Name Dropping

Naturally, novelists take great care in naming their works, and we all have our favorites. Some are borrowed: All the King’s MenThe Sun Also RisesGo Tell It on the Mountain. Seductively pithy: The Big SleepFifth BusinessAtonementBeloved.


Vaguely intimidating, hinting at doorstop girth: The CorrectionsThe RecognitionsWar and Peace, Gravity’s Rainbow. Funny: A Confederacy of Dunces. Declarative: Their Eyes Were Watching GodThings Fall ApartThe Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Impossible: The Man without QualitiesInfinite JestOne Hundred Years of Solitude. Lofty shouts: Absolom! Absolom! and O Pioneers!

I once had a novel taken from my office at another job, or borrowed indefinitely, and I always thought the compelling words on the spine, I Am One of You Foreverplayed a part in the disappearance.

Skunder (Alexander) Boghossian, Night Flight of Dread and Delight, 1964, oil on canvas with collage, 56 5/8 x 62 5/8 in., Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest)
So what about naming visual art? Many contemporary and Old Master titles alike seem fittingly unobtrusive. Six Women, Blue Panel, Two Figures, Madonna and Child, Still Life with Flowers. One of our curators speculates that more interpretive titles in Western art started appearing in the 19th century, probably the invention of romantics, titles “suggestive of the proper mood for viewing” or relating “visual experience to other art forms, especially music.”

As an editor, I confess to preferring the more interpretive title, and many belonging to works in our collection do have a moody or literary tone. I’ve always liked Silence of ThoughtVenice without WaterFace-Pink, and The Quintet of Remembrance (soft spot for the downright Proustian). I was curious whether our curators had any favorites, so I asked them:

Deputy Director for Art John Coffey: Homage to the SquareNight Flight of Dread and DelightPigeon.

Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Kinsey Katchka: Flying Apartment Flotilla, “Because it has elements of whimsy and militance at the same time.” Lines That Link Humanity, “Because it is universal and strikes me as optimistic, though there is a dark underbelly to those links.” Cabbage Worship, “Because it’s goofy.”

Curator of European Art David Steel: RabbleTippy Toesflight research #5.

Curator of Contemporary Art Linda Dougherty: Askew. Rabble. Vertigo. “Hmm,” she said, “I think I like one-word titles.”

I was surprised to learn when I first began working in an art museum that, in addition to restoring lost stories to works of art, curators are responsible for naming works without titles. One curator estimates that in the NCMA’s collection, approximately 99 percent of the art before 1950 was originally unnamed. Even Monet didn’t title his works. “That was usually left up to his dealers or the collectors of his paintings,” said David Steel.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Panama Dancers, oil on canvas, 19 7/8 x 19 7/8 in., Bequest of W. R. Valentiner
Quite often it’s about revising older, erroneous titles that have been floating out there in the art market for centuries. “First, you only retitle a work of art with just cause,” said John Coffey. “Panama Girls became Panama Dancers when I determined that Kirchner’s original title of the picture was Panamatanzerinnen.”


When Dennis Weller retitles a work, he tries “to better reflect the subject matter depicted, or to correct misinformation, such as the name of a sitter in a portrait or the identification of the biblical scene.” As works change hands and titles are revised, how do curators keep it all straight? “Minor differences in titles appear often in the literature, sometimes due to translation, and sometimes due to the whim of a curator,” said Weller. “Still, if the location, size, support, etc., remains constant, there tends to be little confusion.”

I wondered if there was ever any temptation to get creative. “Oh, please, no,” said one curator, the rest concurring. Hence the snoozy (forgive me) An Extensive Landscape with Cottages near a Lake or the startling Peasant Spreading Manure. Necessarily prosaic, these titles tell it like it is. And some seem to have a curious appeal on their own:

The Triumph of ChastitySawfish HeaddressStag Hunt in a RiverMercury About to Behead ArgusA Man Scraping ChocolateThe DentistA Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving AlmsCostume for a Female Diviner.

Part of me is relieved curators feel no need to get fancy on us. Why detract from the uncommon experience of standing before an original Van Dyck?

1 thought on “Name Dropping”

  1. Hi,
    I am a student currently in New York University,
    One specific question for John Coffey, Deputy Director for Art:
    Why do you prefer Night Flight of Dread and Delight? I love that, too. For me it was a poetic imagery sentence with complicated emotional messages. It makes people want to see where is the delight and dread in the painting.

    I am just so curious and looking forward to your thoughts. Thank you !

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