Slate has a fabulous article out “Mona Linda? Nah. How About Mona Lisa?” that discusses the origins of an artwork’s name. Who decides what to call an old painting?
The article reveals that until the 17th century, artists rarely chose names for their works, choosing instead general, non-specific names like “Profile of a Young Woman”.
It’s a wonder how these pieces were referenced and recognized with 100% veracity, especially when there were so many drawings or sketches made prior to the actual oil, that were also sold across the market?
What was most fascinating to me, however, is that Dutchman Johannes Vermeer, one of the most celebrated artists of all time (and who has recently had a resurgence with a few of his works traveling in the US, as well as the bestseller by Tracy Chevalier a few years ago “The Girl With the Pearl Earring”) also blazed another trail by being one of the first artists to bestow a conceptual title on one of his works:
Vermeer painted a self-portrait called The Art of Painting. He never sold the piece, keeping it in his home until his death in 1675. Historians believe Vermeer himself named the work because his widow identified it by the moniker very shortly after his death.
Also how many names can the “Mona Lisa” have? Perhaps squabbling art historians all wanted to lay a claim to history with a new name.
16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari, considered by many to be the first art historian, is the man who identified the sitter for Leonardo’s most famous painting as Florentine aristocrat Lisa del Giocondo. This hypothesis gave rise to the popular name Mona Lisa in England and the United States. Many French and Italian critics, however, refer to the work as La Joconde or La Gioconda, respectively, referring to the sitter’s family name. (Interestingly, these phrases translate loosely into English as “the one who smiles.”) Prior to Vasari, the painting had been called A Certain Florentine Lady or A Courtesan in a Gauze Veil.