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Book received: Yeazell, Picture Titles, Princeton UP 2015

9 November 2015

Picture Titles:
How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names
Ruth Bernard Yeazell

Hardcover | 2015 | $35.00 | £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691165271
352 pp. | 6 x 9 | 16 color illus. 108 halftones.
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Reviews | Table of Contents
Prologue[PDF] pdf-icon

A picture’s title is often our first guide to understanding the image. Yet paintings didn’t always have titles, and many canvases acquired their names from curators, dealers, and printmakers—not the artists. Taking an original, historical look at how Western paintings were named, Picture Titles shows how the practice developed in response to the conditions of the modern art world and how titles have shaped the reception of artwork from the time of Bruegel and Rembrandt to the present.

Ruth Bernard Yeazell begins the story with the decline of patronage and the rise of the art market in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as the increasing circulation of pictures and the democratization of the viewing public generated the need for a shorthand by which to identify works at a far remove from their creation. The spread of literacy both encouraged the practice of titling pictures and aroused new anxieties about relations between word and image, including fears that reading was taking the place of looking. Yeazell demonstrates that most titles composed before the nineteenth century were the work of middlemen, and even today many artists rely on others to name their pictures. A painter who wants a title to stick, Yeazell argues, must engage in an act of aggressive authorship. She investigates prominent cases, such as David’s Oath of the Horatii and works by Turner, Courbet, Whistler, Magritte, and Jasper Johns.

Examining Western painting from the Renaissance to the present day, Picture Titles sheds new light on the ways that we interpret and appreciate visual art.

Ruth Bernard Yeazell is the Chace Family Professor of English and director of the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University. Her books include Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature and Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel (Princeton).


“This fascinating study shows how the naming of paintings was inextricably tied to the rise of the art market in the 17th and 18th centuries.”Apollo Magazine


Picture Titles is more than just a historical account of how and why pictures came to be named, and of how and why these names sometimes changed over time–it also explores how the act of bestowing a title on a picture influences the ways we approach and apprehend it. After reading this highly original and beautifully written book, you will never look at another picture in quite the same way again.”–David Cannadine, author of The Undivided Past: Humanity beyond Our Differences

“Between emblematic text banners in medieval painting and conceptualist works that are all caption, Picture Titles tracks the emergence and rapid evolution of named pictures and inquires into the mutating claims of ‘painter as author.’ Invitingly erudite and anecdotal at once, this short history is long on explanatory grip. Works by artists as different as David and Courbet, Magritte and Johns, get read anew through the logic of appellation itself.”–Garrett Stewart, University of Iowa

“This is a terrific book. It’s very well argued, intellectually provocative, and immensely enjoyable. No one who reads it will ever again consider a painting’s title as something incidental and to be taken for granted. In many ways, Yeazell tells the history of Western art consumption through this hugely important topic.”–Kate Flint, University of Southern California

Picture Titles is an eloquent and deeply researched book on a subject that is deserving of a more focused attention than it has received in the past. Raising interesting questions about the relation between verbal and pictorial literacy, this book will have many appreciative readers in a range of different disciplines.”–Leonard Barkan, Princeton University

Table of Contents:

List of Illustrations ix
Prologue (This is not a title) 1
I Naming and Circulating: Middlemen
1 Before Titles 19
2 Dealers and Notaries 25
3 Early Cataloguers 31
4 Academies 39
5 Printmakers 52
6 Curators, Critics, Friends—and More Dealers 66
II Reading and Interpreting: Viewers
7 Reading by the Title 81
8 The Power of a Name 97
9 Many Can Read Print 110
10 Reading against the Title 124
III Authoring as well as Painting: Artists
11 The Force of David’s Oath 143
12 Turner’s Poetic Fallacies 166
13 Courbet’s Studio as Manifesto 183
14 Whistler’s Symphonies and Other Instructive Arrangements 204
15 Magritte and The Use of Words 225
16 Johns’s No and the Painted Word 243
Acknowledgments 265
Notes 267
Index 315

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