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)
How the observations of others can lead to original insights from you
If an artist's first and last initials are the same, or his initial matches that of his hometown, like Lucas van Leyden's, it is more than likely to appear in his work as well.
This early painting by Manet has always troubled interpreters because it seems to make no apparent sense. Its explanation here, though, will help you understand paintings by Manet, Velazquez and other artists too.
One of the many ways artists "paint themselves" is by painting others as earlier great masters.
Find out how Manet's observations of scenes in Parisian cafés are really something else entirely
Familiarize yourself with an artist's early copies after other masters. They will be a key to later work.
Art scholars have sometimes wondered why the execution squad in Manet's Execution of Emperor Maximillian are so unrealistically close to their target. Indeed, on close inspection, their rifles are aimed as though they would miss.
Leran how the initials of an artist's name can appear anywhere. Not all is what it seems.
Don't forget to imagine what can't be seen: the artist's viewpoint
See how Manet's identification with Courbet is recognized by a later artist who then used it in his portrait of yet another artist.
Skating on ice is like drawing lines on the mirrored surface of the artist's mind
This magical composition hides a complex thought of seeming effortless construction: a masterpiece of the first order
An early example of how Manet turns a modern woman, and his future wife, into an artist
Unless there are dogs or cats in the picture, we tend to look at the humans more than the animals. Don't. Artists are often animals.
Why did Picasso choose this painting for himself? What did he see in it?
See how Matisse himself appears in even a simple drawing of an unidentified model
Look for the eyes. Then the face. Never forget to look for them because you can find them anywhere in art.
See how Notre-Dame, France's cathedral and symbol of the nation, becomes Matisse's
Miró's variations on his name inspired one image after another, all unseen until now. Take a look.
See how Miró wrote his name in large letters across his canvas yet left his viewers blind
Miró's inventive and individualistic style, however modern, is merely a complement to his deep traditionalism. And that's as it should be.
Discover yet another example of how Miró's composition is based on his own name
Did you know that....? There's so much to see for the first time, even in the most familiar images
Peale's American portraits have more in common with great European art than is generally accepted.
"Genius" is derided nowadays in academia but, if there is no such thing, how did a 13-year old Picasso know what art historians never have?
Picasso kills a bull with his own paintbrush while indicating his divinity.
Two protagonists in one painting must both represent the artist. It's a given in art so it's your job to find out how.
Learn to recognize the letters of Picasso's signature, a key to many of his works
Learn how Picasso bases an image on the letters of his signature
See how Picasso uses YO to symbolize a girl and a bull as apsects of himself
Not a particularly successful picture but an excellent learning tool
What looks like nonsense from Picasso - pregnant men with breasts - make sense if you see it the way Picasso did.
There is always more in Picasso than meets the eye
© Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.