In 1871, James McNeill Whistler painted what would become his most famous work, which he titled "Arrangement in Grey and Black" and submitted the following year to the Royal Academy of Art in London for its 104th Exhibition. Both members of the Royal Academy and the British public were unhappy with the work - the Academy came close to rejecting the painting and the public was uneasy with a portrait described solely as an "arrangement" of colors, wanting more of an explanatory title. As a result, Whistler appended the words "Portrait of the Artist's Mother" to the "Arrangement" title just for this exhibition, although that name stuck and the painting has come down to us by the more popular "Whistler's Mother."
It is rare that an artist is so demonstrably thwarted in the attempt to describe and title his work ("Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an 'Arrangement in Grey and Black,'" the art-for-art's-sake Whistler wrote in his 1890 book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. "Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?"). However, the incident shows the degree to which a name matters to people who will see and perhaps buy the piece.
Titles of works of art seem to matter, but it is not clear why. A seascape titled "Seascape" seems redundant; announcing the location of the seascape ("Penobscot Bay at Nightfall") seems to comfort people. "If the title is obscure or there just is no title, people often ask what they are looking at," according to Bridget Moore, director of New York's D.C. Moore Gallery. Abstract art, on the other hand, often employs a wider range of title possibilities, from "Untitled" and numbering (Robert Ryman's "Classico III" or Sam Francis's "Untitled, No. 11") to a physical description of the artwork (Dorothea Rockburne's "Drawing Which Makes Itself" or Ellsworth Kelly's "Orange and Green") and titles that may mean something only to the artist (Brice Marden's "The Dylan Painting" or Frank Stella's "Quathlamba").
The abstract expressionists were fond of titles that didn't help viewers out much - the recent "Abstract Expressionist New York" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art included Ad Reinhardt's 1963 "Abstract Painting," for instance, or Richard Pousette-Dart's 1943 "Fugue Number 2" or Barnett Newman's 1946 "Untitled" or Mark Rothko's 1945-6 "Untitled" or Clyfford Still's 1944 "1944-N No. 2." - and the current retrospective of the work of Venezuelan painter Carlos Cruz-Diez at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts (through July 4th) is filled with works titled "Physichromie 113-8" and "Physichromie 174." If you have to ask, it's obvious you don't know.
For artists, the titles can be as personal as the artist. "It's like naming puppies," said painter Sondra Freckelton. "You see how they behave, and that's what you name them." African-American artist Whitfield Lovell's paintings are often fragments from jazz songs, which inspired them.
Giving a name to a work of art is, historically, a relatively recent phenomenon, and it is even more recent that artists provide the title. For instance, Giorgio Vasari, in his 1568 Lives of the Artists, makes reference to a variety of paintings and sculpture by their creators, subject matter, location and patrons, but the actual artworks have no separate names. Titles may not have been deemed necessary when biblical or mythological scenes were depicted - "Madonna and Child" or "The Resurrection" - that everyone knew, or when the work was a portrait: Leonardo da Vinci never referred "La Gioconda" or, as it better known in the English-speaking world, the "Mona Lisa."
No one actually knows when titles by artists became standard practice. It may be assumed that artists would begin furnishing their own titles when they started producing artwork independent of patrons or sold by art dealers, a situation that developed in 17th century Holland. However, according to several European art curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, there was basically no such thing as artists giving titles to their works in Holland at this time. Inventories gave descriptions of what the compiler saw, and the titles of secular works were usually generic (such as, still-life, merry company, landscape with figures). An exception is Vermeer's "The Art of Painting" that was so named by the artist's wife shortly after his death. Walter Liedtke, curator of European painting at the Met, noted that he ordered the change on the Rembrandt painting historically titled "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer" to "Aristotle with a Bust of Homer," "because Aristotle was clearly thinking about more than just this bust." He also noted not being completely convinced that the figure is Aristotle - it could be the 13th century Albertus Magnus or just "some philosopher" - but he is sticking with the conventional wisdom in that part.
Auction houses selling Old Masters list titles on the individual lots, but those titles tend to be descriptive and often based on what it was called the last time it was up at auction somewhere. Retitling makes tracking auction results much more difficult, even when the title is clearly wrong, so auctioneers tend to make no changes. (Chicago auctioneer Leslie Hindman recalled one work titled "Merry Company" when it was obviously the flight into Egypt of the holy family, "but it had gone so long with that title that it seemed more trouble than anything else to make a change.)
Some titles refer to the location of the piece (Van Eyck's "Ghent Altarpiece," for example) or are simply descriptive, such as Alfred Sisley's "Still Life: Apples and Grapes," which he painted in 1876, four years before Claude Monet painted his own "Still Life: Apples and Grapes." Neither artist ever recorded such a title in his letters or diaries, so it is unclear where these names came from; it is very likely that a dealer or collector provided the title.
Ah, dealers: They really want titles. San Francisco art dealer John Pence noted that he will regularly "interject suggestions" when artists bring in untitled pieces. "Certain words come up when I see a painting." He added that "sometimes, 'untitled' is a perfectly good title, but in general I don't think it's a good solution. And, if artists use it too frequently, it can be a serious bookkeeping problem for the gallery in keeping track of what has been sold to whom."
At times, Pence will suggest a change in a title where the artist has used words improperly or unwisely ("it shows ignorance") or add to a title when it might be more specific. Artists are also creatures of habit, who may pursue the same or similar subject in a number of works but need titles that differentiate between them. "Jacob Collins uses the same titles again and again," Pence said. "I tell him, 'Maybe, you should call this one 'Vanitas 3.'"
Dealers may be the most common source of titles, but not the only ones. Edouard Manet painted his most famous work, "Olympia," in 1863 but had no name for it. The poet and critic Charles Baudelaire referred to it the following year as "Nude with a Black Cat," but it was Manet's friend Zacharie Astruc, a critic and fellow painter, who named the painting "Olympia," which Manet used when he submitted the work to the 1865 salon. Art critic Clement Greenberg devised poetic names ("Lavender Mist," "Cathedral" or "Alchemy") for some of Jackson Pollock's paintings - the artist himself had only given them numbers ("Number 27, 1950," for example) - and Jack Levine credited his wife with providing the title for his painting "Gangster Funeral," which now resides in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.