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Would a Picasso by any other name smell as sweet? That seems to have been the question for a short time earlier this month, when British businessman and all-around rich guy Richard Caring allegedly planned to hang a plaque that read “Annabel” under Picasso’s 1937 “The Girl With A Red Beret And Pompom.” According to Robbie Griffiths at the Daily Mail, Caring bought the painting for £20 or £30 million last year, hung it in Annabel’s, his London nightclub, and decided to rename it after the club.
This particular painting — just one of many depicting Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso’s mistress, wearing a beret with a pompom — is far from the first artwork to be renamed by someone other than the artist. In fact, artists naming their own works at all is a fairly recent phenomenon; for hundreds of years, art historians used descriptions instead of official titles to identify specific works. It’s unclear when exactly naming an artwork became so important to the artist that created it, but these days, even WikiHow has a guide on “How to Title Your Work of Art.”
As for renaming works, this has largely been the arena of critics, curators, and art dealers. It may seem silly and pedantic to harp on the names of artworks — but as a neuroscientific study suggested in 2015, “Titles change the esthetic appreciation of paintings.” So hold onto your pompom-topped hat! We’ve compiled a few famous examples of artworks that gained new names.
Jan van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait”
Among the many mysteries surrounding van Eyck’s 1434 portrait — Is it a wedding document? Is the woman pregnant? Who are the figures reflected in the mirror? What’s up with the “Jan van Eyck was here” signature? — perhaps the most important is the identity of its subjects. It wasn’t until 1857 that Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle identified the couple in their book, The Early Flemish Painters: Notices of their Lives and Works. Based on 16th-century inventories kept by Margaret of Austria, Crowe and Cavalcaselle believed the painting to portray Bruges merchant and draper Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife. The painting became known as “The Arnolfini Portrait.”
Leonardo da Vinci, “Mona Lisa”
Like “The Arnolfini Portrait,” the sitter for the painting that would become known in Britain and the US as “Mona Lisa” wasn’t officially identified until after the death of the artist. Giorgio Vasari wrote in his famous book The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects that the painting portrays the wife of merchant Francesco del Giocondo, “Mona Lisa.” (Mona at the time was a title of respect in Italian, shortened from “ma donna.”) Somehow, the name “Mona Lisa” stuck in the English-speaking world, while in Italy, the feminine form of her married name, “La Gioconda,” became the painting’s official title. (Interestingly, la gioconda translates as “the happy one” in Italian; the francophone version of the sitter’s name, “La Joconde,” has the same meaning in French.)
Frans Hals, “The Laughing Cavalier”
The sitter in Hals’ 1624 “The Laughing Cavalier” remains unidentified, and furthermore, as the Wallace Collection’s website points out, he’s “neither laughing nor a cavalier.” Hals died in 1666, and in the next couple hundred years, he was all but forgotten. Not until 1865 did the artist regain his esteem, largely due to a bidding war over this very portrait, which landed in the hands of Lord Hertford. When the painting’s new owner lent it to the Royal Academy in 1888, it was exhibited with the title, “The Laughing Cavalier.”
Diego Velázquez, “Las Meninas”
Like “The Arnolfini Portrait,” Velázquez’s famous painting is shrouded in mystery and allegory; like “The Laughing Cavalier,” it was named by a museum. The 1656 portrait of Philip IV’s daughter, Infanta Margaret Theresa, surrounded by various members of the Spanish court (as well as the artist himself) went by various different names describing the scene, including “The Family of Philip IV,” until it was acquired by the Museo del Prado in 1819. In an 1843 catalogue, the painting is identified for the first time with the title, “Las Meninas” — Spanish for “the ladies in waiting.”
James McNeill Whistler, “Whistler’s Mother”
When James McNeill Whistler submitted this painting to London’s Royal Academy of Arts for its 1872 annual exhibition, he did so under the musical title, “Arrangement in Grey and Black.” While Whistler did identify his subject as his mother, he certainly never intended it to go down in history as a portrait of her; the artist saw the work as a study in color and form. As Whistler wrote in his 1890 book, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, “Art should be independent of all clap-trap — should stand alone and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it … Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black.’ Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public do to care about the identity of the portrait?”
Pablo Picasso, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”
Picasso painted so many works in his lifetime that there was bound to be another one on this list. The artist called his 1907 painting “Le Bordel Philosophique,” or more simply, “mon bordel.” But in 1916, when it was displayed for the first time at André Salmon’s Salon d’Antin, Antin labelled it “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Although the reference to the famous Carrer d’Avinyo brothels in Barcelona was clear, Picasso was annoyed by the prudishness of the word “demoiselles” (“young ladies”).
As for “Annabel” — perhaps Picasso wouldn’t mind the new name. At least it’s not prudish.