Titles. Names by which works of art are known, which may be formulated by their creators, by others dealing with the works, or be labels attached by popular consensus. While the main purpose of titling works is to differentiate them, a title may also be used deliberately to add meaning to a work. The majority of studies on the subject date only from the mid-1960s and concentrate on the modern, Western period of painting,...
(From the entry 'Titles' by Collette A. Chattopadhyay, in The Dictionary of Art, vol. 31, Macmillan Publishers Limited 1996.)


    We are used to the idea that all works of art have titles. We find one on a plate beside a painting in a museum or printed under a painting reproduced in an art book. We also tend to think that a title is given to a work by its creator, who wants to increase its impact by adding words to the image. There are artists, however, who seem to prefer their works to be independent of verbal influence, selecting titles as neutral as possible, say, 'Work', 'Composition' or 'Untitled'. By naming their works in such a way, these artists would seem to be declaring themselves against loquacious titles, but since this declaration is made through titles, you may safely say that they still recognise naming their own works to be an integral part of their creative process.
    Such being the case today, it is understandable that the writer of the otherwise well-informed and well thought-out entry for 'Titles', the beginning sentences of which are quoted above, takes anachronistically a 16th-century painting as an example of artwork that has been given added meaning by its title. The work in question is a masterpiece called Landscape with the Fall of Icarus attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1558), [fig.1]. According to the writer, the title induces us to search for 'the subject identified by the title'. She continues as follows:

While we may notice first the plough tracing furrows in the foreground, once Icarus' wildly thrashing legs have been located within the landscape, interpretation of the work changes from that of a bucolic landscape to that of a disturbing landscape that reverberates with indifference to the occurring catastrophe'.

It cannot be denied that Bruegel may have intended to express nature's or the world's lack of concern for an individual's fate. At least, the impression of the scene corroborates such an interpretation. But we should not find in this work one of 'the earliest manipulations of the relationship between title and subject-matter'. Because Bruegel cannot have entitled his paintings as today's artists do. The custom had not yet started in his time.
    The tradition of giving a title to one's own work is not as long as you might think. Italian Renaissance artists like Fra Angelico or Botticelli did not title their paintings, though we know them by the 'titles' such as 'Annunciation', 'Virgin and Child' or 'Birth of Venus'. Actually, these phrases we use today to designate old masters' works refer to the subject-matter of pictures. And since subject-matter of artworks used to be conventional and limited in variety, we have a number of paintings with the same 'title'.
    This shortage of diversity was caused by the fact that around the period of the later Middle Ages to the Early Renaissance, when easel-painting as we are now familiar with started flourishing, most works served a religious function and were produced on commission. Not only the Church but also lay people ordered devotional paintings either to donate them to their parish churches or to make a private altar at home. In such circumstances, it was not the artist but the client that chose a subject, and the client's choice, too, was dictated by religious considerations. Subjects thus chosen must have been commonly known and fairly limited in number. It is only natural that in those days no one thought it necessary to title a painting or sculpture, though the subject to be depicted must have been mentioned in the contract.

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1. Pieter Bruegel the Elder,
Landscape with
the Fall of Icarus,
c.1558, Brussels, Musées
Royaux des Beaux-Arts.