The Emergence of Titling in the Nineteenth-Century French Art World: A Quantitative Analysis

It is now taken for granted that paintings have titles, and practices around the giving, presenting and interpretation of titles have become institutionalised within the art world. However, that was not always the case. Until the end of the eighteenth century, as Ruth Yeazell has argued, the language used to refer to paintings was predominantly descriptive and classificatory (p. 39, Yeazell 2015). This paper uses a quantitative analysis of the entries made by artists in the catalogues of the Paris Salon and of critical reviews of those exhibitions to show how titling emerged in the nineteenth-century French art world.

Drawing on digital archives, I constructed a database from a representative sample of catalogue entries covering the decades from the 1790s to the 1870s, together with a sample of critical writing. The trends in various statistical measures of that data such as the frequency of occurrence of key terms and the distribution of word length are interpreted as direct and indirect evidence of the emergence of titling as the functions associated with titling became dominant and other uses of the entries declined.

To conceive of a catalogue entry as a title is more than re-describing a piece of text, and my analysis shows how the adoption of titling involved a wholesale shift in attitude towards their use and towards the status of the objects they named. It can be seen as a key component of the commercialisation of the French art world and the commodification of the art object.

The use of databases and quantitative analysis is uncommon in art history, as is the ’distant’ perspective it allows. My work shows how these techniques can bring new ways of seeing and new kinds of knowledge into art history and can challenge the readings and preconceptions other scholars have brought to the nineteenth-century French art world.