Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c. 1503–1506. Detail.
The Mona Lisa is widely considered the most famous painting in the world, but Leonardo da Vinci never knew the title it would go on to have. A full thirty-one years after da Vinci’s death, Giorgio Vasari—one of the most influential art historians—is credited for identifying the woman in the painting. This identification led to the name “Mona,” a shortened version of “Madonna,” and Lisa, the first name of the woman depicted.
Confusing? Not really. Many artists prior to the twentieth century did not bother naming their works of art, especially when they were commissioned portraits, as was the Mona Lisa—the sitter is believed to be Lisa Gherardini, noblewoman and wife of prominent Italian merchant Francesco del Giocondo. Works from that era were expected to be seen mostly by those who understood what was happening in the picture, and who was in it.
Here is a sampling of other famous paintings that have gone by different names over the years.
Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665.
Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring
Widely considered the most recognized painting of Dutch descent, the work that has come to be known as Girl with a Pearl Earring has gone by many different titles over the years. Believed to be painted in 1665 by Vermeer, it was not until it was donated to the Mauritshuis in 1902 that the untitled work became known as Girl with a Turban. By 1995, it was more widely known as Girl with a Pearl, and then, a few years later, finally, Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Frans Hals (1582/1583–1666), The Laughing Cavalier, 1624.
Frans Hals’ Laughing Cavalier
A well-respected portrait painter, Frans Hals was a Dutch contemporary of Vermeer. One of his many surviving works from the Baroque period seems to have a peculiar name—the pictured subject does not appear to be laughing at all. Furthermore, the Wallace Collection, home to the painting, points out, “Although the sitter is…. [not] a cavalier, the title conveys the sense of jocularity and swagger that is the cumulative effect of the low viewpoint and dazzling technique together with the sitter’s upturned mustache, twinkling eyes, and arrogant pose.”
The painting is said to have single-handedly saved Hals’ reputation as one of the great painters of his era. His name had fallen out of the art world’s mainstream consciousness by the late 19th century, and it was a bidding war for the painting in question at an 1865 auction in Paris that reignited the artist’s celebrity, some 200 years after he passed away. Exhibited from 1872-1875 with the title, A Cavalier, the museum attendees and Victorian press are credited with renaming it Laughing Cavalier. It was first displayed under its current name in 1888 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Rembrandt (1606–1669), Philosopher in Meditation, 1632.
Rembrandt’s Philosopher in Meditation
The painting widely known as Philosopher in Meditation has long been attributed to Rembrandt, and hangs in the Louvre with attribution to the great 17th-century Dutch painter. Until recently, the Rembrandt Research Project—started in part due to the numerous painters active in the 17th century that created imitations of Rembrandt works—disputed the attribution.
Now widely accepted to have been painted by Rembrandt, the piece has held alternate titles since it was created in 1632, including Scholar in an Interior with a Winding Stair. Though never officially renamed, many scholars have argued that Philosopher in Meditation does not do an adequate job of describing the pictured scene. The subject in the painting doesn’t appear to be a philosopher, and a woman seems to be walking up the staircase in fading light, indicating a domestic scene rather than a man alone in his study.
Nonetheless, Rembrandt’s work lives on under the title Philosopher in Meditation.
Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931. Oil on canvas. 9 1/2 x 13 in.(24.1 x 33 cm).
Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory
Though the famed Salvador Dalí painting has always been displayed at the MoMa under its current name, its cult-like following has given it several aliases that are widely accepted to describe the painting. Often the subject of parody already, the painting’s aliases include “The Persistence of Time,” “Droopy Watches,” “Melting Clocks,” and “Soft Watches.”
The Surrealist painting has never been officially renamed, but it exemplifies the fluid nature of the naming process and how many paintings take on a life of their own after they’ve been created.
Picasso’s ‘Annabel’ – the rights and wrongs of renaming paintings https://t.co/7IyO4zVD2T
Pablo Picasso’s Annabel
When Pablo Picasso painted Girl with a Red Beret and Pompom, he could not have known that nearly a century later, a rich club owner would buy it for £20-£30m ($24-36 million), hang it in his exclusive members-only club Annabel’s at Mayfair, and rename it Annabel, after the club itself. We will also never know if it would have bothered Picasso or not, as this particular renaming took place in 2018, forty-five years after Picasso’s death.
Charlie Pogacar is the Custom Content Associate Editor at Journalistic, Inc. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Abby, and boxer pup, Frankie.
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Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c. 1503–1506. Detail.