Pieces of art with titles of different kinds. Clockwise from upper left: an 1887 self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh; a female ancestor figure by a Chokwe artist; detail from The Birth of Venus (c. 1484–1486) by Sandro Botticelli; and an Okinawan Shisa lion

In art, a title is a word or phrase used to identify and distinguish a particular work of art from others. These titles can be descriptive, indicative of the content or theme of the work, or they can be more abstract and open to interpretation. Such titles can be designated by the artists themselves, or by curators or other third parties, and can affect reception and interpretation.[1][2]

Traditionally, only works of art in the fine arts have a title as such, but convenient descriptive titles may be needed for works in the decorative arts, for cataloging, museum labels and the like.

Titles are by no means fixed for ever. It may be discovered, or argued, that the actual subject of the work has been wrongly identified. A painting by Titian has been argued to show both Salome or Judith with the Head of Holofernes. The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck in the National Gallery has been given several different titles by the museum over recent decades, as opinions as to the nature of the occasion and the people shown have changed.[3]

History and curation

In the ancient world, Artworks were not typically given a proper title, the identification of something like a cult image being self-evident in a particular sociocultural context,[4][5] akin to the concept of the Poor Man's Bible. They were sometimes inscribed by epigraphy with the signature of the artist and/or the subject of the piece such as a titulus, but a titulus served simple utilitarian functions and was not a true title.[4][6] Subsequent art history, beginning with Pliny's chapters that gave common names to works such as by Praxiteles.[7][8]

The relatively small group of narrative religious subjects in Western medieval art were and are referred to by the standard names for the event shown developed by the church, and used in theological and devotional literature, with similar conventions used for other religions.[5] The need for an agreed title only emerged in a Western context in the 18th century, with more secular subjects, and more printed literature of art criticism, and Enlightenment cataloging of the first museums and the first exhibitions.[5]

In modern times, titles of artworks are usually chosen by the artist, but they can also have been assigned by galleries, private collectors, printmakers, art dealers, or curators, this historical process being the subject of a book by Ruth Yeazell.[1] The onomastician Adrian Room compiled an encyclopedic dictionary in this area.[2] John C. Welchman has written Invisible Colors as a critical history of modern titles, after an aphorism by Duchamp.[9]

Untitled by Paul Klee (1914)

Some artworks have had their museum label names changed as new art history research emerges[10] or as a modification of an offensive or pejorative name.[11] Curating institutions are responsible for thorough documentation of all title variants, including translations of an artwork title into one or more languages.[12] As a proper title is considered the default for modern works, others may be designated "Untitled" (by secondary sources or by the artist as a conscious choice), and are sometimes also assigned a parenthetical name for clarity.[5]

From Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du monde (1866), to Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (1916) and L.H.O.O.Q. (1919), to Freytag-Loringhoven and Schamberg's God 1917, to Maurizio Cattelan's America (2016), artists have used artwork titles to provide additional meaning and/or context to their works of art since at least the 19th century.[13][14][15][16]

Art criticism

The title of a work of art can have an impact on its reception and aesthetic interpretation by audiences and critics, and can also be an aspect of the artist's overall vision for the piece, and this can be particularly the case for abstract art.[17][18] Some artists choose to title their works with a simple descriptive phrase, such as "Portrait of a Woman" or "Landscape with Trees." Other artists may use more abstract or symbolic titles, such as The Scream or The Persistence of Memory. In some cases, the title of a work of art may be a quote or homage to another work of art or literature. Conversely, ekphrastic literature often repurposes the title of an artwork.[19]

The choice of title for a work of art, akin to an artist's statement, can be a personal decision for the artist, and can reflect their own interpretation or intentions for the piece. It can also serve as a way for the artist to engage with the viewer and invite them to consider the work from a particular perspective. Philosophically, Jacques Derrida compared an artwork's title to a parergon[20] and considered it similarly to a simulacrum, and Jean-Luc Nancy took a comparable approach.[21] The title of a work of art is a part of its identity and can influence its reception and interpretation by audiences, as noted by art critic Arthur Danto,[22] who made a thought experiment of a particular abstract mural being named after either the first or third of Newton's laws of motion; however, titles can be more impactful on the interpretation of some works than others.[23] Whether descriptive or abstract, the title of a work of art can be an element of the artistic process.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ a b Yeazell, Ruth Bernard (2015-09-29). Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-1-4008-7346-3.
  2. ^ a b Room, Adrian (2008-08-26). A Dictionary of Art Titles: The Origins of the Names and Titles of 3,000 Works of Art. McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7864-3889-1.
  3. ^ The Arnolfini Wedding, The Arnolfini Marriage, the Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, and other titles
  4. ^ a b Geuss, Raymond (2016-03-28). Reality and Its Dreams. Harvard University Press. p. 219. ISBN 978-0-674-96895-0.
  5. ^ a b c d Ables, Kelsey (2019-07-04). "Why Many Artworks Are Untitled". Artsy. Retrieved 2022-12-17.
  6. ^ "TITRE DES ŒUVRES D'ART - Encyclopædia Universalis". www.universalis.fr. Retrieved 2023-04-18.
  7. ^ Παλαγιά, Όλγα; Pollitt, J. J.; Staff, Department of Classics, Yale University (1999-01-21). Personal Styles in Greek Sculpture. Cambridge University Press. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-521-65738-9.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. ^ Childs, William A. P. (2018-04-10). Greek Art and Aesthetics in the Fourth Century B.C. Princeton University Press. p. 81. ISBN 978-1-4008-9051-4.
  9. ^ Welchman, John C. (1997-01-01). Invisible Colors: A Visual History of Titles. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-06530-5.
  10. ^ Lambrechts, Lisa (2020-06-15). "From Young Woman with a Fan to Isabella: A Rediscovered Identity". The Rijksmuseum Bulletin. 68 (2): 157–165. doi:10.52476/trb.9685. ISSN 2772-6126. S2CID 238123439.
  11. ^ Veselinovic, Milena (2015-12-14). "Dutch museum renaming art for cultural sensitivity". CNN. Retrieved 2022-12-17.
  12. ^ Seren, Tasha (2001). "Integrated Art Documentation: the Guggenheim Perspective". Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America. 20 (1): 31–35. doi:10.1086/adx.20.1.27949122. ISSN 0730-7187. S2CID 194489785.
  13. ^ "Philadelphia Museum of Art - Collections Object : God". www.philamuseum.org. Retrieved 2020-08-09.
  14. ^ "Maurizio Cattelan: "America"". Guggenheim. 12 May 2016. Retrieved 15 September 2019.
  15. ^ Anne Collins Goodyear, James W. McManus, National Portrait Gallery (Smithsonian Institution), Inventing Marcel Duchamp: The Dynamics of Portraiture, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2009, contributors Janine A. Mileaf, Francis M. Naumann, Michael R. Taylor, ISBN 0262013002
  16. ^ Wagner-Pacifici, Robin (2017-03-24). What Is an Event?. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-43981-5.
  17. ^ Anna, Ursyn (2013-10-31). Computational Solutions for Knowledge, Art, and Entertainment: Information Exchange Beyond Text: Information Exchange Beyond Text. IGI Global. p. 12. ISBN 978-1-4666-4628-5.
  18. ^ Esposito, Anna; Esposito, Antonietta M.; Martone, Raffaele; Müller, Vincent; Scarpetta, Gaetano (2011-01-14). Towards Autonomous, Adaptive, and Context-Aware Multimodal Interfaces: Theoretical and Practical Issues: Third COST 2102 International Training School, Caserta, Italy, March 15-19, 2010, Revised Selected Papers. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 105. ISBN 978-3-642-18183-2.
  19. ^ Panagiotidou, Maria-Eirini (2022-11-25). The Poetics of Ekphrasis: A Stylistic Approach. Springer Nature. p. 87. ISBN 978-3-031-11313-0.
  20. ^ Petit, Laurence (2014-04-11). Picturing the Language of Images. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 244. ISBN 978-1-4438-5933-2.
  21. ^ Heikkilä, Martta (2021-07-29). Deconstruction and the Work of Art: Visual Arts and Their Critique in Contemporary French Thought. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 2010. ISBN 978-1-7936-1905-1.
  22. ^ Spaid, Sue (2020-10-15). The Philosophy of Curatorial Practice: Between Work and World. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 126. ISBN 978-1-350-11491-3.
  23. ^ Savedoff, Barbara (1999-02-02). "The Art Object". In Dayton, Eric (ed.). Art and Interpretation: An Anthology of Readings in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. Broadview Press. ISBN 978-1-55111-190-2.

Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain: ChatGPT output pasted into the initial revision of this article. 6 December 2022. – via OpenAI