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
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
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 (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.
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.
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 (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 (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)
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.
Georges Seurat, Woman Powdering Herself, 1890 (Below with detail)
What artists’ signatures have you spotted? Leave a comment below or Tweet us @CourtauldGall