What’s in a Title?

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This is an excellent painting. The lighting, the composition, the execution—they’re all excellent. I look at it and don’t know what is going on exactly, but I love it. I want to know more about it. I want to know what compelled the painter to make this image.

So I look at the title.

The title is “The Old Shepherd’s Cheif Mourner,” painted by Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873). I enjoyed the technical excellence of the painting, but it wasn’t until I read the name that I truly appreciated the painting’s narrative excellence as well. I look at the painting again, and now the dog’s face takes on a heartbreaking sense of loss. Layers of story now begin to unfold around the image for me. Most of the time I dismiss titles as unnecessary nonsense by which lazy artists prop up technically inferior work because it lacks the ability to stand on its visual merits alone.

And while it’s true that in the past there have been instances where artists have taken a shortcut to applause by coming up with names for their work that sound fashionable or hyper-intellectual, there have also been hapless artists who just wanted to paint something simple, like a lake, because it made them happy, but who then felt compelled to add some title implying that the image is really a statement on the post-industrial consumerism or the plight of the proletariat in eastern Bulgaria or some fashionable elitist cause. All because they were afraid of their work being labeled sentimental or anti-intellectual because it was representational and wasn’t shocking. This appreciation of psuedo-intellectual titles seems to have fallen away somewhat in the past few years. (I personally thank Frank Frazetta and video games for this.) But there even exist online name generators to lampoon the whole idea of this sort of naming. Consider this site, which will generate three pieces of abstract art at random, all with suitable titles.

However, this cultural reaction against fancy names has its drawbacks–mainly that we may forget the great value of a title. I certainly do. In my efforts to avoid trying to sound pretentious I generally name my work something like: “Painting #2,” “Monster #15,” “George Washington Field-Tackling a Bear #34,” and so on. But there’s a classical use for titles. And that is to take an image that is already technically excellent on its visual merits alone, and then provide the viewer with further context and insight into it.

“The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner” is an excellent example of how a name can add to an image, and not be a replacement for technical excellence in one.


11 Comments

  1. Mark Geil

    What a powerful painting. Makes me want to go read My Dog Skip again.

    I am a judge for the literature category of a local student arts competition. This year, one little girl submitted several musical compositions, all with titles in Latin. At the awards ceremony, as the presenter struggled to pronounce one, the girl said, “I don’t know how to say it either. I just used Google Translate.”

  2. April Pickle

    Thank you for a lovely post. This ties in so nicely with what I read this week in The Terrible Speed of Mercy concerning the art of fiction and Flannery O’Connor’s take on it. “Ironically, it is only when the fiction writer obeys the laws of his or her art, rather than resorting to propaganda, that the sense of the Transcendent has a chance to exert itself. ‘When fiction is made according to its nature, it should reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete, observable reality.'”

  3. Brave Sir Robin

    Not to take anything away from the title, but I look at the picture and it already seems like the dog is resting his head on a coffin. Is it actually a bed?

  4. Loren Warnemuende

    Brave Sir Robin, I’m pretty sure it’s a coffin, but I didn’t really see it until I read the title.

    I did feel a sense of grief looking at the painting, though, before I saw the title. Beautiful!

    This is interesting, because I realized in reading through it that I love titles. I enjoy books when there are chapter titles (so long as they don’t give away the plot), and I always had fun coming up with just the right title for paintings I did. The most fun were a series of autumn leaves. They ended up with names like “Autumn Treasure,” “Jewels of Autumn,” etc. Perhaps not the most original, but it was a good exercise to try to sum up the essence of the work.

  5. Heather Rose

    paintings from this time frame (1700’s to 1800’s) are in my literature curriculum. The titles are as craftfully made as the art itself. I had never realized how important they were, though.

    Also, I noticed in the painting that there’s a tree branch on the coffin, and leaves scattered all over the floor. Could the dog have brought it?

  6. Josh Jensen

    This is great, Justin. Thanks for sharing. (I first read the post without paying attention to the byline. Great to see you posting here — I hope there’s more to come!)

  7. Allison

    When we visited the “art museum” in the basement of the Parthenon in Nashville, my husband asked me this very question, “Are the titles important?” And of course they are! The collection there is all American artists from 18-19th centuries, and many of the paintings have classical allusions. So, if you didn’t read the title, you wouldn’t know the picture of the swan and a young girl was really about Zeus seducing Leda.

  8. Nate

    I think this also applies to other art-forms…

    I’m a songwriter, and often I’ve not put enough care into giving a song a title that actually adds more value to it. Lately I’ve tried a writing exercise where you get a title first, and then write the lyrics from it rather than “naming it” later.

    Really great article. Thank you!

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