. If you go to a museum now, you expect that the name of a picture will be on its frame or on the wall adjacent, with everything at eye height. This is a recent way of doing things. When there was a public exhibition of paintings up to the nineteenth century, the pictures were jammed into their rectangular spaces from floor to ceiling. There was little wall remaining on which to pin a title plaque. Instead, one consulted a catalogue, which might have a description of the painting and an attribution. It might also have a title, one that the compiler of the catalogue, and not the artist, had invented. Yeazell's research shows that "middlemen" such as auctioneers and cataloguers were often responsible for titles now fastened firmly to their pictures.
Other middlemen were the printmakers. Among the most successful printmakers in the eighteenth century was Jean Georges Wille in Paris, whose reproductions were found in homes all over Europe. One of the most famous was his print of a 1654 painting by Gerard ter Borch. Wille titled his 1765 engraving "L'instruction Paternelle" or "The Paternal Admonition." He had interpreted the tableau of three figures - a young woman, a man who raises his hand in an ambiguous gesture, and an older woman sipping from a glass of wine - as a familial scene, and so his print got its title. When the print became famous, the name became attached to the painting from which it was drawn; Goethe himself composed a narrative inspired by the painting, but more by the title. We have, however, no way of knowing what ter Borch had in mind for that narrative behind the painting. Hilariously, the scholarly consensus of interpretation had shifted within the twentieth century. That was no father, mother, and daughter, but rather a client, procuress, and courtesan within an upscale bordello.
Another example of printmakers doing the titling is a painting by Rembrandt in 1632 showing an old bearded man in a dark interior contemplating a large volume by the light of the window while an old woman tends the fire. It is called "Philosophe en Meditation," ("Philosopher in Meditation"), but Rembrandt never gave his picture that title. Poets and writers, including Aldous Huxley, have written about who that philosopher might be. A printmaker, Louis Surugue, engraved his version of the picture in 1754, and perhaps drawing on an idea of the owner of the painting, gave the print its title, which retroactively became the name of the painting. Not only did the title of the print get invented during the Enlightenment when there was a booming business in "philosophes," there is no iconographical tradition of philosophers attended by women tending the fire or doing anything else. Or perhaps the picture shows the obscure apocryphal story of Tobit and Anna; no one can be sure because Rembrandt didn't say. But it is as a depiction of a philosopher in his lair that the picture is known, because of the title given to it by the printmaker, and while this colors how anyone looks at the painting now, such a subject undoubtedly was not what Rembrandt had in mind.
Sometimes pictures got titles that were arbitrary. Paul Cezanne worked at a time when artists were titling their paintings, but whether he did so for any of his paintings we do not know. His dealer Ambroise Vollard was arranging for a show and placed a canvas by Cezanne into a frame that still had on it the name of a picture it had previously surrounded. Thus, Cezanne's painting, showing some female nudes and a figure that could be taken to be a shepherd, was inadvertently called "Diana and Actaeon," and critics interpreted the painting as a depiction of the legend. Sometime later, Vollard promised to lend a picture of the Temptation of St. Anthony by Cezanne to another exhibit, but he had sold it by the time of the show, so he sent the previous picture, this time without words on the frame. It was listed in the catalogue as St. Anthony, and critics now saw a moving picture of the saint under duress. Cezanne himself was not interested in the titular follies, and explained that his paintings not only had no titles, they had no subjects: "I merely tried to render certain movements."
Obviously a title made a difference, though, and once titles did start getting fixed to paintings, artists wanted a say-so in the business. Yeazell's final chapters are essays on how particular artists used, or failed to use, titles to explain, or obscure, their work. Picasso had little interest in titles, declaring that a painting could speak for itself. Whistler so disliked the idea of a title being fixed to the subject of a painting that he assigned his works musical titles, like "Symphony in White," prompting Punch to print a parody cartoon labeled "An Arrangement in Fiddle-de-dee." Rene Magritte chose titles that would make his paintings even more strange. His famous declaration written below a painting of a pipe, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," is not the title of the picture, which is "La trahison des images" or "The Treachery of Images." Let's let Jackson Pollock have the last word in this review of Yeazell's academic but entertaining work. He painted a colorful abstract and called it "Moby Dick." Patron Peggy Guggenheim didn't care for the title, and so a curator renamed the picture "Pasiphae." You can be excused for not knowing the derivation; Pasiphae is far less famous than Moby Dick. She was the wife of King Minos who cuckolded him with a bull and gave birth to the Minotaur. Pollock acquiesced to the name change, but only after expressing surprise: "Who the hell is Pasiphae?"