Words in Paintings 3: Signatures and dedications

Sofonisba Anguissola (1530–1625), Self-portrait (1554), oil on poplar wood, 19.5 × 12.5 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

So far in this series, I have looked at paintings in which words are part of the story, and those in which words extend the visual content to literary references. In this last article, I look at text which expands on the most widespread use of words in painting, the signature.

Some artists never signed their work, others used graphical devices such as Hieronymus Bosch’s owls (although he signed some of his works as well). On other occasions, signatures became extended, elaborated, or simply got out of hand.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), Portrait of Jacopo Sansovino (before 1546), oil on canvas, 120 x 100 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

On Jacopo Tintoretto’s Portrait of Jacopo Sansovino from before 1546, the artist inscribed a short dedication to his friend, a major sculptor and architect of the day, ending with the signature “Jacobus Tintorettus his greatest friend”.

Other Renaissance painters characteristically wrote an extended signature on the painting of a small note, a distinctive trompe l’oeil, known as a cartellino.

Antonello da Messina, Saint Jerome in his Study (c 1475), oil on lime, 45.7 x 36.2 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.
Antonello da Messina (c 1430–1479), Saint Jerome in his Study (c 1475), oil on lime wood, 45.7 x 36.2 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Many of Antonello da Messina’s paintings include his cartellino. In the case of his magnificent Saint Jerome in his Study from around 1475, he places it in a position of prominence, close to the centre, stuck to the wooden panel on the side of the saint’s desk. But seen in detail (below) this may actually be a dummy, with unreadable text.

about 1475
Antonello da Messina (c 1430–1479), Saint Jerome in his Study (detail) (c 1475), oil on lime wood, 45.7 x 36.2 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.
Antonello da Messina (c 1430–1479), Christ Blessing (Salvator Mundi) (detail) (c 1475), oil on wood panel, 38.7 x 29.8 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

More typical is the cartellino at the lower edge of his Christ Blessing from about the same date, which states the year and Antonellus Messeneus me pinxit, Latin for “Antonello da Messina painted me”. Use of cartellini was a technique handed on by Antonello to his logical successor, Giovanni Bellini, who continued the practice through much of his career.

Books were another popular place for a signature and sometimes a bit more.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1530–1625), Self-portrait (1554), oil on poplar wood, 19.5 × 12.5 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

In Sofonisba Anguissola’s Self-portrait from 1554, the artist puts a small notebook in her own hand for this purpose. There she also makes clear that she’s still unmarried, in the word virgo.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682), Self-portrait (1668-70), oil on canvas, 122 x 107 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1953), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

By all accounts, Murillo was very reluctant to paint his self-portrait, but a few years before his death he acceded to the wishes of his children and painted this ingenious trompe l’oeil, in which his hand rests on the false frame and his palette, brushes and sketching materials rest on either side. This was probably based on the frontispiece engraving which had become popular in printed books.

The inscription reads Bart[olo] Murillo seipsum depingens pro filiorum votis ac precibus explendis, meaning Bartolomé Murillo portraying himself in fulfilment of the wishes and prayers of his sons [children].

Before the system of patronage was largely replaced by dealers in the nineteenth century, patrons who commissioned works usually expected to appear in them. But artists also had other individuals who they wanted to name, in particular those to whom they wanted to dedicate a work. Rather than scribble a note to be attached to the back of the canvas, such dedications were often incorporated into the painting.

A Priestess of Apollo ?c.1888 by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema 1836-1912
Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), A Priestess of Apollo (c 1888), oil on canvas, 34.9 x 29.8 cm, The Tate Gallery (Bequeathed by R.H. Williamson 1938, London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/alma-tadema-a-priestess-of-apollo-n04949

Lawrence Alma-Tadema often found ingenious pictorial locations and devices for his signature. In 1888, he painted A Priestess of Apollo as a wedding present for Sir Charles Hallé (1819-1895), the famous conductor who founded the Hallé Orchestra in 1858, and his second wife, the widowed violinist Wilma Neruda. He wrote his dedication to the couple in the graffiti inside the arch.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), Saints Jerome, Louis of Toulouse and Andrew (1555-56) (E&I 67), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy. Image by Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons.

In Tintoretto’s Saints Jerome, Louis of Toulouse and Andrew (1555-56), the artist records the lives of the four family members remembered in this painting: Andreas Renerius, the father, who presumably died in 1555 which is thus the date of the commission, and his son Jacobus, who died thirty years later. Aloisius is recorded as nepos, which originally meant grandson, but also grew to mean nephew and from that gave rise to the term nepotism; as this individual died in 1625, he was more likely to be the grandson, and Daniel, who died in 1654, was probably the great-grandson.

Tintoretto himself died in 1594, so the last two would have been added by another artist. The painting itself is thought to have been for the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi in Venice, which at that time was the seat of several of the city’s financial magistrates. Inscriptions like this can thus be valuable in establishing a painting’s provenance.

It turns out to be a little more complex: in 1560-1566, an anonymous follower of Tintoretto painted a double portrait of Andrea Renier (Andreas Renerius) and his son Daniele, which is now in the National Gallery of Art. That Andrea Renier was appointed the podesta (governor) of Brescia in 1559, and died the following year.

Sometimes even simple inscriptions turn out to be puzzles.