The Absurdity of Titles


Image Courtesy of Roberto Di Angelo

Nothing is more fun than to browse through a pile of old books and see what can be found. I am in the habit of collecting old books, as a matter of fact the older the better. These I haul home and deposit in my library for just the right time to inspect closer.

One such find has been "I, James Mc Neill Whistler" an autobiography by Lawrence Williams, published by Simon and Schuster. It has been by far one of the most interesting and humerous books I have read in a long time. Mr. James Mc Neill Whistler


We admire his paintings today in museums throughout the world. He led a very interesting life in England and France and he tells of his mishaps in a manner that I am sure many of us artists can relate to. I will be sharing some excerpts now and then and will start by "The Absurdity of Titles ".

Mr. Whistler painted some portraits for clients and among them painted one of a mother and daughter standing next to a piano. With time invested in the work, he also wanted to exhibit it to the Royal Academy. After submitting it he was called in front of the jury.

..."We found your picture most interesting, Mr. Whistler," says this discerning gentleman. "What do you call it?"

"I call it my Piano Picture, sir." said I, "in order to distinguish it from other pictures of mine in which no piano appears, you see."

"No, I meant its title, Mr. Whistler. We all noticed you neglected to include one. Some description of the domestic scene, you know, something to illuminate our understanding of the charming relationship between mother and daughter, which we found so touching. "...

..."A private dilemma ensued inside my too young head. If I said truthfully, "It had no title; interesting paintings don't need titles, " I ran the all too certain risk of being booted down the front steps of Burlington House, painting and all. On the other hand, if I said, "Gentlemen, the title is 'Mother Teaches Best,'"which would have delighted my hearers, simple conscience would have obliged me to run out of the place and throw myself into the Thames at some deep point.

But I wanted to be hung at the Academy,... . To be honest, I wanted to be hung there myself-there is the truth, contempt and all-in order to test my wings on those alien walls. (the semantically inclined will already have observed the jest in the terminology of these proceedings. A Hanging Committee? To be hung or not to be hung? Or hanged. Hung on a wall or from a gibbet? ...

But standing there before the committee, I suddenly remembered that when the picture was exhibited in Paris some idiot had affixed a little handwritten cards to the frame which read, Au Piano. (The French are not immune to this title nonsense, either, but show considerably more restraint than their sentimental Channel neighbors.) I made only a token objection at the time because I was so anxious to have the picture shown. I might have objected more strongly to something more story telling, but Au Piano seemed, while perfectly superfluous, at least innocuous. Rather like painting a picture of a horse and labeling is "Horse."

"Gentlemen," I said, looking them most gravely in the eye, "After much thought, I have decided to call my painting 'At the Piano' "

Well, they didn't think much of it, you know, but it was a title. So they sighed a little at my lack of imagination and hung the picture anyhow." 

As a portrait artist I am sometimes asked the same thing. What is the title of this painting that shows a dog or a cat or a horse. Usually it says like Poodle Portrait - Portrait of xyz, which works when you have 1 or 2 paintings of that breed. Then it goes to brown poodle, black poodle, white poodle and that's mainly so I can keep them all apart. These titles are boring, I know, but I lack that creative title generator gene and have check of a time coming up with cool sounding titles. Besides I just don't have the time to sit there and think of titles. So boring titles it shall be, unless of course one of you dear readers has a better suggestion - then I am all ears and rather grateful!

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