Work of Art Titles

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When a freelance magazine writer asked me how the title of a sculpture should be written, I went to The Chicago Manual of Style to find out if it should be italicized, enclosed in quotation marks, or left plain.

Here is the advice I found and passed on to the writer:

Titles of paintings, drawings, photographs, statues, and other works of art are italicized, whether the titles are original, added by someone other than the artist, or translated. The names of works of antiquity (whose creators are often unknown) are usually set in roman.

Though major works of art are generally italicized, some massive works of sculpture are regarded primarily as monuments and therefore not italicized.

According to this advice, one should italicize Kindred Spirits (oil painting), Shore Lunch (non-monumental sculpture), and Rose and Driftwood (Ansel Adams photo), but leave the Venus de Milo (work of antiquity) and the Statue of Liberty (monumental) in roman type.

After the fact, I checked to see what The AP Stylebook has to say about italicizing titles. The AP editors are against it:

italics: AP does not italicize words in news stories.

According to AP guidelines, the titles of just about everything are enclosed by quotation marks: book titles, computer game titles, movie titles, opera titles, play titles, poem titles, song titles, television program titles, and works of art. Exceptions are the Bible and books that are “primarily catalogs of reference material.”

I decided to explore a few publications, American and British, to see how they do it. Two (both British) write the titles without italics or quotation marks. Four (all American) enclose the titles in quotation marks. Only one (also American) italicizes art titles, including works from antiquity. Here are seven of the examples I gathered:

The Telegraph (British)
I can hardly bear to look at a horrible little painting of a cloyingly sweet faced little girl entitled The Strawberry Girl, where the paint texture and layers of discoloured varnish were flattened during an early re-lining resulting in the ruin we see today

The Independent (British)
His giant sculptures, many of them human figures, include Yellow, a man ripping open his own chest and spilling out Lego innards (11,014 pieces make up the work), and a blue swimmer, as well as interpretations of masterpieces including the Mona Lisa

The New York Times (American)
The show includes works on loan as well as some of the gallery’s recent acquisitions that have not been on view before, such as Frantisek Kupka’s ”Organization of Graphic Motifs” and Yves Tanguy’s ”The Look of Amber.”

The Sacramento Bee (American)
Immediately you are struck by the rich and evocative figurative abstraction “Martyr With a Red Arm.”

Boston Globe (American)
Works like “Patina,” from 1975, and “Clavichord,” from 2002, feel like classic Ihara.

The New Yorker (American)
The sixth lot, “The Little White House,” a 1919 landscape by Willard Metcalf, sold for just over a million dollars.

The Smithsonian Magazine (American)
The Venus de Milo is the most famous sculpture and, after the Mona Lisa, the most famous work of art in the world.

Best advice: Consult the style guide of the publication for which the article is intended.

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4 thoughts on “Work of Art Titles”

  1. OK so my question is, in your last example, why is Venus de Milo in italics but Mona Lisa isn’t?

  2. I noticed you do not mention artworks or art exhibitions in AP style – that is the preferred style for newspaper and blog writing.

    Did I miss it. I was told by the Huff post to used quotes for titles of exhibitions….but what about individual artworks?

  3. Bluebird,
    I goofed. I just looked at my source and both Venus de Milo and Mona Lisa are italicized. Sorry. (I did notice that when I tried to copy and paste the relevant passage, the italics disappeared.)

    Henry K. Long,
    AP recommends quotation marks for all such. Their guidelines about quotation marks apply to “book titles, computer game titles, movie titles, opera titles, play titles, poem titles, album and song titles, radio and television program titles, and the titles of lectures, speeches and works of art.” I believe that art exhibitions, like lectures, would take quotation marks.

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