March 2, 2018

Name That Art

        I recently read a book by Ruth Bernard Yeazell called Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names.  It’s the sort of thing I never really thought about, just assuming, as I think most people probably do, that an artist paints a picture, gives it a title, and off it goes into the world.  As it turns out, this is a quite recent phenomenon, and not entirely straightforward even now.  Through most of western art history, paintings didn’t even have titles, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth century as it became more expected that they would (mostly for sale and show catalogues), it was the dealers and other middlemen who most often bestowed a name upon a painting.  This is certainly interesting, but of course the book is explicitly about paintings, since that’s the high-profile, important art, so where does printmaking come into this?  Well, as it turns out, it was often the publishers of the prints (intaglio engravings and etchings) that reproduced and disseminated paintings who gave the paintings their names.  Most paintings don’t include any words, so it was the printmakers who put text with image and then spread it out to the public.  When reproducing Old Master paintings, whose artists had not titled their works and were no longer available to have an opinion on the matter, it was often printers who decided on a name they thought would help sell their reproductions, and slapped it on.  It was certainly printers who popularized titles.
        One of Yeazell’s examples is “The Paternal Admonition,” a c.1654 painting by Gerard ter Borch that became quite famous through its 1765 print reproduction by Jean Georges Willes.  It was Willes who chose the title, but we can’t know whether that’s how he interpreted the painting, or whether the choice was purely in the interests of marketing.  In any case, however, art historians today think it likely that the painting was not intended by ter Borch to depict a familial scene of parents and daughter, but rather a madam, a prostitute, and a john.  The Rijksmuseum, where the painting resides, now calls it “Gallant Conversation, Known as ‘The Paternal Admonition.’”  The printmaker’s title is still too famous to simply ignore.
        Another example is Rembrandt’s beloved “Philosopher in Contemplation” of 1632, which has been enormously famous and popular, and inspired many a writer to wax philosophical himself on Rembrandt’s genius in capturing what it is to be a contemplator of sublime thoughts.  Of course, it turns out that the title was attached to the painting and popularized by Louis Surugue, the printmaker who reproduced it in 1754.  Art historians don’t know what Rembrandt really intended the subject of his painting to be, although almost certainly not a philosopher.  (One possibility is Tobit from the Old Testament.)  Still, nowadays a painting must have a title, and so this one remains a “Philosopher in Contemplation,” thus continuing to influence how we all view and interpret the piece.
        As an artist who considers the titling of my own work part of my job, and one of my tools for conveying my creative vision, I’m a little horrified at the idea of artwork getting hijacked and wrenched so far astray from the artist’s intention.  On the other hand, I never knew printmakers could wield such art world power!

[Pictures: Le philosophe en contemplation, etching by Louis Surugue after painting by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1754 (Image from The British Museum);
L’instruction paternelle, etching and engraving by Jean Georges Wille after a painting by Gerard ter Borch, 1765 (Image from The British Museum).]

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