Why do artists sign their works? And since when? We took a look at the history of the signature!

“I am not Modersohn and I am no longer Paula Becker. I am I, and I hope to become more and more so.” These were the words Paula Modersohn-Becker spoke to her friend Rainer Maria Rilke in 1906, shortly before she turned her back on Worpswede and thus also Otto Modersohn and moved to Paris. Her departure from the artists’ colony signaled a new phase in the life and work of the artist, something also reflected in her signature. A prime example of this is the “Self-Portrait at 6th Wedding Anniversary”, which she created in May 1906 and signed with PB – Paula Becker, her maiden name. Paula Becker was 30 years old, had separated from Otto Modersohn, and was now experiencing the “intensely happiest time” of her life in Paris. With her new old signature, she demonstrated her new-found independence. Artists’ signatures therefore not only help us as observers today to date their works, but can also provide information about circumstances in their lives, and emotional states. So why do artists sign their works in the first place? And since when? We take a look at the history of the signature. 

Even in ancient times, ceramicists inserted their signatures among the red and black figures on their amphorae – and in doing so generated advertising for their workshops with every vessel sold. Yet the principle of the signature only really became established during the Renaissance, when Italian Renaissance artists were ostensibly the first to leave signatures on their works. In comparison to many a modern signature, these early signatures were not small letters slotted into corners, but often carefully considered, almost calligraphic inscriptions that were harmoniously integrated into the composition of the images.

One of the most amusing stories about an artist’s signature survives thanks to Giorgio Vasari’s Vita on Michelangelo: “…One day Michelangelo, entering the place where it [the Pietà] was set up, found there a great number of strangers from Lombardy, who were praising it highly, and one of them asked one of the others who had done it, and he answered, ‘Our Gobbo from Milan’. Michelangelo stood silent but thought it something strange that his labors should be attributed to another; and one night he shut himself in there and, having brought a little light and his chisels, carved his name upon it.” (From Vasari’s Lives of the Artists)

[...] one night he shut himself in there and, having brought a little light and his chisels, carved his name upon it.


Michelangelo’s signature on the Pietà, Image via WikiCommons

Even before the artists of Northern Europe put their names on their works, some of them – most notably Albrecht Dürer – immortalized themselves with portraits in their paintings, drawings, and engravings. The Nuremberg-born artist appears himself in many of his works, sometimes as a drummer, sometimes as an onlooker in a larger group of people. 

Slipping into roles

Dürer put a great deal of effort into capturing his personal features and making his face known to a broad public, and it was this same motivation that prompted him to develop his famous monogram. After a phase of experimentation with different ways of writing, at the end of the 1490s Albrecht Dürer developed his final “AD” signet, which comprises the capital letter “A” and a “D” enclosed under its legs. It was this form that he used on all his works henceforth – and it thus became his trademark.

Albrecht Dürer, Feldhase (1502), Image via WikiCommons

Lucas Cranach the Elder, a contemporary of Albrecht Dürer, likewise made his creative heritage known with a sign that he developed even as he began his painting career. He used the coat of arms of the Cranach family, a winged serpent with a ruby ring in its mouth. Since Cranach the Elder also ran a busy workshop, he added the letters LC to the works that were truly his, and in this way complied with the rules of the guild, since works of art that the masters had not themselves touched were to bear the sign of the workshop only.

Winged snakes and hidden clues

In the 17th century, artists’ signatures finally took on the form we are familiar with today: several letters or a complete name, which was sometimes supplemented with a date. The signature was meant to attest the authenticity of the painting and increase its price, but sometimes the signature became more than that: Goya’s play on the inscription “Sólo Goya”, for example, apparently shows the close relationship between artist and model. In “The Duchess of Alba”, the sitter points with her right index finger down to the ground, where the words “Goya”, or indeed “Sólo Goya”, are written in the sand.

Cranach signature (crowned and winged snake with ring in its mouth) on the portrait of Catherine of Mecklenburg from 1514, Image via WikiCommons

The word “Sólo” was only discovered during restoration work in the 1950s and was previously painted over and covered with varnish. The complete inscription is interpreted by researchers as a reference to the long-suspected love affair between the painter and the duchess, and there is another allusion in the engraving of the gold ring on the woman’s same finger, which reads “Goya”.

All about the ego?

No. After all, signatures can also be part of the creative process. In this case, adding the signature means “The work is finished!”. And what does a signature mean today? The 20th century gave art historians many opportunities to be able to determine the authorship of a work even without a signature. The value of a genuine signature, however, is still not to be underestimated. This is clear from an anecdote about Picasso, who is supposed to have once paid for a dinner with a drawing on the restaurant bill, but then refused to sign his sketch. Instead, he is said to have replied to the owner: “My dear fellow, I’m buying a meal, not the whole restaurant.”

Goya, The Duchess of Alba, 1795-97, Image via WikiCommons

Paula Modersohn-Becker

8 October 2021 to 6 February 2022

More info about the exhibition