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

Jasper Johns: The First Week

It’s been an amazing first week for our latest exhibition Jasper Johns: Regrets – we’ve loved reading the reactions and comments from everyone who has come along to see the work. Here are a few of our highlights – keep them coming!

Pinterest competition: Click, connect, and construct.

Meghan Goodeve, Oak Foundation Young People’s Programme Coordinator.

This September we are launching a competition for students aged 16 to 19 years to click, connect, and construct a Pinterest board!

Developed in partnership with further education and sixth form tutors, this Pinterest project is centred on 20th century art historian Aby Warburg.

Pinterest is a great way to collect images digitally and to shift through the multitude of artworks that are available online.

We are asking students to create a visual essay based on and around an artwork from The Courtauld Gallery’s collection. Check out our collection in person by visiting the gallery or online.


Example of Pinterest board
Example of Pinterest board


Why enter?

By participating in this competition students will explore how critical and contextual study can be based in the visual, and how to translate this to a digital landscape.

It will also help students to differentiate between researching from books and sourcing information online: what websites can be trusted? What image is the truest reproduction of the original? How can you make sure texts from online sources are properly referenced? How do you use the internet to research successfully?

Find out more about The Courtauld Education’s Pinterest and how the project was developed.

How to enter?

Applications open 29th September 2014

Download the competition application form and complete. This must include the following:
•    Student’s contact details
•    The URL to the student’s Pinterest board
•    A short descriptive text about their chosen artwork from The Courtauld Gallery and theme/argument for the board (100 words max).
•    A short bibliography of the books, websites, and any other materials the student has used to research your exhibition. 3-5 sources.


Please email the completed form to The deadline for entries is 12th December 2014 at midnight. A celebration event will be held for those shortlisted at The Courtauld Gallery in February 2015.

How can we support teachers?

We are offering the following opportunities for teachers and schools but please note these are not obligatory to enter the competition.

•    Teachers CPD Twilight, Tuesday 30th September 2014, 5.00-7.00pm
•    School Workshops at The Courtauld Gallery, 2 hours long, Slots available Tuesday- Fridays
•    Outreach Workshops at your School, 2 hours long, Slots available Mondays- Fridays

Schools and Outreach Workshops are reserved to non-selective state schools with a high proportion of pupils on FSM and the Further Education colleges which serve them. To book please email or call +44 (0)207 848 1058

For further information see our schools page.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions and good luck!