Whistler’s dilemma


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Bob Whistler of Brainerd, Minnesota, wrote, “I’ve been a painter for nine years and I sign my work ‘Whistler.’ I put my full name and date on the back. James McNeill Whistler, a distant relation, signed his paintings in different ways during his lifetime. Early works had his full name and date. For a while he signed Whistler with date and lastly with the abstract ‘W,’ which became the butterfly. How should I sign my work?”

Southend Pier (c. 1882–84) Watercolour by James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

Southend Pier (c. 1882–84)
by James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

Thanks, Bob. Unfortunately, most people who have the name of a great one are thought to be imposters. However, when handled wisely, you can reap the Whistler benefit and still be your own man. Not that you were thinking about it, but it’s important not to adopt any device or logo that is anywhere near Whistler’s butterfly. The best idea is to be straight up and sign your whole name. You don’t want anyone to think you’re coat-tailing. Whistler alone is not enough. I suggest a clearly lettered Robert W. Whistler. No confusion. Honest goods.

Nowadays, with so many artists out and about, your name is mighty important. I believe in including first names so there is at least the suggestion of familiarity and friendliness. Further, in a name like Joseph Smith, a third or middle name will distinguish him from the Mormon guy and make him findable on the Net. Joseph Gascoyne Smith.

Chelsea Children (c. 1897) Watercolour by James McNeill Whistler

Chelsea Children (c. 1897)
by James McNeill Whistler

Clarity of signature is valuable too. While mystery is fine, and it’s dynamite to have folks recognize your “signature” by looking at your work, to be able to see and read clearly is an appreciated courtesy. Even a roaring ego like Picasso valued clarity, and he wrote it large to match. Only later, when he was a household name, did he reduce to initials. Singular names, monikers and avatars like Cosmos, Crumpet and Christo (Christo is a combination of two artists) can appear smug and artificial nowadays. Singular names work better for rock stars where glitz is more important than content. In my experience, a return to quality art is taking place, and names are cooperating.

The Ocean Wave (c. 1883–84) Watercolour by James McNeill Whistler

The Ocean Wave (c. 1883–84)
by James McNeill Whistler

I’m not saying artists should join the flock — we need to maintain our individualism at all costs. Who can blame Mary Brown for signing “Paintergirl”? On the other hand, while cute, “Paintergirl” has a slight odour of merchandising. Maybe she should think twice. Signatures should be neither condescending nor vernacular. After all, it’s called “fine art” — and it’s getting finer. Unless your genuine name happens to be George Stink, it’s best to hang your life on what you were given. Incidentally, some of the Stinks I used to know put it all behind them and changed their name to Stunk.

Best regards,


PS: “Remember always that you have not only the right to be an individual; you have an obligation to be one.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)

Milly Finch (1883–84) Watercolour by James McNeill Whistler

Milly Finch (1883–84)
by James McNeill Whistler

Esoterica: Back in the old days, John Singer Sargent got away with an inept scrawl, barely legible on some of his works. It was part of his calculated mystique of appearing casual. “Genius,” said Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “is the power to express individuality.” A name may be ordinary, but these days, as long as someone can google it up and discover work that vibrates with individualism, you’ve got it made.

This letter was originally published as “Whistler’s dilemma” on January 20, 2009.

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“A picture is finished when all trace of the means used to bring about the end has disappeared.” (James Abbott McNeill Whistler)



  1. Hello Sara,

    Thank you for choosing this past article “Whistler’s Dilemma” on the day of my release of “Eastlake Avenue.” If one visits they’ll understand. Perhaps if you’d like to read it, I’d suggest visiting Patrick O’Hearn’s website, and playing any of the albums he created from 1985 to 1989, as that was the soundtrack in the apartment I mention in the poem. It leads itself to the poem and the page. If you haven’t watched the film: “The Whistlers,” I’d strongly suggest watching it. The gentleman that took the photograph has been a friend of mine for 37 years. And when Jeanette moved to Vancouver to attend UBC he moved into the apartment.

    Patrick O’Hearn: https://patrickohearn.com

    Eastlake Avenue: https://salmonstudio.wixsite.com/yohnke/post/eastlake-avenue

    As always, love is the way,

    Miles Patrick Yohnke



  2. Thanks for my morning laugh! I’ve got a few old works that should have been signed Stunk as well. I shake my head, again, how something so small can create such an angst in artists. I started the tradition of putting M. Laing in the bottom corner of the painting years back, not long after I got married, got rid of maiden name Zellinsky, and put boring old M. Laing. Not changing it now, it’s fine I think. :)

  3. Funny how hung up some of us can be about our names! I inhereted “Gertrude”, which I hate hate hate, and when I was a teen at a new school, my friend’s mother thought it was awful too, and said I should go by the nickname “Trudy”, which I have now used for the last 60-plus years. Ironically “Trudy” seems wrong for the aging-me. I wish I has just taken on my middle name of “Anne”. Mostly I sign my art either G.A. Wardrop or Trudy Wardrop, depending on the size and style of the piece and my mood at the time. I actually prefer being called “G.A.” Oh The quirks we have!

  4. I was surprised to see this old post come up after 13 years. Update, I tried Robert’s advice. I signed full name with middle initial, with two spaces that’s 17 spaces, way too long. I tried R. Whistler and from just a few feet away it looked like RWhistler, that was confusing I thought. I must admit that with my early works the name Stunk or Stink would have worked very well. No one will confuse my Still Lifes or Landscapes with J. A. M. Whistler’s subtle style. I went back to signing “Whistler” Full name and date on the back. I figured it’s my name too, why not.

  5. In my younger days, I used to be so embarrassed of my last name Kow because it’s pronounced as ‘Cow’!!

    But as I get older and ‘wiser’, I’m very proud of it and signed off all my artwork:


  6. Sharon Kow’s post reminded me of all the kidding I took with the name Whistler, so often being called “Whistler’s Mother” hated it. But like Sharon, I’m very proud of my name now. It took me back.

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