Monthly Archives: July 2014

Mistitled Masterpieces

While doing research for my visual arts lists, I occasionally came across works of art whose titles were misleading, inaccurate or just plain wrong, but for various reasons are still used to refer to the painting or sculpture they imperfectly describe.  I thought it might be interesting to make a list of such works with an explanation of the mismatch between the title and the object to which it is attached.  Here it is, in chronological order (with illustrations, of course).  I’d be interested if folks have other examples to share.

1. Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel (Unknown artist, c. 38,000 BCE)
lion man 1
In German, the name means Lion-Human, with no gender reference, but the English translation implies that the figure is a male, even though at least some scientists believe it represents a female.

2a. Venus of Willendorf (Unknown artist, c. 28,000-25,000 BCE)
Venus_of_Willendorf

2b. Venus of Laussel (Unknown artist, c. 23,000 BCE)
Venus of Laussel.

2c. Venus of Brassempouy (Unknown artist, c. 24,000-22,000 BCE)Venus of Brassempouy.

2d. Venus of Kostenki (Unknown artist, c. 23,000-21,000 BCE)
venus of kostenki
Despite their names, these prehistoric figurines do not depict the Roman goddess Venus, whose mythology was not created until many thousands of years later.  The anachronistic term “Venus of _____” arose from a belief that these and similar figurines represent fertility goddesses and as such were prehistoric analogues to Venus, the goddess of love.  Because the term is misleading and has caused confusion, its use by archaeologists is on the wane.

3. Ram in a Thicket (Unknown artist, c. 2600-2400 BCE)
ram 2   ram-thicket
Most experts believe the figures represented by this pair of figurines are goats, but the discovering archaeologist named them after a story in the Book of Genesis in which Abraham sees a ram caught in a thicket.

4. Standard of Ur (Unknown artist, c. 2600-2400 BCE)
Standard of ur warstandard of ur
This mosaic-inlaid box may have been part of a musical instrument, but there is no evidence to support the original discoverer’s theory that it is a standard, or flag-like sign that would have been carried into battle.

5. Mask of Agamemnon (Unknown artist, c. 1550-1500 BCE)
Mask of Agamemnon.
Despite the hopes of its discoverer, Heinrich Schliemann, this gold mask is 300 years too old to be associated with the Trojan War and its participants, including Agamemnon.  To make matters worse, some believe Schliemann may have faked the mask, which is much more sophisticated than other masks found at the same site.

6. Ludovisi Throne (Unknown artist, c. 470-460 BCE)
Ludovisi_throne_center
The Ludovisi Throne is not a throne.  It was probably part of the foundation of an Ancient Greek temple.

7. Venus de Milo (Alexandros of Antioch, 130-100 BCE)
venus de milo 1
It may be splitting hairs, but the statue known as Venus de Milo was made by Hellenist Greeks and found on a Greek island, so the goddess would have been called Aphrodite, not Venus, who was Aphrodite’s counterpart in Roman mythology.

8. Battersea Shield (Unknown artist, c. 350-50 BCE)
Battersea Shield.
It may look like a shield, but experts say the Battersea Shield was not battle-worthy or battle-tested and was probably a replica used for ceremonial purposes and as a votive offering.

9. The Bayeux Tapestry (Unknown artist, c. 1075)
bayeux tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry.  A tapestry is a woven textile, while the Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth, in which the artist used wool thread to embroider designs on a linen cloth.

10. The Well of Moses (Claus Sluter, 1395-1405)
well of moses 2
The Well of Moses is not a well.  It is the base of a Crucifixion scene, the upper portion of which was dismantled during the French Revolution by anti-clerical mobs.

11.  The Holy Trinity Icon (Andrei Rublev, 1408-1425)
holy trinity
Not so much a mistitling, as a title that requires a leap of logic.  The figures represented in the famous icon are the three angels who appeared to Abraham at Mamre, according to the Book of Genesis.  A theological metaphor connects the three angels to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit of the Christian trinity.

12. Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban (Jan van Eyck, 1433)
portrait of a man
The subject of this possible self-portrait is not wearing a turban.  He is wearing a fashionable 15th Century head-covering known as a chaperon.  The turban-like appearance is the result of the subject’s decision to take the long tails of the chaperon and wrap them around his head, possibly to avoid having them interfere with his painting.

13. Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife (The Arnolfini Portrait) (Jan van Eyck, 1434)
arnolfini portrait
For centuries, scholars believed they had correctly identified the subjects of this portrait as the Arnolfinis, but in 1997, it was discovered that Arnolfini was married six years after Jan van Eyck’s death.  Was Arnolfini married twice?  Does the painting show Giovanni Arnolfini blessing another family member (a niece?) on her marriage?  Or are there no Arnolfinis involved in the portrait at all?  Art historians have not reached consensus on answers to these questions.

14. St. Francis in the Desert (Giovanni Bellini, c. 1480)
st francis
While the area in St. Francis’s immediate vicinity is rocky and somewhat barren, the landscape beyond is anything but desert-like.  In fact, it looks like an Italian countryside.  ‘Going into the desert’ may have been shorthand for any religious figure going on a solitary retreat away from civilization, in remembrance of Jesus’s temptation in the desert.

15. John the Baptist in the Wilderness (Geertgen tot Sint Jans, c. 1485-1490)St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness.
The ‘wilderness’ looks more like a well-groomed park, and it is within sight of a town.

16. An Old Man and His Grandson (Domenic Ghirlandaio, 1490)
An Old Man and His Grandson.
While the ages and the behaviors of the subjects make it perfectly reasonable to infer that their relationship is grandfather and grandson, there is no direct evidence of the names of the subjects or their relationship.

17. The Three Philosophers (Giorgione, 1506-1509)
giorgione three philosophers
The current name came from a 1525 catalogue of the owner’s artworks, but no one really knows who the three individuals are or who they are supposed to represent, although there are plenty of theories.

18. The Laughing Cavalier (Frans Hals, 1624)
The Laughing Cavalier.
Wrong on both counts.  First, there is no evidence the subject was a cavalier.  Second, while the man is smiling, he is definitely not laughing.

19. The Night Watch (Rembrandt, 1642)
The Night Watch.
First, the militia in the painting is not on a watch, which only occurs in times of danger, it is marching out of headquarters.  Second, even though Rembrandt’s glazes have darkened over the centuries, the scene occurs during the day.

20. The Milkmaid (Johannes Vermeer, 1657-1658)
milkmaid
A milkmaid milks cows.  This woman is a domestic kitchen maid, not a milkmaid, even though she happens to be pouring milk.

20. The Jewish Bride (Rembrandt, 1667)
The Jewish Bride.
There is no evidence about the identity of the subjects of this double portrait or their religious affiliations.  Some scholars do believe the subject of the painting is the Old Testament’s Isaac and Rebekah.  Others believe that it shows a contemporary couple dressed as the Biblical pair, following a common tradition of having one’s portrait done as a character from history.

21. The Embarkation for Cythera (Antoine Watteau, 1717)
embarkation for cythera
Although the various titles for this and a very similar piece indicate that the couples are on their way to the island of Cythera, some experts believe the painting actually shows couples returning from Cythera.

22. Chirk Aqueduct (Crambe Beck Bridge) (John Sell Cotman, 1804-1807)
Cotman_chirk
For many years, scholars assigned the name Chirk Aqueduct to this landscape painting of Cotman’s.  A recent reexamination of the painting and its subject have led to the conclusion that the structure depicted is Crambe Beck Bridge, in the north of England, not Chirk Aqueduct in Wales.

23. Woman with a Pearl (Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1868-1870)
Woman with a Pearl.
Most of the mistaken titles on this list were assigned by someone other than the artist.  In this case, the artist gave an incorrect title to his own painting.  The woman in Corot’s Woman with a Pearl is not wearing a pearl.  The decoration on her forehead is a leaf.  Scholars suspect that Corot chose his title as an homage to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Woman with a Pearl Necklace.

The Best Artists of All Time – Painters and Sculptors

While collecting over 15 lists of “Best Artists of All Time” (this is a list of visual artists, focusing on painters and sculptors – architecture and photography have separate lists), I kept thinking about how many great works of art have no artist’s name attached to them:  the cave paintings of Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira; the Venus figurines; the seals of Mohenjo-Daro; the mosaic tiles of Ravenna, the Dome of the Rock, Damascus and Isfahan; the medieval icons of St. Catherine’s Monastery; the relief sculptures of Nineveh, Persepolis, Borobudur, Amaravati, Chartres and Amiens; the giant sculptures of the Olmecs and Rapa Nui; the Nkisi Nkondi nail figures; the Fang Ngil masks; the Codex Borgia; the Book of Kells; the Wilton Diptych, and so many more.  When did artists emerge from the shadows of anonymity, and why?  Or should we ask instead why so many artists failed to preserve their names for posterity?  From what I can gather, the idea of the artist as a creative individual who deserved recognition for his or her creations arose in different cultures at different times.  The Ancient Greeks celebrated the genius of Phidias, Praxiteles, Lysippos and Euphronios and the Chinese and Japanese cultures celebrated artists by name as early as the 7th Century CE, but in many other cultures and in many other times, the artist was considered a craftsman who made art the way a chairmaker made a chair or a blacksmith made a horseshoe.  When 7th Century Chinese court official Yan Liben became known for his paintings instead of his bureaucratic achievements, he felt humiliated, since painters belonged to a lower rank with tradesman such as tailors and carpenters.  Most art historians trace the modern-day acknowledgement of artists in Western Culture to the Renaissance and the rise of humanism, a philosophy that put the individual at the center of the universe, as the driving force of civilization.  While some medieval artists had signed their work, it was probably Proto-Renaissance master Giotto di Bondone who was the first in a long line of Western artists, continuing to this day, who took steps to ensure that their names are associated with their art.  Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, first published in 1550, rejected once and for all the notion that artists were anonymous craftsmen and instead celebrated their individual geniuses, at the same time raising the artist above ordinary citizens and introducing the concept of artist as celebrity.  Once an artwork was connected with the name of an artist, certain consequences ensued:  first, works by the better (or better known) artists increased in value; second, lesser known artists seeking to cash in on the work of more famous artists began creating cheap imitations and outright forgeries; and third, the famous artists, in response, sought to protect their work by various means – first, merely by signing them – but this impulse eventually led to today’s copyright laws.  The reason Michelangelo signed the Pietà was that someone was going around telling people that the sculpture had been carved by his rival, Cristoforo Solari.  Anonymity was one thing, but the greatest artist of all time (see list below) could not bear the idea that another, lesser artist, was getting the credit for his masterpiece.

15 “Best Artists” Lists
Michelangelo (1475-1564) Italian painter, sculptor, architect

14 Lists
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Italian painter, sculptor, architect

11
Rembrandt (1606-69) Dutch painter, printmaker
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) Spanish painter, sculptor

10
Raphael (1483-1520) Italian painter
Titian (1488-1576) Italian painter
Claude Monet (1840-1926) French painter

8
Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) Dutch painter
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) French painter

7
Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) Flemish painter
Caravaggio (1573-1610) Italian painter
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) Flemish painter
Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) Spanish painter
J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) British painter
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) French painter
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) French painter
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) Dutch painter

6
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1528-1569) Flemish painter
Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) French painter
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) French painter
Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) Italian painter, sculptor
Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) Swiss sculptor, painter
Salvador Dalí
(1904-1989) Spanish painter, sculptor

5
Giotto (c. 1267-1337) Italian painter
Donatello (1386-1466) Italian sculptor
El Greco (1541-1614) Greek-Spanish painter
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) French painter
Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) Spanish painter, printmaker
John Constable (1776-1837) British painter
Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) French painter
Édouard Manet (1832-1883) French painter
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) French sculptor
James McNeill Whistler (1856-1921) American painter
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) Russian painter
Edward Hopper (1882-1967) American painter
René Magritte (1898–1967) Belgian painter
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) American painter

4
Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464) Flemish painter
Tomasso Masaccio (1401-1428) Italian painter
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) Italian painter
Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) Dutch painter
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) German painter, printmaker
Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) German painter, printmaker
Frans Hals (c.1580-1666) Flemish-Dutch painter
Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) French painter
William Blake (1757-1827) British painter, printmaker
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) Japanese painter, printmaker
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) French painter
Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) French painter
Georges Seurat (1859-1891) French painter
Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) Austrian painter
Andy Warhol (1928-1987) American painter, printmaker

3
Yan Liben (c. 600-673) Chinese painter
Cimabue (c.1240-1302) Italian painter
Duccio (c.1255/60–1318/19) Italian painter
Huang Gongwang (1269-1354) Chinese painter
Simone Martini (1284-1344) Italian painter
Fra Angelico (1387-1455) Italian painter
Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) Italian painter
Piero della Francesca (1416-1492) Italian painter
Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) Italian painter
Tintoretto (1518-1594) Italian painter
Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) French painter
William Hogarth (1697-1764) British painter, printmaker
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) French painter
Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) French painter
Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1753-1806) Japanese painter, printmaker
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) French painter, printmaker
Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) Japanese painter, printmaker
Winslow Homer (1836-1910) American painter
Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) French painter
Piet Mondrian (1872 -1944) Dutch painter
Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) Russian painter
Paul Klee (1879-1940) Swiss painter
Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) French painter, sculptor
Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986) American painter
Egon Schiele (1890-1918) Austrian painter
Joan Miró (1893-1983) Spanish painter
Henry Moore (1898-1986) British sculptor
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) Mexican painter

2
Fan Kuan (fl. 990-1020) Chinese painter
Guo Xi (c. 1020-1090) Chinese painter
Ma Yuan (c. 1160-1225) Chinese painter
Jokei (fl. 1190-1200) Japanese sculptor
Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1290-1348) Italian painter
Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1516) Italian painter
Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528) German painter
Giorgione (1478-1510) Italian painter
Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) Italian painter
Georges de la Tour (1593-1652) French painter
Artemisia Gentileschi (1597-1654) Italian painter
Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) Spanish painter
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) Italian sculptor, painter, architect
François Boucher (1703-1770) French painter
Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) British painter
Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) German painter
Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) French painter
John Everett Millais (1829-1896) British painter
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) Danish-French painter
Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) French painter
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) American painter
Edvard Munch (1863-1944) Norwegian painter, printmaker
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) French painter
Constantin Brâncusi (1876-1957) Romanian-French sculptor
Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) Italian painter, sculptor
Georges Braque (1882-1963) French painter, sculptor, printmaker
Marc Chagall (1887-1985) Belarussian-French painter
Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) Italian-Greek painter
Alexander Calder (1898-1976) American sculptor
Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) Russian-American sculptor
Mark Rothko (1903-1970) Russian-American painter
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) Dutch-American painter, sculptor
Arshille Gorky (1904-1948) Armenian-American painter
Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1977) American painter
David Hockney (1937- ) British painter
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) American painter