Signed, Sealed, Delivered: A Look at Artists’ Signatures in the Courtauld Gallery

Take a tour through The Courtauld Gallery from the Renaissance to the 19th century and find out more about how artists have signed their paintings.

The act of signing a painting can be very meaningful: by applying words onto an image, the artist reminds the viewer that they are looking at a flat surface purposefully created by a real person.

What do artists’ signatures reveal about their status in society and their ambitions?

Room 1: 13th-15th Century, Medieval and Renaissance

Artists’ practice of signing their work is often said to have originated in the Renaissance as a manifestation of the steady rise of the status of the artist, from anonymous craftsman to celebrated creative genius.

However, it is not quite as clear cut as this;  in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance a number of artists were already claiming authorship of their work.

Two examples of early Renaissance signatures, both in Latin, can be found in Room 1.


Bernardo Daddi, Polyptych, The Crucifixion and Saints, 1348

Daddi’s  The Crucifixion and Saints has a long inscription running along the bottom of its central panel, which translates as “In the year of our Lord 1348, Bernardus, whom Florence made, painted me”.

The Virgin and Child by Barnaba da Modena has a signature painted at the bottom which reads “Barnaba da Modena painted [this]”.

Barnaba da Modena,The Virgin and Child, around 1365-1370

Barnaba da Modena,The Virgin and Child, around 1365-1370

Particularly intriguing is the large size of the inscription, out of proportion with the small religious representation. Both Daddi and Barnaba were serials signers and many of their works bear their names. Theirs however are not signatures in the modern sense of the word: they don’t provide a unique proof of identity.

Rather, they are inscriptions proclaiming their authorship of the work. These could even have been painted by someone from their workshop. Their primary value lies in its assertion of origin.

Room 2: 15th-16th Century, Renaissance Europe

The Trinity with Saints  by Alessandro Filipepi (nicknamed Botticelli) has two faded initials ‘AB’ painted at the bottom of the cross.

Alessandro Filipepi (Botticelli), The Trinity with Saints, around 1491-94

Alessandro Filipepi (Botticelli), The Trinity with Saints, around 1491-94

Meant as the artist’s monogram (a motif created by combining two or more initials), they were probably added at a later date and reveal the importance of signatures for art dealers and collectors.

Alessandro Filipepi (Botticelli), The Trinity with Saints, around 1491-94

Alessandro Filipepi (Botticelli), The Trinity with Saints (detail), around 1491-94

It is highly unlikely that Botticelli would ever have signed with these initials, which correspond to a form of his name that he never used.

Room 3: 17th Century, Rubens and the Baroque

A signature however can take many forms, encompassing secret codes, hidden signs and bizarre imagery. Lucas Cranach the Elder’s signature in Adam and Eve conforms to this theory.

Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526

 Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve 1526

His signature is painted on the Tree of Life and takes the form of a winged snake-like creature wearing a crown and carrying a ring in its mouth.

Adam and Eve (detail), Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve (detail), 1526

This version of Cranach’s signature started to appear in his paintings from 1508. Before that date, his paintings are usually marked with his initials.

We are still unsure about the meaning of this winged serpent, which may relate to a noble title or an order of merit given to Cranach. Cranach had a large studio with many assistants and this use of signature – or ‘branding’ – could have been a way of authenticating and controlling the overall production.

The Allegorical Portrait of Sir John Luttrell by Hans Eworth includes an inscription on the rock in the left foreground alluding to the courage and steadfastness of its sitter, along with the date of the painting and the initials of the painter.

Hans Eworth, The Allegorical Portrait of Sir John Luttrell, 1550

Hans Eworth, The Allegorical Portrait of Sir John Luttrell (detail), 1550

Hans Eworth, The Allegorical Portrait of Sir John Luttrell (below with detail), 1550

Although this reference to the subject overshadows the artist’s own mark, it is also a rare example of an artist’s signature in 16th-century England.

Room 6: 19th Century, Impressionism and Post-impressionism

In the 19th century, the Impressionists adopted a different approach to signatures.

They generally signed their works with their surname, a date and sometimes the location where the painting was made.

Claude Monet, for example, liked to sign his work with his full name and the date, most often in a colour contrasting with the background.

Claude Monet, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil,  1873

Claude Monet, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (detail),  1873

Claude Monet, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (below with detail), 1873

In addition, Impressionists sometimes included the location where the work was made, emphasizing their practice of painting out of doors and leaving the confines of the studio.

In order to reinforce the myth surrounding his exotic works in the minds of Parisian audiences, Gauguin added to his signature his location, Tahiti, a practice encouraged by his dealer.


Paul Gauguin, Te Rerioa, 1897 (below with detail)

Paul Gauguin, Te Rerioa, 1897 (below with detail)

In Woman Powdering Herself, Seurat’s signature is more discrete. In this painting, the signature is embedded in the fictive frame that Seurat painted around the edge of the canvas.

Seurat, Woman Powdering Herself

Georges Seurat, Woman Powdering Herself, 1890 (Below with detail)

Georges Seurat, Woman Powdering Herself, 1890 (Below with detail)

What artists’ signatures have you spotted? Leave a comment below or Tweet us @CourtauldGall

The Courtauld: First for Impressionists

This summer, you might have spotted our First for Impressionists campaign if you’ve been travelling by tube..

First for Impressionists tube campaign

Or train…

First for Impressionists train campaign

Or maybe you’ve spotted our beautiful new banner and shop windows outside Somerset House…

The Courtauld Gallery Shop - Strand entrance

We also now also have a lovely new video featuring our Curator of Paintings Dr Karen Serres as she discusses our world famous collection of Impressionist paintings – starring Monet, Degas, Gauguin and Van Gogh amongst many others.


Bruegel to Freud: Prints from The Courtauld Gallery

Dr Rachel Sloan, Assistant Curator on Works on Paper

What makes up the largest portion of The Courtauld Gallery’s collection? You might be surprised by the answer…

Prints. Over 24,000 of them, to be precise.

The second Summer Showcase display to highlight a particular aspect of the Gallery’s permanent collection, Bruegel to Freud: Prints from The Courtauld Gallery explores this largest but least well known portion of the collection.

This display of 30 prints spans five centuries and covers most of the major printmaking techniques, from engraving to etching, lithography, wood engraving, woodcut and drypoint.

View of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Jockey, 1899.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), The Jockey, 1899, Lithograph

Selecting the display from such a vast collection was certainly a challenge, similar to that undertaken by my colleagues Joanna Selborne and Lizzie Jacklin for their parallel display of prints from the Witt Library, Purpose and Process: British and French Printmaking, 1600-1900.

In choosing the works, I wanted to give visitors an idea of the breadth and depth of the collection, to highlight its strengths and to give a sense of the way its three principal donors shaped it.

The vast majority of the print collection comes from Sir Robert Witt (1872-1952), one of the founders of The Courtauld. Witt created an image library to serve as a research and educational tool for students, scholars and curators, and the more than 20,000 prints that formed part of it (along with thousands of photographs and catalogue cuttings) are mostly reproductive – that is, they reproduce works of art in other media.

Purpose and Process focuses on this aspect of the Witt collection, so I decided to highlight instead some of the small but choice group of ‘master prints’ (prints conceived and executed by artists as original works of art) that came from the Witt Library – a very rare etching by French Mannerist Jacques Bellange, an exquisitely detailed print by Jacques Callot that was made for a city festival in Florence and intended to be mounted and distributed to spectators in the form of a fan, and an allegory of the visual arts by Flemish artist Johannes Stradanus that gives pride of place to printmaking, to name a few.

Jacques Callot, The Fan (The Battle of King Weaver and King Dyer), 1619, Etching

Jacques Callot, The Fan (The Battle of King Weaver and King Dyer), 1619, Etching

Many of The Courtauld’s Old Master prints came to us from Count Antoine Seilern (1901-1978), a scholar-collector who bequeathed them along with his superb collection of paintings and drawings. Some of the gems from his collection included in the display include important early engravings and etchings by Andrea Mantegna and Parmigianino and masterpieces by a trio of eighteenth-century Venetian artists – Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Canaletto and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

View of the etching 'smoking fire' by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778).

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), Smoking fire, 1749-1760, Etching

It’s also thanks to Seilern that we have a rare impression of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s enigmatic Rabbit Hunt, the only print the artist executed himself. With stunning naturalism, Bruegel depicts a vast landscape in which is hidden a hunter aiming at two rabbits who appears to be stalked by another hunter himself – perhaps an illustration of the proverb ‘He who pursues two rabbits at once, will lose both.’

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Rabbit Hunt, 1560 Etching,

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Rabbit Hunt, 1560 ,Etching

The Courtauld’s renowned collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art includes prints alongside paintings and drawings (many of them given by Samuel Courtauld himself), and they’re well-represented here, with an etching by Edouard Manet, a wood engraving by Paul Gauguin, and lithographs by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre Bonnard.

The display also gives us a chance to show how artists have continued to turn to printmaking in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with prints by Picasso, Matisse, Lucian Freud, Chris Ofili and Linda Karshan. Together, they give a taste of how artists today continue to revive and reinvent printmaking techniques, turning them to different ends.

Linda Karshan, N.E. 1, 2002, Etching and drypoint

Linda Karshan, N.E. 1, 2002, Etching

We hope you’ll come and make a few discoveries of your own among the Courtauld’s prints.

Bruegel to Freud: Prints from The Courtauld Gallery runs 19 June-21 September.

Spotlight on a Masterpiece: Van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

In the first in a new series of posts, we’ll be uncovering the history, stories and trivia behind masterpieces in The Courtauld’s permanent collection.

This month we are looking at Vincent van Gogh’s Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear

The artist Paul Gauguin joined van Gogh in the town of Arles in November 1888, to paint together in what van Gogh called the ‘studio of the south’, but they quickly started to quarrel.

Van Gogh had hoped to set up a thriving community of like-minded artists, of which he and Gauguin would be the first.

After an argument with Gauguin in December 1888, van Gogh famously mutilated his ear.

This disagreement signalled the end of van Gogh’s dream, and his disappointment is evident in this stark self-portrait; one of the first paintings he produced after his release from hospital in January 1889.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889 © The Courtauld Gallery, London

Van Gogh’s disagreement with Gauguin was grounded on a dispute over whether the artist should work from nature or from the imagination.

Gauguin felt that an over-reliance on the external world marked a lack of creativity, whilst van Gogh drew rich meanings from his observation of nature.

This particular painting is clearly grounded in observation with the subject illuminated by clear daylight and exposed by contrasting colours and textures, and in this way it differs greatly from Gauguin’s simplified and abstract technique.

Notice the almost blank canvas to the left contrasted against the vibrant Japanese colour print to the right.

Coupled with the prominent bandage over the artist’s ear, this contrast seems to suggest a present fear of creative drought compared with hopeful dreams of the past.

It’s also worth noting that the colours you see today are in fact different from the colours that van Gogh originally chose.

Research at The Courtauld has revealed that the paints used by the artist were so cheap that their colour has gradually changed over the years.