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The Best of Ask Joan of Art: Looking Closely at Artist Signatures
August 10, 2010

This post is part of an ongoing series on Eye Level: The Best of Ask Joan of Art. Begun in 1993, Ask Joan of Art is the longest-running arts-based electronic reference service in the country. The real Joan is Kathleen Adrian or one of her co-workers from the museum’s Research and Scholars Center. These experts answer the public's questions about art. Earlier this year, Kathleen began posting questions on Twitter and made the answers available on our Web site.

Jasper Johns

In Jasper Johns's Souvenir he uses a self portrait as his signature. In this group of objects, a flashlight to the right of the lithograph points up at a mirror, which is angled towards a plate bearing the artist’s image, casting light on the artist as both maker and subject.

Question: When did artists begin to sign their works? I would assume there was no need to sign commissions intended for private use. Is there a certain genre of paintings that tends to include signatures?

Answer: Artists began to sign their work toward the end of the Middle Ages in Europe. It was at this time that the collaborative artistic production of the monastic workshop gradually gave way to individual artistic ambition and accomplishment.

John Wilmerding, in his book Signs of the Artist: Signatures and Self-Expression in American Paintings, writes that an artist's signature can have a great deal of significance. On a work of art, it establishes originality to a dealer or purchaser, even when an unsigned work has all the stylistic and technical characteristics of that artist's hand. A buyer instinctively feels more confident if a signature is present, and its absence can often affect the market value.

An artist's signature does more than just connote authenticity. These inscriptions are often fragments of autobiography, concentrated glimpses of self-portraiture, or more properly, self-representation. Signatures are foremost a mark of individual identity.

Signatures have evolved along with the artist’s work. Artists have been known to sign their works in a great variety of ways, such as initials, monograms, and symbols. As a result, identifying artist signatures and monograms can be a challenging task. Artist's names are hidden within loops and flourishes, scribbles and scratches. Often, the most difficult part is simply determining which letter is which!

For examples of artist's signatures, you might also be interested in the following books: H.H. Caplan's The Classified Directory of Artists' Signatures, Symbols and Monograms, John Castagno's American Artists : Signatures and Monograms, 1800-1989 , and Radway Jackson's The Visual Index of Artists' Signatures.

Posted by Jeff on August 10, 2010 in Ask Joan of Art


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