This article was first published in my newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – January 2008. Follow the link to subscribe to the newsletter.
I have been reading (in French) a book titled “Recollections of a Picture Dealer” by Ambroise Vollard. He was a key figure in the promotion of impressionist painters and knew them all. His influence went beyond impressionism, as he also sold Picasso’s works. His memoirs give an insight into the world of art dealers, art collectors and painters.
He reports an anecdote about Cézanne that shows how a title influences the viewer.
Once, Vollard was exhibiting one of Cézanne’s paintings representing a group of naked women with another character who, looking at the way he was dressed, could be seen as a shepherd. Vollard re-used a frame he had, but forget to remove the frame plate with the title of the former painting that read: “Diana and Acteon”. The press described the painting as being a representation of Diana taking her bath and commented on the noble goddess and her attitude of offended virgin.
One collector told Vollard that he would have bought the painting, except for the fact that he already had another “Diane taking her bath” by the painter Tassaert.
Later in the year, Vollard was asked to send for an exhibition a painting by Cézanne titled “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”. However, the painting had been sold in the meantime and Vollard sent instead the so-called “Diana and Acteon”, removing this time the frame plate with the title. As the organisers of the exhibition were expecting “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”, the painting went in the catalogue under this title.
The Temptation of Saint Anthony, by Cézanne
Press reviews described the painting as being “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”. Critics commented on the wicked smile of the seductive Devil’s daughter (the former noble goddess). The pseudo-Acteon had become a pathetic Saint Anthony.
On the last day of the exhibition, Vollard saw the collector who had refused the painting when titled “Diana and Acteon”. He had in his hand the review published in the paper and, triumphant, explained that he just bought the “Temptation”, which looked so realistic.
Remember this story next time you pick a title for your work. Titles do influence the viewers and their perception of your work, even if the viewers are not conscious of it.
Recollections of a Picture Dealer by Ambroise Vollard (English translation)
Available in Paperback -
Cezanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-garde (Metropolitan Museum of Art Publications)
What’s your title ?