While doing research for my visual arts lists, I occasionally came across works of art whose titles were misleading, inaccurate or just plain wrong, but for various reasons are still used to refer to the painting or sculpture they imperfectly describe. I thought it might be interesting to make a list of such works with an explanation of the mismatch between the title and the object to which it is attached. Here it is, in chronological order (with illustrations, of course). I’d be interested if folks have other examples to share.
1. Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel (Unknown artist, c. 38,000 BCE)
In German, the name means Lion-Human, with no gender reference, but the English translation implies that the figure is a male, even though at least some scientists believe it represents a female.
2a. Venus of Willendorf (Unknown artist, c. 28,000-25,000 BCE)
2b. Venus of Laussel (Unknown artist, c. 23,000 BCE)
2c. Venus of Brassempouy (Unknown artist, c. 24,000-22,000 BCE)
2d. Venus of Kostenki (Unknown artist, c. 23,000-21,000 BCE) Despite their names, these prehistoric figurines do not depict the Roman goddess Venus, whose mythology was not created until many thousands of years later. The anachronistic term “Venus of _____” arose from a belief that these and similar figurines represent fertility goddesses and as such were prehistoric analogues to Venus, the goddess of love. Because the term is misleading and has caused confusion, its use by archaeologists is on the wane.
3. Ram in a Thicket (Unknown artist, c. 2600-2400 BCE)
Most experts believe the figures represented by this pair of figurines are goats, but the discovering archaeologist named them after a story in the Book of Genesis in which Abraham sees a ram caught in a thicket.
4. Standard of Ur (Unknown artist, c. 2600-2400 BCE)
This mosaic-inlaid box may have been part of a musical instrument, but there is no evidence to support the original discoverer’s theory that it is a standard, or flag-like sign that would have been carried into battle.
5. Mask of Agamemnon (Unknown artist, c. 1550-1500 BCE) Despite the hopes of its discoverer, Heinrich Schliemann, this gold mask is 300 years too old to be associated with the Trojan War and its participants, including Agamemnon. To make matters worse, some believe Schliemann may have faked the mask, which is much more sophisticated than other masks found at the same site.
6. Ludovisi Throne (Unknown artist, c. 470-460 BCE)
The Ludovisi Throne is not a throne. It was probably part of the foundation of an Ancient Greek temple.
7. Venus de Milo (Alexandros of Antioch, 130-100 BCE)
It may be splitting hairs, but the statue known as Venus de Milo was made by Hellenist Greeks and found on a Greek island, so the goddess would have been called Aphrodite, not Venus, who was Aphrodite’s counterpart in Roman mythology.
8. Battersea Shield (Unknown artist, c. 350-50 BCE) It may look like a shield, but experts say the Battersea Shield was not battle-worthy or battle-tested and was probably a replica used for ceremonial purposes and as a votive offering.
9. The Bayeux Tapestry (Unknown artist, c. 1075) The Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry. A tapestry is a woven textile, while the Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth, in which the artist used wool thread to embroider designs on a linen cloth.
10. The Well of Moses (Claus Sluter, 1395-1405) The Well of Moses is not a well. It is the base of a Crucifixion scene, the upper portion of which was dismantled during the French Revolution by anti-clerical mobs.
11. The Holy Trinity Icon (Andrei Rublev, 1408-1425)
Not so much a mistitling, as a title that requires a leap of logic. The figures represented in the famous icon are the three angels who appeared to Abraham at Mamre, according to the Book of Genesis. A theological metaphor connects the three angels to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit of the Christian trinity.
12. Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban (Jan van Eyck, 1433)
The subject of this possible self-portrait is not wearing a turban. He is wearing a fashionable 15th Century head-covering known as a chaperon. The turban-like appearance is the result of the subject’s decision to take the long tails of the chaperon and wrap them around his head, possibly to avoid having them interfere with his painting.
13. Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife (The Arnolfini Portrait) (Jan van Eyck, 1434)
For centuries, scholars believed they had correctly identified the subjects of this portrait as the Arnolfinis, but in 1997, it was discovered that Arnolfini was married six years after Jan van Eyck’s death. Was Arnolfini married twice? Does the painting show Giovanni Arnolfini blessing another family member (a niece?) on her marriage? Or are there no Arnolfinis involved in the portrait at all? Art historians have not reached consensus on answers to these questions.
14. St. Francis in the Desert (Giovanni Bellini, c. 1480)
While the area in St. Francis’s immediate vicinity is rocky and somewhat barren, the landscape beyond is anything but desert-like. In fact, it looks like an Italian countryside. ‘Going into the desert’ may have been shorthand for any religious figure going on a solitary retreat away from civilization, in remembrance of Jesus’s temptation in the desert.
15. John the Baptist in the Wilderness (Geertgen tot Sint Jans, c. 1485-1490) The ‘wilderness’ looks more like a well-groomed park, and it is within sight of a town.
16. An Old Man and His Grandson (Domenic Ghirlandaio, 1490) While the ages and the behaviors of the subjects make it perfectly reasonable to infer that their relationship is grandfather and grandson, there is no direct evidence of the names of the subjects or their relationship.
17. The Three Philosophers (Giorgione, 1506-1509)
The current name came from a 1525 catalogue of the owner’s artworks, but no one really knows who the three individuals are or who they are supposed to represent, although there are plenty of theories.
18. The Laughing Cavalier (Frans Hals, 1624) Wrong on both counts. First, there is no evidence the subject was a cavalier. Second, while the man is smiling, he is definitely not laughing.
19. The Night Watch (Rembrandt, 1642) First, the militia in the painting is not on a watch, which only occurs in times of danger, it is marching out of headquarters. Second, even though Rembrandt’s glazes have darkened over the centuries, the scene occurs during the day.
20. The Milkmaid (Johannes Vermeer, 1657-1658)
A milkmaid milks cows. This woman is a domestic kitchen maid, not a milkmaid, even though she happens to be pouring milk.
20. The Jewish Bride (Rembrandt, 1667) There is no evidence about the identity of the subjects of this double portrait or their religious affiliations. Some scholars do believe the subject of the painting is the Old Testament’s Isaac and Rebekah. Others believe that it shows a contemporary couple dressed as the Biblical pair, following a common tradition of having one’s portrait done as a character from history.
21. The Embarkation for Cythera (Antoine Watteau, 1717)
Although the various titles for this and a very similar piece indicate that the couples are on their way to the island of Cythera, some experts believe the painting actually shows couples returning from Cythera.
22. Chirk Aqueduct (Crambe Beck Bridge) (John Sell Cotman, 1804-1807)
For many years, scholars assigned the name Chirk Aqueduct to this landscape painting of Cotman’s. A recent reexamination of the painting and its subject have led to the conclusion that the structure depicted is Crambe Beck Bridge, in the north of England, not Chirk Aqueduct in Wales.
23. Woman with a Pearl (Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1868-1870) Most of the mistaken titles on this list were assigned by someone other than the artist. In this case, the artist gave an incorrect title to his own painting. The woman in Corot’s Woman with a Pearl is not wearing a pearl. The decoration on her forehead is a leaf. Scholars suspect that Corot chose his title as an homage to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Woman with a Pearl Necklace.
While collecting over 15 lists of “Best Artists of All Time” (this is a list of visual artists, focusing on painters and sculptors – architecture and photography have separate lists), I kept thinking about how many great works of art have no artist’s name attached to them: the cave paintings of Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira; the Venus figurines; the seals of Mohenjo-Daro; the mosaic tiles of Ravenna, the Dome of the Rock, Damascus and Isfahan; the medieval icons of St. Catherine’s Monastery; the relief sculptures of Nineveh, Persepolis, Borobudur, Amaravati, Chartres and Amiens; the giant sculptures of the Olmecs and Rapa Nui; the Nkisi Nkondi nail figures; the Fang Ngil masks; the Codex Borgia; the Book of Kells; the Wilton Diptych, and so many more. When did artists emerge from the shadows of anonymity, and why? Or should we ask instead why so many artists failed to preserve their names for posterity? From what I can gather, the idea of the artist as a creative individual who deserved recognition for his or her creations arose in different cultures at different times. The Ancient Greeks celebrated the genius of Phidias, Praxiteles, Lysippos and Euphronios and the Chinese and Japanese cultures celebrated artists by name as early as the 7th Century CE, but in many other cultures and in many other times, the artist was considered a craftsman who made art the way a chairmaker made a chair or a blacksmith made a horseshoe. When 7th Century Chinese court official Yan Liben became known for his paintings instead of his bureaucratic achievements, he felt humiliated, since painters belonged to a lower rank with tradesman such as tailors and carpenters. Most art historians trace the modern-day acknowledgement of artists in Western Culture to the Renaissance and the rise of humanism, a philosophy that put the individual at the center of the universe, as the driving force of civilization. While some medieval artists had signed their work, it was probably Proto-Renaissance master Giotto di Bondone who was the first in a long line of Western artists, continuing to this day, who took steps to ensure that their names are associated with their art. Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, first published in 1550, rejected once and for all the notion that artists were anonymous craftsmen and instead celebrated their individual geniuses, at the same time raising the artist above ordinary citizens and introducing the concept of artist as celebrity. Once an artwork was connected with the name of an artist, certain consequences ensued: first, works by the better (or better known) artists increased in value; second, lesser known artists seeking to cash in on the work of more famous artists began creating cheap imitations and outright forgeries; and third, the famous artists, in response, sought to protect their work by various means – first, merely by signing them – but this impulse eventually led to today’s copyright laws. The reason Michelangelo signed the Pietà was that someone was going around telling people that the sculpture had been carved by his rival, Cristoforo Solari. Anonymity was one thing, but the greatest artist of all time (see list below) could not bear the idea that another, lesser artist, was getting the credit for his masterpiece.
15 “Best Artists” Lists Michelangelo (1475-1564) Italian painter, sculptor, architect
14 Lists Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Italian painter, sculptor, architect
11 Rembrandt (1606-69) Dutch painter, printmaker Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) Spanish painter, sculptor
10 Raphael (1483-1520) Italian painter Titian (1488-1576) Italian painter Claude Monet (1840-1926) French painter
8 Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) Dutch painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) French painter
7 Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) Flemish painter Caravaggio (1573-1610) Italian painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) Flemish painter Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) Spanish painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) British painter Edgar Degas (1834-1917) French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) French painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) Dutch painter
6 Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1528-1569) Flemish painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) French painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954) French painter Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) Italian painter, sculptor Alberto Giacometti(1901-1966) Swiss sculptor, painter
Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) Spanish painter, sculptor
5 Giotto (c. 1267-1337) Italian painter Donatello (1386-1466) Italian sculptor El Greco (1541-1614) Greek-Spanish painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) French painter Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) Spanish painter, printmaker John Constable (1776-1837) British painter Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) French painter Édouard Manet (1832-1883) French painter Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) French sculptor James McNeill Whistler (1856-1921) American painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) Russian painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967) American painter René Magritte (1898–1967) Belgian painter Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) American painter
4 Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464) Flemish painter Tomasso Masaccio (1401-1428) Italian painter Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) Italian painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) Dutch painter Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) German painter, printmaker Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) German painter, printmaker Frans Hals (c.1580-1666) Flemish-Dutch painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) French painter William Blake (1757-1827) British painter, printmaker Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) Japanese painter, printmaker Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) French painter Georges Seurat (1859-1891) French painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) Austrian painter Andy Warhol (1928-1987) American painter, printmaker
3 Yan Liben (c. 600-673) Chinese painter Cimabue (c.1240-1302) Italian painter Duccio (c.1255/60–1318/19) Italian painter Huang Gongwang (1269-1354) Chinese painter Simone Martini (1284-1344) Italian painter Fra Angelico (1387-1455) Italian painter Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) Italian painter Piero della Francesca (1416-1492) Italian painter Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) Italian painter Tintoretto (1518-1594) Italian painter Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) French painter William Hogarth (1697-1764) British painter, printmaker Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) French painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) French painter Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1753-1806) Japanese painter, printmaker Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) French painter, printmaker Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) Japanese painter, printmaker Winslow Homer (1836-1910) American painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) French painter Piet Mondrian (1872 -1944) Dutch painter Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) Russian painter Paul Klee (1879-1940) Swiss painter Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) French painter, sculptor Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986) American painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918) Austrian painter Joan Miró (1893-1983) Spanish painter Henry Moore (1898-1986) British sculptor Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) Mexican painter
2 Fan Kuan (fl. 990-1020) Chinese painter Guo Xi (c. 1020-1090) Chinese painter Ma Yuan (c. 1160-1225) Chinese painter Jokei (fl. 1190-1200) Japanese sculptor Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1290-1348) Italian painter Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1516) Italian painter Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528) German painter Giorgione (1478-1510) Italian painter Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) Italian painter Georges de la Tour (1593-1652) French painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1597-1654) Italian painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) Spanish painter Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) Italian sculptor, painter, architect François Boucher (1703-1770) French painter Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) British painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) German painter Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) French painter John Everett Millais (1829-1896) British painter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) Danish-French painter Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) French painter Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) American painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944) Norwegian painter, printmaker Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) French painter Constantin Brâncusi (1876-1957) Romanian-French sculptor Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) Italian painter, sculptor Georges Braque (1882-1963) French painter, sculptor, printmaker Marc Chagall (1887-1985) Belarussian-French painter Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) Italian-Greek painter Alexander Calder (1898-1976) American sculptor Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) Russian-American sculptor Mark Rothko (1903-1970) Russian-American painter Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) Dutch-American painter, sculptor Arshille Gorky (1904-1948) Armenian-American painter Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1977) American painter David Hockney (1937- ) British painter Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) American painter
I’m using this post to announce my new list of the best works of visual art, which you can find here: The Greatest Works of Art – A World Tour. This time, I’ve organized the list by geographic location – so you can find the best works of art wherever you happen to be in the world. (The list of works of art, as you know, is a compilation of 15 ‘best works of art’ lists that I collected from the Internet and books – the list includes every art work that was listed on at least two of those 15 lists.) As a result of my new list, I was able to determine which museums held the most works of art on the list. The following is a list of those museums, with the number of listed works in parentheses.
Many years ago, I attended a poetry reading given by a friend of a friend. The poet made his entrance accompanied by a cadre of followers, all carrying signs and chanting in unison, “I don’t know much about art, but dammit I know what I like.” Like much of modern artistic expression, what made the procession interesting was the questions it raised: Were they affirming this anti-elitist sentiment or mocking it?
I admit that I don’t know a lot about art, specifically the arts of painting and sculpture (I know even less about architecture). We had a pretty good survey course in high school, but since then I have just gleaned bits and pieces of information from conversations with artists and art history majors, Sister Wendy’s BBC series, Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word and lots of museum-going. I like pretty pictures, art that tells a story or generates an emotional response and art that shows off the artist’s dazzling technique, but I also appreciate art that challenges me and makes me ask the questions, What is Art? and Is this thing I’m looking at an example of it? (As a solution to this perennial quandary, an artist friend in college had an “It’s Art” stamp made up. Now it was very easy to tell what was art and what wasn’t – just look for the stamp.)
Humans have been making art for over 30,000 years, and in that time there have been numerous technological advances (like the science of perspective, or the guy who invented tubes that allowed oil painters like Van Gogh to paint outside). There have also been shifts in the philosophy of art, changes in the answers to the question, Why make art? To improve our chances of catching a bison? To worship our deity? To kowtow to the rich and famous? To make a political statement? To explore the effects of one color on another? To show the world that there is art everywhere we look? To stimulate the beholder to ask the questions, Is this Art? Is so, why? If not, why not? This last is what Tom Wolfe hates about modern art – that the explanation of the work can be more interesting than the work itself, that the work is meaningless without the explanation. But the response is, all artists expect the viewer to bring something to the table – it’s just that with pre-modern art, much of what we bring is emotional and feels instinctive; now we often need to bring our cognitive faculties, and that can feel like work.
The old saw is that photography killed representational art, and artists had to come up with another reason to exist, so they created forms of art that were successively more and more removed from photographic realism. Even as a novice, I recognize that this theory has more holes than it takes to fill the Albert Hall. For one thing, anyone who has done any photography will tell you that “photographic realism” is a rarely-achieved ideal. For a famous example, think of the one picture of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Shutter speeds were so long back then, and the speech was so short, that Lincoln is just a blur. It actually reminds me a little of a modern art painting (I forget by whom) in which the painter paints a portrait and then, before the paint is dry, smudges the subject’s face with his finger (or at least that’s what it looks like).
All of which brings me to my latest list. I scoured the Internet and library shelves (oversized, mostly) to find collections of the best ever paintings and sculptures that the world’s artists have ever created. I found 15 such lists and combined them into one giant list, then put every work of art that made it onto at least three of the lists and put them here: Best Works of Art of All Time – The Critics’ Picks. In the process, I learned quite a bit about art and art history. Some examples:
(1) Paleolithic cave painters used the deepest most inaccessible parts of their caves to paint, meaning they weren’t making decorations to be admired by their peers but religious/magical images that only their deities could see.
(2) What we know of Greek sculpture we have mostly learned from Roman copies of Greek works. The bronze statues made by the Greeks were later melted down for other uses, while the mostly marble copies made by the Romans have survived.
(3) Some of the most magnificent 14th, 15th and 16th Century works of art are contained on altarpieces, which were wooden contraptions with panels and hinges that stood in front of or behind the altar in a Catholic church and contained painted or sculpted religious scenes.
(4) In representational painting, it’s all about the light.
(5) There are only so many 16th Century Dutch landscapes that I can look at in a row before feeling restless.
(6) Maybe your kid could paint that, but it would never occur to him/her to do it.