Cover image for Signs of the artist : signatures and self-expression in American paintings
Signs of the artist : signatures and self-expression in American paintings
Wilmerding, John.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New Haven : b Yale University Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
xi, 203 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 27 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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ND205 .W523 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Signatures are unique and often reveal something of our individual personalities. In this intriguing book, John Wilmerding--an eminent historian of American art--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 thepictorial 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, including John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Jasper Johns, Andrew Wyeth, and Richard Estes.
After providing an overview of signatures in European art, Wilmerding looks closely at American painting. He argues that by placing a signature within a painting the artist may be making an explicit association with the setting or situation depicted. He demonstrates that such signatures or inscriptions can be viewed as fragments of autobiography or as concentrated glimpses of self-representation. Beautifully designed and handsomely illustrated, this book brings into focus the myriad and complex meanings of artists' signatures and is of interest to anyone who admires and studies American art and culture.

Author Notes

John Wilmerding is Christopher Binyon Sarofim '86 Professor of American Art in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University and visiting curator in the Department of American Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is the author of many books and articles on American painting and was recently reappointed by President George W. Bush to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

In this beautifully presented and illustrated examination of the unconventional signatures of 27 American artists, Wilmerding (American art, Princeton Univ.) argues that many artists who intentionally placed their signatures within the pictorial spaces of engravings, paintings, and drawings explicitly projected autobiographical fragments or signs of their lives into their works. While this preeminent art historian's analysis is perceptive, it is not entirely original. He strengthens his text by refusing to confine himself to either the fundamental concept of "authorship" or the unconventional signatures of only a few artists, but the result often reads like a catalog of observations and findings, many of which have been made by other scholars. The one-paragraph restatement of Wilmerding's main ideas that abruptly ends the book is inadequate, especially since he devotes an entire introductory chapter to European precedents and four to the unconventional signatures of many famous American masters from the 18th through the 20th centuries, not limited to those of John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, and Andrew Wyeth. Despite its weaknesses, including the absence of a bibliography, this work belongs in most large public and academic American art book collections, because it provides a much-needed survey by a well-known, reputed expert.-Cheryl Ann Lajos, Free Lib. of Philadelphia (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Wilmerding (Princeton Univ.) surveys several American artists who, often ingeniously and at times significantly, have incorporated their names, signs, and signatures into their art. The means employed to autobiographically or visually project oneself into the art are varied, from trompe l'oeil painters integrating personal elements (news clippings, tintypes, packets of letters written to the artist) into their paintings, to the butterfly monograms of James McNeil Whistler and the inclusion of one's last name (as fictitious store or transportation signage, or as a street sign) in the photorealist reflections of Richard Estes. Beginning with European precedents, Wilmerding cites and discusses many clever allusions, including orange peels in the works of Charles Willson Peale and Raphaelle Peale; artists' names or initials appearing on ships' sails, handkerchiefs, boat keels, and as graffiti; and the "signing" of one's name using a pictograph (as with the outline of a country church spire by Frederic Edwin Church). These signing consequences vary from artist to artist and within an individual artist's oeuvre. In most of Andrew Wyeth's paintings, e.g., the signature is conventionally placed. References in other Wyeth works cogently refer to autobiographical events significant to our understanding of the artist and the art. A beautifully illustrated and designed book. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. Graduate students; researchers. R. M. Labuz Mohawk Valley Community College