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)
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)
2b. Venus of Laussel (Unknown artist, c. 23,000 BCE)
2c. Venus of Brassempouy (Unknown artist, c. 24,000-22,000 BCE)
2d. Venus of Kostenki (Unknown artist, c. 23,000-21,000 BCE)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.