Letters in Art

One little-known artistic method is letter-based, an artist’s use of their own name or initials to indicate subjectivity. A signature is conventionally considered a sign of authorship and nothing more but, as a number of scholars have pointed out within their own specialty, the careful placement of a signature adds meaning too.1 This ought to be better known and considered in the interpretation of any work of art. What you need to know, though, is something even more fascinating and rarely seen by those who are not artists themselves: the hidden presence of an artist’s initials or the letters of their name. By disguising the letters as objects in nature, the viewer “reads” them as images of something else and thus misses the artists’ meaning. Study the examples here and you will see the same method in other art because, as we always emphasize, if you do not know that artists do such things, you cannot see them.

Art historians have seen such letters on occasion but unaware that “every painter paints himself” either mistake them for another form of signature without meaning or identify them with some biographical detail of the artist's life unrelated to art. Something similar has been uncovered in poetry too where the hidden use of letters linked to a poet’s name and the creative process has a long tradition. In Dante’s Commedia Madison Sowell has argued that phrases such as “io non lo ‘nvidio” and “io vidi” refer with their use of o, v, i, and d to Ovidio (in English, Ovid), Dante’s poetic muse.2 Likewise, in the painter Jan van Eyck’s famous motto “as well as I can”, which appears on several paintings, Pamela Smith has revealed that it is a form of anagram, containing all the letters of his name except the “V” and the “Y”.3 Looking for letters in art is one of the simpler paths to aesthetic satisfaction because, in finding them and they are relatively easy to see, new meaning is revealed.

1. John Wilmerding, Signs of the Artist: Signatures and Self-Expression in American Paintings (Yale University Press) 2003; Philip Fehl, “Dürer’s Literal Presence in his Pictures: Reflections on his Signatures in the Small Woodcut Passion”, Künstler über sich in seinem Werk, ed. M. Winner (VCT Acta Humanoria) 1992, pp. 191-244; Rona Goffen, “Signatures: Inscribing Identity in Italian Renaissance Art”, Viator 32, 2001, pp.303-70; Patricia Rubin, “Signposts of Invention: Artists’ Signatures in Italian Renaissance Art”, Art History 29:4, Sept. 2006, pp. 563-99; Louisa C. Matthew, “The Painter’s Presence: Signatures in Venetian Renaissance Pictures”, Art Bulletin 80, Dec. 1998, pp. 616-48; Judith Mann, “Identity signs: meanings and methods in Artemisia Gentileschi’s signatures”, Renaissance Studies 23, Feb. 2009, pp. 71-107

2. Madison U. Sowell, “Dante’s Nose and Publius Ovidius Naso: A Gloss on Inferno 25.45” in Dante and Ovid: Essays in Intertextuality, ed. M.U.Sowell (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies) 1991, p. 44

3.Pamela H. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution (University of Chicago Press) 2004, p. 44

All Articles (Alphabetical by Artist, then Title)

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