Artist Signatures and Their Meanings

When an artist makes their mark on paper, canvas or sculpture, it can serve to identify, distinguish or finalize an artwork. A clear signature is helpful when evaluating a work of art, but their presence, or absence, might reveal more about the work than you realize. Read on to learn more about the history, importance and hidden meanings of artist signatures.


Meaning Behind Artist Signatures

The Visit of the English Squadron to Le Havre by Raoul Dufy, circa 1925.


While artist signatures were not unheard of earlier in history, they became more a matter of course during the Renaissance. A fertile time for the arts, the Renaissance saw a shift away from a more guild-based system of creation to the individual artist. One of the most important concepts to emerge during the Renaissance was Humanism, which valued the personal experience. This movement focused on the revival of classical learnings, realism and individualism. The Renaissance reached its height in Florence, Italy, due in large part to the Medici, a wealthy merchant family who were dedicated humanists, believing firmly in the autonomy of the individual. Their numerous artistic commissions reflected these ideals, and signatures became a way for artists to differentiate themselves amid these myriad commissions.


Meaning Behind Artist Signatures


Christ Seated Disputing with the Doctors by Rembrandt van Rijn, printed circa 1615.

The Importance of Artist Signatures

Signatures are among the first things researchers or appraisers look for when evaluating a work of art, and their value in helping identify a work of art is undeniable. However, it is also important to note that signatures are not always present — and not always essential to the attribution, value or validity of a work. Signatures were not ubiquitous even after they became more common during the Renaissance, and most Old Masters works were not signed. Even in modern times, some artists never signed their creations. A savvy gallery or auction house takes into consideration a wide variety of aspects when attributing an artwork to an artist, including style, technique, materials used and subject matter, with the signature only being one part of the puzzle.


Meaning Behind Artist Signatures


Allegory of Smell, or The Perfume Painting by Jan Brueghel the Younger and Jan van Balen, circa 1640. This work is unsigned, as was typical for both artists.

Also important to consider is the type of artwork at hand. A sketch or preparatory drawing is often much less likely to bear a signature as, for instance, a large-scale oil painting created for the art market. Sometimes, artists only sign work they intend to sell — bringing us to our next point.


Stamp Signed

Something that appears frequently on the art market that potential art buyers have questions about is the term “stamp signed.” So, what does stamp signed mean, and when is it used?


Stamp signed indicates that a stamp has been created based on the artist's actual signature or monogram to apply to the work in place of a hand-painted or hand-written signature. The artist themselves can authorize this, but often, stamp signatures are approved by the estate of a deceased artist. An artist's studio is often full of unsold, unsigned works after the artist's death, and an estate will then apply a stamp signature when those pieces enter the art market. When authorized by the artist or estate, stamp signatures indicate a completely validated and accepted work by the artist in question. This is commonly seen with Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works due to their increasing popularity among collectors in the first half of the 20th century.



Meaning Behind Artist Signatures


Ondine by Marcel-Béronneau, circa 1905. This painting bears a studio stamp en verso.

Hidden Artist Signatures

The lower right or left corner of a canvas is not the only place an artist's signature may appear. Artists have the freedom to apply their mark anywhere on the work, and they sometimes get creative. An obvious place to look for a missing signature is the reverse of the piece, where it might be placed if an artist does not want to detract from the composition.


Signatures can be hidden in this way — or hidden in plain sight. A clever artist, particularly in the case of trompe l'oeil paintings designed to trick the eye into envisioning a realistic scene in front of them, could place their signature within the composition itself, perhaps on a scroll or within the woodwork of a table.



Meaning Behind Artist Signatures


Parliament by Edward Collier, circa 1695. The artist has hidden his signature in two distinct places within the composition on scrolls of paper.

Signatures can also be obvious, but so stylized that they become an element of the composition, revealing aspects of even the artist themselves. Salvador Dalí, for example, would at times paint a very large, prominent signature within the work, embellishing it with design details. For Dalí, this type of placement inserts the artist into the piece, reflecting his eccentricities and showmanship both on the canvas and in his personal life.


Meaning Behind Artist Signatures

Two of Swords by Salvador Dalí, circa 1971. The large black lettering and crescent moon shape at top center serves as Dalí's signature.

Signatures and Dates

Signatures are as unique as the artist and artwork themselves, and they can vary even within one individual artist's oeuvre over their career. Carefully examining the subtle or drastic changes in an artist's signature over time can tell you a great deal about the work at hand, and these differences can be instrumental in helping determine when a piece was created. Pablo Picasso is an excellent example. In his Cubist period, he often did not sign the front of his paintings as to not compete with the complex lines and visual construction of the work. It was not until later that he developed his “signature” signature, complete with a swooping line underscoring his last name.

Meaning Behind Artist Signatures

Homme à l'agneau, mangeur de pastèque et flûtiste by Pablo Picasso, executed 1967.


To study more famous artist signatures, explore M.S. Rau's entire collection of fine art.


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