Branding Whistler’s Mother

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the right words matter in titles of pictures.

In 1872, James McNeill Whistler submitted a recent work to the Royal Academy of Art in London for its 104th exhibition. He titled it “Arrangement in Grey and Black”.

The Academy came close to rejecting it. In its lofty view the British public would be uneasy with a portrait described solely as an “arrangement” of colors. So Whistler appended the explanatory words “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” to the title, just for the exhibition.

The name stuck. The painting became popularly known as “Whistler’s Mother,” his most famous work.

Giving a name to a work of art is a relatively recent phenomenon, according to the Wall Street Journal, and it is even more recent that artists provide the title.

Nude with a black cat, aka Olympia.

Edouard Manet’s most famous work, “Olympia”,  outraged French society in when it appeared in 1863. Manet  had no name for it at the time. The poet and critic Charles Baudelaire referred to it matter-of-factly as “Nude With a Black Cat.”

It was Manet’s friend Zacharie Astruc, a critic and fellow painter, who named the painting “Olympia,” – a common “professional” name taken by prostitutes at the time. Manet used the name when he submitted the work to the 1865 salon.

More recently, Jack Levine credited his wife with providing the title for his painting “Gangster Funeral,” which now resides in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

What is at work here is a form of branding in which a short, memorable name captures popular imagination and becomes synonymous with the work itself: a great painting ceases to be a picture and becomes a brand.

Leonardo da Vinci never referred to “La Gioconda” or, as it is better known in the English-speaking world, the “Mona Lisa,” but by what other name could the painting of the lady with the enigmatic smile be possibly known? It’s a fair bet that the name “Mona Lisa” is more widely recognized than the picture itself.

So how come the current record price of US$140 million is for a work simply titled No. 5, 1948 ? The artist is Jackson Pollock. I would posit that Jackson Pollock is the brand – a Jackson Pollock is a Jackson Pollock. No 5, 1948 just happens to be the last work of his to come on the market.

2 thoughts on “Branding Whistler’s Mother

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  2. Pingback: The Scream and the new phenomenon of art brands «

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