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

One of The New Yorker’s “The Books We Loved in 2015” (selected by Ben Lerner)

Hardcover | 2015 | $35.00 | £27.95 | ISBN: 9780691165271
352 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 16 color illus. 108 halftones.
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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).


"I was fascinated by Ruth Bernard Yeazell's book Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names. As a writer who is often jealous of visual artists, I found her exploration of how titles inflect our experiences of viewing perversely reassuring--I mean as evidence of the power a text can hold over an image."--Ben Lerner, New Yorker

"A fascinating account of how paintings get their titles."--Peter De Bolla, Times Literary Supplement

"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

"Yeazell's work is undoubtedly one of serious scholarship, stuffed to the margins with historical and critical analysis. . . . Where Yeazell's analysis succeeds most is in its insistence that we consider something that seems so ordinary--a wall label, photo caption, or Google Images description--with consideration of those words' creator and with an awareness of how those words profoundly affect our perception."--Grace Labatt, Santa Fe New Mexican

"That titles are somehow intrinsic to all artworks is an idea that is mistaken but frequently espoused. Welcome clarification of this fact comes with Ruth Bernard Yeazell's new book, Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names. This is an important study."--Thomas Marks, Apollo Magazine

"The advent of titles in Western art is the subject of this engaging book. Yeazell explores the economic and cultural changes that prompted the practice, blending historical perspective with more modern case studies. . . . Well organized and including detailed references and a thorough index, this is a valuable resource for those interested in art history, library and museum studies, and fine arts."--Choice

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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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