Anyone who frequents a contemporary museum or gallery knows more or less what Untitled means—that the artist who has produced this work has chosen not to name it and implicitly prefers that the painting speak for itself. Yet I suspect few pause to register how the label acquires its meaning from the convention it violates: Untitled signifies precisely because we have learned to expect that in the ordinary course of things, a painting will have a title. Every time our eyes search for one only to find its negation instead, we testify to the force of that convention.

Under modern circumstances of display and reproduction, in fact, Untitled, too, is a kind of title: a word that routinely accompanies the work as it circulates in the culture and that instructs us, if only by negation, how to view it. But if we attend to the history of the paintings on our museum walls rather than to the labels that accompany them, the problem of the untitled work appears quite different. For the vast majority of European paintings before the eighteenth century, the absence of a title testified not to a deliberate refusal of prevailing custom but to the default condition of artistic practice. That these are not the works we presently designate as Untitled has more to do with reception, broadly understood, than it does with production. Such pictures have their names, but we do not owe those names to their makers. With rare exceptions, the work of baptizing them has been the province of middlemen.

To say that most pictures before the eighteenth century lacked titles in the modern sense is not to say that they lacked subjects, or that the viewers for whom they were intended would have failed to understand what they were seeing. On the contrary: the need for titles is more likely to be felt when such understanding threatens to break down, whether because geographical distance makes face-to-face explanation impossible or because artist and viewer no longer share a common culture. Titling, as E. H. Gombrich has observed, “is a by-product of the mobility of images”; and before the rise of the art market, the growth of public exhibitions, and the development of the reproductive print, the mobility of images was distinctly limited. As long as European art was dominated by a system of patronage, much work was site-specific and literally incapable of motion: think of a fresco on the wall of a monastery, for example, or the decorated ceiling of a princely palace. Easel paintings, of course, were free to move; and it was the increasing circulation of such images through Europe that would eventually make the need for titles salient.

Yet to the degree that such images originated in commissions rather than the open market—as did most Italian painting before the eighteenth century—they, too, were often designed for a particular space, where most viewers could be expected to recognize what they were seeing. The person who worshipped at the altar of a local church or chapel, the family and friends afforded access to the private quarters of a nobleman: such viewers could rely on a common culture and informal means of exchange to identify the images before them. Even today, few pictures that hang in private homes are provided with labels.

Sacred images in particular could be recognized by a wide audience; but in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy the vast majority of secular paintings were based  on a comparatively  limited  stock of classical  narratives, whose iconographic  conventions became more or less codified over the years. When a Florentine scholar named Giovan Battista Adriani was consulted for a suitable story to inspire some tapestries being made for Cosimo I in the late 1550s, he argued against “novel inventions” and opted instead for the pleasures of recognition: “I would be of the opinion that it would be risky to deviate from stories that are known to many people,” he wrote—adding later, “For in my opinion he who paints something entirely unknown, or known by very few, will give less satisfaction, especially as these decorations are being made for display and are meant to please a wide audience… Nor does it disturb me in the least if this subject has already been painted by other artists; on the contrary, the more frequently and skilfully it is represented the happier I shall be.” He suggested the story of Theseus, “the details of which are very well known.”

First published in 1719 and successively revised and expanded over the decades that followed, the abbé Du Bos’s Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture is concerned less with the patrons of art than with its public—a body that in his conception distinctly includes an enlightened bourgeoisie. Like Cosimo’s adviser before him, Du Bos implicitly assumes that the wider the potential audience for an image, the more desirable that its subject be easily recognized; but when he announces that the painter “should only introduce on his canvas figures of whom everyone… has heard,” he has in mind a much larger and more heterogeneous group of viewers than any that might have had access to the ducal tapestries in mid-sixteenth-century Florence. In contrast to the poet, Du Bos argues, the painter cannot arouse our interest in unknown persons by granting them appealing characters and thus must confine himself to representing  figures we already  know: “his great merit consists in making us recognize these figures with certainty and ease.” 

Yet while all visual artists face this limitation by Du Bos’s account, the discussion that follows makes clear that he is thinking above all of easel paintings and of the particular challenge posed by their capacity to travel. “If the subject of frescoes painted on great walls or of those large pictures that remain always in the same place is not well known, it may become so,” he argues; but “easel paintings, destined often to change place and owner alike,” apparently do not benefit from such local continuities. Indeed, it soon becomes evident that the sort of mobility he has in mind extends well beyond national boundaries: hence the claim that scenes taken from scripture or classical mythology are to be preferred to those drawn from modern history, because the former are “generally known,” while “every country has its saints, its kings, and its great figures, who are very well known and whom everyone there recognizes easily, but who are not so recognized in other countries.” 

To think of pictures traveling like this is to worry lest even “a head of Henry IV” or “the heroes of Tasso and Ariosto” should prove inadvisable, since the first “would not render the subject of a picture comprehensible in Italy, as it would in France,” while the second “are not so well known in France as in Italy.” Ancient history and myth, on the other hand, pose no problem, since it is now “the custom established… among all the polite peoples of Europe” that children be required to study the “fables and histories” of the Greeks and Romans.

To think of pictures traveling like this is also, apparently, to wish for something very like titles:

I have many times been surprised that painters, who have such a great interest in making us recognize the figures they want to use in order to move us, and who must encounter so many difficulties in making them recognized with the aid of the brush alone, do not always accompany their historical pictures with a short inscription. Most spectators, who are otherwise very capable of doing justice to the work, are not learned enough to guess the subject of a picture. For them it is sometimes like a beautiful woman who pleases but who speaks a language they do not understand at all. People soon grow tired of looking at her, because the duration of such pleasures, in which the mind has no part, is very short.

Here Du Bos seems to be dwelling more on the relative democratization of the viewing public than on its international character, since he says nothing about the language in which the “short inscription” should be recorded. Yet if “most spectators… are not learned enough to guess the subject of a picture,” there is apparently no question in Du Bos’s mind that such spectators are literate.

There is another premise of Du Bos’s argument: one that also has broad implications for the history of picture titles. Having recorded his wonder that painters don’t routinely avail themselves of writing in order to identify the subjects of their pictures, Du Bos pauses to register that artists have not always been so reluctant to incorporate words in their images. “The sense of the Gothic painters, however coarse it was, made them realize the utility of inscriptions for understanding the subjects of pictures,” he remarks—only to add immediately:

It is true that they made as barbarous a use of this knowledge as of their brushes. They took the strange precaution of making rolls coming out of the mouths of their figures, on which they wrote whatever they claimed to make these lazy figures say; it was truly making these figures speak. 

These rolls have “disappeared together with the Gothic taste,” and Du Bos is evidently happy to see them go. Yet he can’t help registering the loss, even as he looks around for some other means by which writing could come to the aid of images: “Sometimes the greatest masters have judged two or three words necessary in order to render the subjects of their works intelligible,” he observes rather defensively; “and they even have not scrupled to write them someplace on the surface of their pictures where they would do no harm.”

Though Du Bos does not trouble to spell out what he means by this remark, both his dismissal of the “Gothic” banderole and his concern lest the words inscribed on a picture injure the work itself take for granted an ideal of pictorial illusion that had been operative only since the Renaissance; and that ideal, which more or less coincided with the development of easel painting, was another crucial factor in the rise of picture titles. Illuminated manuscripts are also potentially mobile, after all, and so, for that matter, are ancient Greek vases; but it was primarily when images were extracted from a verbal context and writing in turn “banish[ed]... from the picture space,” as Gombrich has put it, that the need to identify those images became a problem. 

Of course that banishment was never absolute: the fusion of word and image in the emblem tradition continued long after the development of linear perspective; and Meyer Schapiro has noted certain other exceptions as well, including the powerful portrait of the duchess of Alba by Francisco Goya (1797), in which the artist recorded the words solo Goya (“Goya alone,” or “only Goya”) on the ground at her feet. That example also reminds us that painters devised numerous techniques for inscribing their signatures on canvases without seriously disrupting the illusion of a three-dimensional space. While the divorce of word and image was a powerful impetus, paradoxically, to the development of titles, the convention of titling would persist even after words began once more to enter the picture. Paintings acquire titles for many reasons, some of which have little to do with viewers’ difficulty in recognizing their subjects.

Excepted from Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names by Ruth Bernard Yeazell. Copyright © 2015 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.