What’s In a Name?

Have you ever wondered how a painting gets its title? Sometimes a given title is straightforward, assigned by the artist at the time of production. But often over the intervening years, a painting’s “first title” can shift as it changes hands—a gallery might inadvertently begin calling it something slightly different; or it’s given a slightly different title in an exhibition; or from when it was titled by its creator to today, the painting becomes so distanced from its first title that research is required to get back to the original. In some cases, a title may change to follow shifting trends in culture or politics.

In 1888, Charlie Russell painted a snow scene showing two Anglo cowboys and five Sioux meeting in a blizzard. The work is known today as Lost in a Snow Storm—We Are Friends. Amon G. Carter acquired the work for his personal collection in 1950; thirteen years later, it earned notoriety as the only Western subject to hang in the Texas Hotel suite that John and Jackie Kennedy occupied that fateful night before our nation’s most notorious assassination. Ruth Carter Stevenson had earlier joined forces with other cultural leaders in town to give the President and First Lady a taste of art and culture, Fort Worth style.

1961-144_s.jpg ^Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), Lost in a Snowstorm, 1888, oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Amon G. Carter Collection

Since Lost in a Snow Storm was painted nearly 130 years ago, it has held several different titles. When Mr. Carter purchased the work from Findlay Galleries in New York, it was called Meeting in a Blizzard, a title first used in 1897. Two years prior, however, it was recorded as Lost in the Snow. By 1900, the painting was published under two different titles: Lost in a Blizzard and a Signal of Peace. When it was exhibited in 1963 at the Hotel Texas, the related brochure identified it as Meeting in a Blizzard. One year later, the title by which it is known today was attached to the picture.

The purpose of this blogpost is not about a first title. It’s to put forward an intriguing notion: One year after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a picture that had been chosen to display for him in his suite took on a more subjective meaning through its subsequent title challenge—a shift that might, in fact, point to the shared global grief that followed his traumatic death. The installation in the Hotel Texas suite underscored arts unifying purpose, creativity transcending politics. President Kennedy had famously said just a month before his assassination, “Art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” I like to think that it took just a few months for the title of this painting to change from the simple declaration of a meeting to one of friendship in hopes of healing.

a2011-051-014.jpg ^Thomas Eakins, Swimming; Charles M. Russell, Lost in a Snowstorm. Second bedroom, Suite 850, Hotel Texas, Fort Worth, Friday, November 22, 1963. Photo by Byron Scott. Dana Day Henderson and Owen Day Papers, Amon Carter Museum of American Art