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Van Gogh’s onions now garlic: How artworks are titled and renamed

Almost 135 years after it was painted by Vincent van Gogh, the art work Red Cabbages and Onions has now been rechristened Red Cabbages and Garlic by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Prompting the move was the observation of Dutch chef Ernst de Witte, who reached out to the museum last year to bring to its notice that the foreground of the painting did not depict onions, as believed for more than a century, but garlic bulbs. Admitting the error, the museum decided to rename the work. Recent years have seen several other works of art being renamed for varied reasons.

The van Gogh work and how it was renamed

Largely considered a study in colour contrasts, the 1887 work has the yellow of the garlic (formerly recognised as onions) and red cabbage leaves painted on a grey-blue tablecloth. It is one of the several food still lives painted by the Dutch post-impressionist, and made its public debut in 1928 by German art dealer Paul Cassirer’s gallery in Berlin as Red Cabbages and Onions.

Ernst de Witte, a chef and visual artist, visited Museum last year, and identified the alliums to be garlic. He and his wife prepared a presentation and a video to compare how van Gogh had painted the two over the years, including in his 1889 work Still Life With a Plate of Onions. After studying his findings, the research team concluded that he was right about the misidentification and announced that it will rename the work to Red Cabbages and Garlic.

How is art named and renamed?

The practice of titling artworks is estimated to be no more than 300 years old, and is believed to be associated with the proliferation of museums, art galleries and travelling exhibitions, where it would help to offer suggestive interpretations to viewers to contextualise the works for them, not having to rely on oral information.

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In fact, during its inception years, patrons and artists often reportedly brainstormed a title together. Then, critics, gallerists, curators and so on began titling works. The title Mona Lisa, for instance, can arguably be traced to Italian artist and author Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, where he identified the portrait as that of Francesco del Giocondo’s wife Lisa.

Several works of Rembrandt, meanwhile, were titled after their prints became popular. His famous 1642 painting The Night Watch at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, for instance, was once called Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq.

There have also been times when another name, apart from the one given by the artist, has found popularity over the years. For instance, Claude Monet’s The Woman in the Green Dress (1866) was titled Camille, named after his future wife, but the title now used came from an art critic and seemed to find a wider appeal.

The names of some other works, meanwhile, have evolved over time. Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665), for instance, was earlier titled Girl with a Turban. It is only in the 1990s that it became Girl with a Pearl, and has now been rechristened Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Some famous artworks that have been renamed and why

While some artworks are renamed organically or with new revelations that emerge, at other times, pressing political factors lead to re-titling of artworks. Last year, after the Russia-Ukraine war began, museums across the world altered titles of works in their collection to acknowledge their Ukrainian origins. Additionally, the captions have been edited to specify if an artist belonged to a country that formed part of the former Russian Empire or former Soviet Union.

If London’s National Gallery renamed an Edgar Degas work from Russian Dancers to Ukrainian Dancers, the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles updated details about another Degas to specify that the artist had painted Ukrainian dancers and not Russian dancers. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also changed the name of its Degas pastel from Russian Dancers to Dancers in Ukrainian Dress. MET also identified 19th century artists Ilya Repin and Arkhip Kuindzhi as Ukrainian and not Russian.

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In 2019, in the historic exhibition “Black Models: From Gericault to Matisse” at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, several art masterpieces with black subjects were renamed for the exhibition to identify people of colour who found no mention in art history due to prejudice. This included Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait of a Negress, renamed Portrait of Madeleine for the show.

How the process has its challenges

Though in the past several works attained well-accepted titles over time, today, re-titling and reclassification is more challenging. For instance, in 2018, when Richard Caring, owner of Annabel’s, a private club in Mayfair, decided to retitle Pablo Picasso’s Girl with a Red Beret and Pompom, after he acquired the 1937 masterpiece, the move was termed “arrogant”.

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Several historians and art connoisseurs believe that changing the title also erases its history, and it might be wiser to retain associations with the old title. Some others have pointed out that titles suggest the perspective of the artists and a historical context, and should not be tampered with.

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