What Is In A Title Of A Painting?

Art lovers fall in to two categories to initially discover meaning in a painting, they study the picture or they study the title. The latter are generally frowned upon for failing to let the image depict what the picture is all about, although, everyone looks at the title eventually to determine or back up their theory.

Long before titles were attached to paintings, artists were happy to paint and the viewers happy to view and over time the paintings were graced with informal, simple and observational titles. This process created a plethora of pieces known by their most distinguishing feature. The Mona Lisa was also similarly adorned with the nickname “La Gioconda”; Ironically meaning “the merry one”. People in general were happy with this arrangement in a time when paintings spoke of idealised scenes in which they could understand.

Artists statuses began to change in the 19th century and in the shift that followed, they themselves began to think up their own titles for the masterpieces they created, like Goya with Disasters of war. The creation of Good morning Mr Courbet By Courbet in 1854, however, brought events to a whole new level. The artist was now on par with the collector. From now on an artist would describe in a title what interested him about his artwork, perhaps the most obvious example of this was Whistlers Arrangement in grey and black - whereby he placed emphasis on the colour and composition within the painting and not the subject itself, which of course was his mother.

Craig Kerrecoe , I scream but it only comes out as a whisper

Craig Kerrecoe, I scream but it only comes out as a whisper

 Titles started to fall in to three main categories;


Largely narcissistic or meant to deliberately confuse, aspirational titles come in two parts; Philosophical and literary or homages. The former is mastered to perfection in Damien Hirst’s The physical Impossibility Of Death in the Mind of Someone Living - Which is a contemporary piece of art in the form of a dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde. Homages generally pay tribute to and associate the artists work with a better artist by using a similar title.


One example of a personal title is something that has a private meaning to the artist. Still life painter Eric Rimmington proceeded to call a painting of a tea kettle “Gilles” which is  French for “Giles”, The reason for this was only known to Rimmington. Another favoured way to adorn paintings with titles was to use general points of reference such as the weather or the time of day like Monet’s - Haystacks at sunset, frosty weather.


Neutral abstract titles are usually distinguished by a component of the picture such as colour like Mondrian’s Composition in Red, Yellow and Blue. A more extreme version of Abstract titles are the minimal type, which almost mimic art in the early days by appearing to be untitled. Jackson Pollock simply named his first drip painting Number 1 - Though this was soon to be outdone by a painting called -“Untitled


For the most part, the titles that accompany a painting have come full circle and the painters and exhibition goers are back where they started, despite the artists attempt to claw back what is rightfully theirs, the public continue to have the last word. Take a previously used example, Whistlers Arrangement in grey and black - the painting shows Whistlers Mother and will always be known as just that.