What’s in a name?


Dear Artist,

It has recently been discovered that the works of William Shakespeare were actually written by another person with the same name. And lately, around this studio, there’ve been a few anonymous letters like this one: “If I look for my name on the Internet, up comes an artist with my exact name and spelling who is not me. Even worse, the subject matter this person deals in is nothing with which I want to be associated. I’m considering using another name and maybe even one with the other gender. I’m thinking of continuing to use my real name as well but only for paintings that would go to people in my area. What do you think?”


“The Card Players”
oil painting, 1890-92
by Paul Cezanne (1850-1900)

Thanks, Anonymous. Seeing as we are now actors on a worldwide stage, you’re touching on a sensitive problem. Artists are well aware of the google-ization of our small world. Sometimes just putting in a middle initial will do the trick. For folks with commonplace names I recommend dragging up a historical or family name and inserting it. You’ll begin to see more and more three-name names in the 21st Century. These days people may not even take your card or your number. They just google you. Incidentally, I don’t recommend changing your gender. It’s been done. I’m told that it smarts. Be proud of the gender you have been given.

If you accept my current dictum for success in the art game — “get good, get unique, get noticed” — a name like Richard Brown, pleasant as it is, might not cut it. Recently we made the ultimate boo-boo by publishing one of Richard Brown’s letters and illustrating it with the work of another Richard Brown. Andrew fixed the problem quickly when the Browns in question arose in amused confusion.


“Self-portrait with Palette”
oil painting by Paul Cezanne

But more than anything there’s the value of a unique identity. While we are all part of a great human family — with only a few degrees of separation — we owe it to ourselves to sign our names uniquely. A name is an entity on which a career hangs. Never underestimate the value of ego. Do whatever it takes to find and hold the person that you are and can become. The Kabalarians may be on to something. This identity, this brand, becomes the true you. You are the one you need to be comfortable with. As Sammy Davis Jr. said, “I gotta be me.” A name may seem a small thing, certainly not greater than the work attached to it, but a name is part of the package. “For a man to achieve all that is demanded of him he must regard himself as greater than he is.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Best regards,


“A Painter at Work”
oil painting by Paul Cezanne


PS: “I’m beginning to consider myself stronger than all those around me, and the good opinion I have of myself has only been reached after mature consideration.” (Paul Cezanne, to his mother)

Esoterica: I was surprised to notice another Robert Genn in a British telephone directory. I rang him up and found out he was a retired Secret Service spy. Next thing I knew I was staying with him down in Dittisham, Dartmouth, Devon. Turned out Robert Genn collected art so we had lots to talk about. We went to his “local” where his buddies were amazed to lay their eyes on his strange colonial namesake. Bob and I became great friends. Later, he and Betty visited us in Canada. When Bob recently passed away it was like a part of me had been torn away.

This letter was originally published as “What’s in a name?” on October 25, 2005.


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“We all name ourselves. We call ourselves artists. Nobody asks us. Nobody says you are or you aren’t.” (Ad Reinhardt)




  1. Thanks for note on names as I have wondered if others question or think about their name. Personally, my Dad was an artist and so was my Father-in-Law so how was I going to fit in the art world with two wonderful artists with my names. I also figured out that years ago, males received more attention in gallery settings. I was now surrounded with three problems, two Artist Dads and wrong gender for the art world. This is how I solved it. Every painting is signed with my maiden name and my married name with no first name, ha I hoped this would solve my problem, and so far, so good ……. for nearly thirty years!
    Posthumus Hokke

      • Noel,
        Yes, my last name is Posthumus! Ha…..one time I went to pick up my prize money from our local fair art competition and the little old ladies were wondering who was going to pick it up. When I arrived, they looked at me in astonishment and thought I had passed away. Hence, the meaning of my name “after death”……I just smiled at them and said no, I’m still here. Ha! Have a great day!

  2. i love the idea of ” GET GOOD ” “GET UNIQUE , GET NOTICED ” that’s just about the best advice i have heard , except for GO TO YOUR ROOM , because that is where it will all happen

  3. Barbara Belyea on

    A niggly point but my training was in literary history. Doubt about the authorship of Shakespeare enjoyed a brief trendy moment before scholars dismissed it. The evidence for this doubt was itself doubtful, but the ultimate argument is more interesting. “Shakespeare” is the name we assign, arbitrarily or not, to whoever wrote the works. Shakespeare = the works. And that is the point of Robert Genn’s word of advice: if you want the name you must make it. By your works we will know you.

    • Well said, Barbara Belyea! As somebody who didn’t start out using a middle name, I am still undecided about whether to add one now, even though it would probably help.

  4. So many Patricia (or Pat) Kellers out there…. lots of them artists, several good ones but not me, or my style.
    20+ years ago I decided I wanted to be one of a kind. I adopted my first name as my middle and took my 2 grandmothers’ names (and sometimes my nickname, as it’s a derivative of my middle name) as my first name. I became Anna Patricia Keller as a painter, known to family, friends and others as Anna Pat or Anna, as most call me now. Incredibly, I occasionally see other artists with a similar name now, but at least it’s not as common. I guess most important is to make our work as unique as we are!

  5. I’ve gone by my middle name since I left the mid-west in 1955 (dumping an earlier nick-name). However, as an artist, I now wish I had used my first name. It would have been better as an artist. How would I have known that in 1955 when I headed west for graduate school…studies that were not in art? So I sign these responses to this grand twice-weekly letter with my first name. Unfortunately it’s too late to change in my small part of the art world.

  6. Very early work from the late 60’s early 70’s was signed only “Sharon” with a circle around the name. (Childish, looking back!) Married for a short time found me doing a few signatures with “Sharon Hinton”. Divorced but still painting, years later I dropped the married name and added my maiden name, “Rusch” and received lots of awards and realized “Sharon Rusch” was going to be an artist for a very long time. I then re-married to a wonderful man, Dan Shaver, and then I knew I needed to honor that relationship with that name, so for a while I was just “Rusch Shaver”. Then for a while I was “S. Rusch Shaver”, I thought there was no need in letting on I was a woman artist. (Men were far more respected in most fields of endeavor back then.) The shows I participated in when my husband attended with me became obvious to us both, that people wanted to believe he was the artist! Odd I thought. So back to being “Sharon” again, but now added it to the “Rusch Shaver”. Years later, tired of writing such a long signature on all my works, I have settled into the name “Shaver” on plein air and knife paintings. I know there are other artists with that name out there, but none of them paint as good as I do. Look for “S.R.S.” next to my Copyright symbol on very small works, and sometimes the full “Sharon Rusch Shaver” on huge paintings I do. I have had collectors of mine collect paintings from all my decades of different signatures and styles, and with each new signature, they want to own one of those too. Red is my color. Always red.

  7. Fascinating! I always signed my work with my first name lower case initial and last name. One morning a man phoned saying Hi I’m Al Smeraldo. I’m in town at an antique car convention. We were at a party last night and a person said to my wife, Oh, Carol Smeraldo, I have some of your artwork.” My wife said “No, I am not an artist” Al said that since we have the same last name, maybe we are related. I told him that there was no doubt about it because all Smeraldo’s in N. America are related. We met for lunch and I found out that his grandfather was my grandfather’s brother but when my grandfather married a German protestant, they cut all ties! How extraordinary! I was a little disappointed to discover that my name was not as unique as I had thought.

  8. I often have to repeat it because people think I am saying “Mark Howell”, but no; it’s one name: Marcao, (with a ~ over the ‘a’.). Like Seal or Prince or Eminem, (or Cher or Lorde or Madonna) the single moniker sets me apart a little. You’ll find many Brazilian futebol players named Marcao, but in the US there’s only me that I know of.

    My work is signed’Marcao’ with the copyright symbol and the year. Urban flavored work is signed simply with ‘cao, tag-style, with the symbol and year.

    I have loads of fun creating and living my own personal legend.

  9. I googled my name Thirion and a classically trained artist , Victor Thirion showed up who lived and died in the late 1800’s I found it interesting.
    I took on the artist first name Terry but kept my maiden name, after divorce I thought I’m not going to do that again. Then ICE came into the picture and made me go back to my original birth certificate name. But guess what, my artist name stays what I choose it to be, Terry Thirion,

    • fun mysterious hidden symbols…almost like an unobtrusive watermark help too…it feels like Hitchcock or Peter Jackson cameos, to make a special squiggle somewhere in MY work that serves as a unique identifier, then including its ID in my digital cataloguing…fun.

  10. Colleen Thompson on

    Brilliant question & equally thought-provoking posts!! Thank you for sharing the story of reaching out to a ‘namesake’, as I have always been curious – especially since the advent of social media/google, my fascination with people, and the fact that I have a common name – Colleen Wendy Thompson – many of “me” out there. I am now inspired to contact one of those Colleen’s…who knows – as Robert’s story revealed – where the connection may lead:) My signature for my artwork has morphed from the formality of full name in elementary school – to ‘cool’ initials in high school (though as one male student pointed out to me – I needed to change my moniker “CT”- as it had an unsavory connotation – who knew?! – so it became “Cwt”……and I continue to work on my “me” – as it seems now to also be our “brand”. It was important to me to reclaim this maiden surname though – after a few marriages – because it is my identity & I draw some strength/sense-of-self from that. Thanks for sharing – everyone!

  11. Sara, I honestly can’t thank you enough for continuing to publish these rich columns from your father. I had not encountered him back in 2005, and it is so great to have you including these gems in our present and future. Thanks to you, I have many enlightening things to anticipate over the coming years.

  12. Thank you, Sara, for continuing these wonderful letters!! They are so helpful, full of insights and wisdom. They are also one of the few e- mails I am eager to read!

    Keep up the good work!

  13. You can also use a “descripitor” after your name and make it part of your name by always inserting it– for example:
    John Doe, Landscape Painter
    John Doe, Visual Artist
    John Doe, Portrait Painter
    John Doe, Oil Painter
    John Doe, Watercolourist
    I was at first very reluctant to use maiden name + married name, but BOTH those are very common names and there were many other people out there with BOTH those names, hopefully combo of maiden AND married name is rarer, but alas, now got a divorce, so back to square one! But under no circumstances was willing to use middle names or initials…it was a matter of my own personal security (against ID thieves). Also never sign paintings with same signature you sign contracts with…use a different handwriting style.

    So trying to re-establish myself as Carol Hama, Landscape Painter….don’t know what to do if I discover some other interesting subjects that take me away from landscapes…

  14. It’s been a struggle. Over the years I have used my nickname and last name, my nickname with married name, my first initial with maiden and married name. My first and maiden initials with married name. So for the last 15 or so years, I have stuck with initials only with married name. Branding, you know… It is extremely difficult to get the galleries and shows to publicize shows using the “official moniker”, everyone reverts to my nickname and I’m constantly reminding them of the official moniker. I don’t know of any other artists with this problem…if HIS name is Robert nobody publicizes HIM as Bobby. It’s such a pain to have a nickname sometimes! Initials for my work seems to be best for my purposes, and it takes a lot less work to sign…

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