A Painting by Any Other Name

How much does the title of an artwork affect how we respond to it? It is an interesting question, especially because until the first salon exhibits started under King Louis XIV in 1667 at the French Royal Academy, there wasn’t a tradition of artist’s giving their work a title.  Sometimes a title was given and more often than not works were left untitled. There wasn’t a need as paintings and sculptures were commissioned by patrons who requested a specific theme and no one envisioned either museums or future historians discussing each work. 

In fact most famous paintings created before the 18th century were actually named by art historians or museum curators in the 19th century for the purpose of research or cataloguing work.  Even in the 17th century when art was painted for the general art market and galleries, the modern idea of giving all works of art a title wasn’t in place yet.  We will look at three examples, all from Dutch 17th century art, a time when many “genre” paintings or scenes of everyday life were created.

The painting above, ter Borch’s Parental Admonition is a good example of a wrongly titled painting.  It was originally incorrectly interpreted as a set of parents scolding their young daughter who bows her head shamefully.  However upon closer examination it was determined to be a scene at a brothel.  Brothel scenes and allegories of sin were a popular theme in the 17th century Netherlands.  Another example of a painting given an incorrect title can be seen below in ter Borch’s contemporary, Samuel van Hoogstraten The Slippers.  

We have on the surface a quiet interior setting without figures with two slippers in the foreground.  On closer examination we have before us another allegory of lust and temptation.  The slippers are not a set, there is one man’s and one woman’s.  A broom in the foreground has been left to the side as if to suggest that the woman who was cleaning (the mistress of the house or maybe a maidservant) and the master of the house have snuck into the bedroom together.  The painting within the painting, the Father Admonishing his Daughter by Netscher was a variation of the above work by Gerard Ter Borch. The contemporary viewer would have taken note of the extinguished candle and immediately understood what was going on.
Jan Steen, The Doctor’s Visit, 1658-62, private collection

The last painting we will look at is The Doctor’s Visit by Jan Steen, an artist who did several variations on this theme.  Paintings of young women who were visited by doctors were often titled either “The Doctor’s Visit” or “The Lovesick Woman” but more accurately these are an allegory of sin or lust.  The “lovesickness” in question is usually pregnancy outside of marriage.  Many symbols in these paintings refer to love and lust and again the scene would have been instantly recognizable to the contemporary Dutch viewer.

Titles are something all viewers should carefully consider, who exactly gave a work of art its title?  When it was the artist a whole other level of information is suggested to the viewer and when it was a historian sometimes that level of information is missing or a new subject is implied.  This is an interesting subject area and one I will come back to.

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