Although their importance is often downplayed because nearly every piece of art has them, artist signatures are actually a big part of the way our art history and market function. In research terms, a signature is always one piece in a larger puzzle, but a piece which can make or break the validity and the value of an artwork.
Aside from a few major artists who, for whatever reason, decided not to put signatures on their work, nearly all noteworthy individuals in history have had the habit of leaving their signature on their creations. In fact, a golden rule of researching/investing in art remains to check if the work is signed or not, as an artist signature will be able to tell you a lot more than you might think.
With that being said, let's talk about why artist signatures are so vital to the way we construct arts history and run the art market, as well as, if you yourself dabble with art-making from time to time, why signing it should be the first thing you do after completing a work of art.
There is a handful of contemporary artists who will tell you that signing your work is overrated and unnecessary, often claiming that a signature can ruin the composition or that the image is far more important than the person who made it. While there are cases to be made for why you might want to avoid putting a signature on a work, there are also very good reasons why having an artist signature is an absolute must.
First of all, a signature claims the ownership of the work and it proves you were the one who created it. Believe it or not, a signature is often the most unique element on the canvas and history has shown that forgers have a lot of trouble replicating them.
The other reason why you should always sign what you produce is that a signature will almost always increase that painting’s monetary worth. You might have some doing before your signatures start carrying weight, however, but once it does, you will be glad you signed your earlier artworks.
Artists signatures were a common practice ever since ancient times, but the way we see them today can be traced to the time of the early Renaissance. This was the time when arts production shifted from the well-established co-operative guild system to a celebration of individual creativity.
Albrecht Dürer, a leading print-maker of the German arts history, belong to one of the oldest instances of a contemporary-like case surrounding artist signatures. Known to put his trademark AD on everything from printed masterpieces to hurried sketches, Dürer went to court in both Nuremberg and Venice in order to legally protect his authorship. Both cases were won thanks to the presence of his signature.
Searching for hidden signatures might be an arts historian's greatest professional dream, and for good reasons - uncovering such elements of an artwork can reveal a wealth of information lost during the passage of time. From Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa eyes to the recent case of a hidden inscription by the Australian Impressionist Tom Roberts, such signatures can be true gold mines of information.
Rarely (if ever) does such a discovery lead down the path of a The Da Vinci Code-like scenario, but maybe the artist left a dedication of some kind or noted the identity of the subject? Finding out facts like that can do a lot for an arts specialist.
Many artists will also expand signatures with notes to themselves, so inscriptions are commonly used to keep a record of time, place and medium. Ben Nicholson, for instance, recorded a wealth of information on the back of his boards - not only did he sign, title and date his works this way, but he also made lists of used colors and the addresses of where he would be sending the work.
John Castagno, an artist and respected expert who produced over a dozen of reference books cataloging artist signatures throughout history, noted that there's no end to the variety of signatures an individual might use:
My first volume contained more than 10,000 entries, with many artists using symbols and variations on their name. James McNeill Whistler had many different styles. In other cases, marks are almost completely illegible, such as those of Jean-Michel Basquiat. He had two script signatures that were virtually impossible to read, along with his printed version.
Although these variations might seem like a confusing and problematic issue to a layman, they can actually be very useful when it comes to dating a work. For example, Pablo Picasso's Blue Period saw the artist sign his work with a middle name as P R (or Ruiz) Picasso. Later on in his life, as he entered his analytical Cubist period, Picasso dropped the initials and developed a different signature. As a result, art historian have an incredible shortcut whenever they encounter a work signed by either one of the two signatures Pablo Picasso used.
Although signatures can confirm well-founded research, what happens if a forged inscription accidentally goes through the cracks as the "real deal"? It can lead to a devastating chain of events and mislead generations of subsequent arts historians, not to mention it can end up on an auction at some point and disrupt the entire market.
Tom Rooth, Director of the Victorian & British Impressionist Pictures Department at Christie’s, explains these incidents with the following statement:
Added signatures are a key issue on the market. They tend to fall into one of two camps. Either a painting has been created to imitate an artist’s work, together with a mimicked signature, or someone might add a signature to a picture at a later date, in order to deceive, and increase value — sometimes significantly.
However, if experts responsible for analyzing artist signatures are capable of distinguishing between false and valid inscriptions, a forged signature can be used as a great asset and help the market's authenticity by allowing a firmer grip over an artist's oeuvre.
The good news is that contemporary technology, with its pigment analysis and UV lights, can help out a great deal on that front, but, at the end of the day, there's no beating an experienced human eye, so having trained experts familiar with the artist's work and signature fluidity is as vital as ever.
Editors’ Tip: Signs of the Artist: Signatures and Self-Expression in American Paintings
Signatures are unique and often reveal something of our individual personalities. In this intriguing book, John Wilmerding ― an eminent historian of American arts ― explores the unconventional use of signatures in paintings. The author focuses on American artists who have not simply signed their works on a corner of the canvas but have intentionally placed their signatures within the pictorial space of the painting. A painter’s name or initials might, for instance, appear as an illusion on a wall or floor, on an object within an interior, or on some form in a landscape. Wilmerding examines such signatures in works by twenty-seven artists from the eighteenth through twentieth centuries.
Featured image: Auguste Rodin signature. All images via wikimedia.org.