Letters in the Art of All Periods

Antonio da Fabriano, St Jerome In His Study (1451) Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

In this painting of St Jerome by Antonio da Fabriano (active mid-15th-century) the biblical translator is not only writing letters; he is one. He's the artist's initial. His triangular form crossed by the edge of the table-top describes a large A for Antonio.

Martin Schongauer, Griffin (c.1475-80) Engraving. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Two decades later Martin Schongauer (1445-1491) whose monogram can be seen at bottom gave this griffin his own identity. The three legs form an M with the head and neck as an S, linked by the raised claw which resembles in turn the ampersand of his signature (enlarged detail, inset in green).1  

Albrecht Dürer, Study Sheet for Virgin and Child (c.1491) Ink on paper. British Museum, London.

Albrecht Dürer who greatly admired Schongauer is known to have played with his initials in various ways. In this example, his monogram of a D nestled inside an A is prominently displayed on the tree trunk. Replicating it, the Virgin forms the A of Albrecht while the infant Christ's curved torso is nestled against her body and inside the A.

Lucas van Leyden, The Sword-Bearer (c. 1510) Engraving. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), a Dutch engraver signed with his initial, L, again at bottom.  Here the flagpole and soldier's arm are L-shaped.2  

Raphael, Sistine Madonna (1512) Oil on canvas. Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

At the time Lucas was lettering his figures in Northern Europe, Raphael was doing likewise in Rome. His Sistine Madonna is formed into an R just as he placed R's, or even his whole name, on portraits of women.3 

Lorenzo Lotto, Judth with the Head of Holofernes (1512) Oil on canvas. Banco Nazionale del Lavoro, Rome.

And that same year in Northern Italy, Lorenzo Lotto placed an inverted L in the hilt and blade of Judith's sword (top L) just as he surreptitiously placed L's in other paintings too. The handle of Christ's predestined coffin (top R) is purposely L-shaped as are the artificially-posed arms of Angel Gabriel and the Virgin, and the exaggerated stretch of Christ's hand on the Cross (bottom row, L to R). He could have made the arm positions look naturally L-shaped but their slight oddness would suggest to other artists the presence of a subtext. And do note how all these L's are linked to arms and hands as symbols of Lotto's craft, even the handles of the sword and coffin.

Pieter Aertsen, a Dutch artist, followed the same tradition. Two paintings from the 1560's clearly depict his initials, PA. In this detail, the logs, kindling and basket spell AP in the lower right portion of the picture.

And in this example, another detail, the loose twine hanging from either side of the bird-basket spells AP again. All art, according to the EPPH paradigm, takes place in the artist's mind so the inversion of his names like the inverted L of Lotto's sword may refer to the mind as a mirror.. 

William Hogarth, William Hogarth Painting the Comic Muse (c. 1757) Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, London and diagram

In 18th-century London William Hogarth painted himself at an easel in a rather conventional composition. However in including his initials so effortlessly, it is instead a minor miracle. Below the easel is a W for William and above an H for Hogarth. He may be depicting the comic muse but it is an allegory for how the muse is inside his mind, held between his two initials. Hogarth, like the others, is painting himself.

Henri Daumier, Sire..Lisbonne est prise, published in le Charivari, August 15th, 1833 

Fast forward a century and Henri Daumier's cartoons, though comical, are serious. This is not the place to explain how but you can read about that in other entries on Daumier. Here the sword's hilt is his own initial just as Lotto's hilt was (given the traditional metaphor of sword-as-paintbrush). Note how the sword's sheath traces a line downwards to Daumier's signature in the lower left corner, linking the two.

I don't have a better-quality image of the print but the king's yawning mouth is also a D which means Daumier-as-officer paints Daumier-as-king with his sword/paintbrush.

Delacroix, Arabs of Oran (1832) Watercolour. Private Collection.

Eugène Delacroix is believed to have drawn this watercolor on an 1832 trip to North Africa yet even in painting Arab life, he painted himself. The spear and bags in the lower right-hand corner near where signatures often go spell E and D

Detail and diagram of Delacroix's Arabs of Oran (1832)

Such incidental still-lifes often refer to the artist's tools and can be seen as resting on the surface of the paper. However he also included a second E and D in the scene itself, an E poorly integrated into the landscape with a D in the opening of the Arab's sleeve, once again associated with an arm or hand, just like the spear and bags  below, both with handles.

Victor Hugo, Acrobat (1863) Wood panel burnt engraving and colored. Maison Victor Hugo, Paris

Victor Hugo, one of the few great writers with the potential to have become a great artist too, clearly knew the tradition. None too subtly, he turned the shadow of the acrobat and his chair into a V above and H below. This is the only image in this post that has been previously recognized for its letter-content.

Pablo Picasso, A Gentleman Greeting a Lady with diagram (1894-5) Museu Picasso, Barcelona

There is no question that artists, like us, can become aware of this tradition by looking long and hard at canonical art but what about a young adolescent in the provinces, far from a good museum. At age 14 Pablo Picasso, then known as Pablo Ruiz, drew a man greeting a lady. He's a P; she's an R. Turning figures and objects into letters became, as for other artists, one of their many ways to convey that every painter paints himself.

Henri Matisse, Red Studio (1911) Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In his 1911 masterpiece Red Studio, Henri Matisse placed an empty chair and sculpture stand on the right-hand side. Not surprisingly, given that empty chairs usually signify the artist and sculpture-stands always do, both are formed into letters, an H and M, as shown in the diagram at far right.

Grant Wood, American Gothic (1930) Oil on beaverboard. 78 × 65.3 cm. Art Institute of Chicago

Grant Wood in the mid-twentieth century placed his initial, large and bold, in the middle of an American masterpiece. The tines of the pitchfork in American Gothic spell W for Wood while his traditional signature is on the denim clothing of the man holding it. In addition, not only are the buildings behind made out of wood but Wood painted on a board of wood fiber. 

Joan Miró, Painting (1933) with details repeated and signature below. Oil on canvas. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

Around the same time Juan Miró painted a painting called Painting. Thought to be entirely abstract, it really spells M I R Ó from bottom left to right top, as you can see in the small details below. The Ó has its accent while the R echoes the R of his signature (bottom).

Claes Oldenburg, (Clockwise from top L) Soft Light Switch (1966), Sketch of a Three-Way Plug (1965), N.Y.C. Pretzel (1994), Soft Toilet (1966), Tea Bag (1972), Typewriter Eraser, Scale X (1999)

And our last artist from the era of Pop, Claes Oldenburg, hardly ever creates a work of art without an O in it as these six examples help show.

Claes Oldenburg, Self-portrait (1969)

Even in his wonderful self-portrait wearing an ice-bag, he still put an O on his head.

The metamorphic inclusion of an artist's initial is so fundamental in the discipline of art-making and so pervasive that no interpretation can be considered complete without knowledgge of it..

1. For other examples by Martin Schongauer, see Adoration of the Magi and Christ Carrying the Cross.

2. To find out more about Lucas van Leyden's Sword-Bearer, see entry.


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