How To Read an Image Caption

01
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Your Basic Image Caption

Screen capture provided by Shelley Esaak; Licensed to About.com
Screen capture provided by Shelley Esaak; Licensed to About.com

Most art museum and art history sites are loaded with images and their captions. And just as every picture tells a story, so does its caption. In fact, you can learn almost everything about a work simply by reading its caption line by line.

That which follows is a step-by-step tutorial to decode the sometimes quite numerous elements of an image caption, along with explanations of why each is (1) included and (2) important.

The image in this example was originally published in the review entitled Holiday in Reality: Edward Hopper, written by Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions Gail S. Myhre. (And yes, that clown is smoking a cigarette.)

02
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Who Was the Artist?

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Screen capture provided by Shelley Esaak; Licensed to About.com

The first line in our image caption example reads "Edward Hopper (American, 1882-1967)." This tells us that the artist was named Edward Hopper, he was a citizen of the United States, was born in 1882 and died in 1967. There are variations on this line of information, of course.

Occasionally a caption will include the discipline(s) in which the artist worked, as seen in "French painter." This can get unwieldy for multi-talented artists, so it's more than acceptable not to include it.

If we think a certain artist painted, drew or sculpted something, you'll see the words "Attributed to" included.

If the work was a collaborative effort of apprentices under the direction of a master, you'll see the words "Workshop of."

Sometimes an artist was born in one country, but either became a naturalized citizen or spent his or her active years in another. In cases like these, you'll see things such as "American, born Germany," or "Greek, active in Spain."

Record keeping being spotty many centuries ago, there are instances where educated guesses have been made about when so-and-so lived. In the "dates" part, you may find qualifiers like "ca.," "fl.," "1337/42-" (born, sometime, during these years), "died before" (records indicate the artist was definitely dead at this point) or even the last-resort usage of question marks as with "b?" or "d?".

If the artist is, happily, still among us, you'll only see a "b." followed by the year in which he or she was born.

Now, art history stretches back many thousands of years, and even in recent centuries the names of individual artists have not always been recorded. This leaves us with countless works whose image captions have no need of this first line of information. So fear not if you don't see an artist's name, just skip to the next step.

03
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What is the Title of the Work? When Was it Made?

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Screen capture provided by Shelley Esaak; Licensed to About.com

The second line in our image caption example reads "Soir Bleu, 1914." This tells us that Edward Hopper named his painting Soir Bleu ("Blue Evening") and that he painted the canvas in 1914.

Variations on the title theme include:

We historians are always happiest when a specific date of execution (like this painting's "1914") is known, but exact information isn't always available. Not every artist dated his or her work, records are frequently lost and, again, as we go back in time there often are no records. If this inexact situation applies, the "date" bit of the work's title will typically include "ca."

However, if a work of art is really old, you'll get some historic period that covers many-to-thousands of years in addition (or not) to the relatively specific "ca." You will usually be supplied with the location in which this object was discovered or (more often) excavated by one or more archaeologists, too. One example of this would be Ram in the Thicket (or Ram Caught in a Thicket) (Mesopotamian, ca. 2650-2550 B.C.). Found in the "Great Death Pit" at Ur.

04
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Which Medium Was Used to Create This?

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Screen capture provided by Shelley Esaak; Licensed to About.com

The third line in our image caption example reads "Oil on canvas." This tells us that Edward Hopper stood before an easel and used his brushes to apply oil paint to canvas in the creation of this particular work.

In other words, this line is all about the medium. Personally, I am always glad to see something simple here like "Marble" or the wondrously comprehensible "Oil on canvas" in our example. Just know that this line can s-t-r-e-t-c-h nearly to infinity, particularly if one is dealing with an artist fond of compilations of found objects.

Examples:

  • "Hairdresser's wigmaking dummy, crocodile wallet, ruler, pocket watch mechanism and case, bronze segment of old camera, typewriter cylinder, segment of measuring tape, collapsible cup, the number "22," nails and bolt." -- from Raoul Hausmann's Mechanical Head (Spirit of Our Age).
  • (Robert Rauschenberg's) "Odalisk combines oil paint, watercolor, crayon, pastel, paper, fabric, photographs, printed reproductions, miniature blueprint, newspaper, metal, glass, dried grass, steel wool, a pillow, a wooden post and lamps on a wooden structure mounted on four casters and topped by a stuffed rooster."

Wordy little buggers, aren't these? There's certainly no hope of saying either three times fast as you could with the shorter "three sea shells" or even "a proper copper coffee pot." In the interest of art historic accuracy, though, it's important to be thorough about mixed media. So there you have it.

05
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How Big is This Thing?

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Screen capture provided by Shelley Esaak; Licensed to About.com

The fourth line in our image caption example reads "36 x 72 in. (91.44 x 182.88 cm)." This tells us that Soir Bleu is 36-inches (91.44 centimeters) high and 72-inches (182.88 centimeters) long.

Dimensions are crucial pieces of information. They are indispensable in correctly identifying a given work, and essential for cataloging and conservation purposes.

Notes:

  • If a work is two-dimensional, well, you're only going to get the two dimensions. It is fairly standard practice to denote height first, then length. Not everyone follows this guideline, though, so you may have to deduce which listed dimension is which at times.
  • If a drawing or painting comes in more than one part, as with a triptych or altarpiece, or if someone has measured a canvas with and without its frame, there will be more than one set of dimensions.
  • Centimeters may be written as either "182,88" or "182.88." Both mean the same thing. Some countries just prefer to use a comma instead of a decimal point.
  • If an object - even one on loan - is housed in a museum where the Imperial standard is used, you should see inches listed first, then centimeters. Reverse this process if the object is somewhere that the metric system is used.
  • It is most courteous to include both metric and Imperial measurements in an online image caption, as its implied World Wide Web audience is "world wide," not "down the street."
  • If an object is three-dimensional, you are going to see letters such as H: (height), W: (width), L: (length), D: (depth) or possibly the abbreviation Diam: (diameter) in front of any measurements.
  • In one final variation, sometimes three-dimensional works are composed of more than one component, such as a bust and its plinth or a glass vessel in a mount. When this happens, you're going to be gifted with at least four measurements.

06
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To Whom Do We Owe Thanks?

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Screen capture provided by Shelley Esaak; Licensed to About.com

The fifth line in our image caption example reads "Josephine N. Hopper Bequest." This tells us that Soir Bleu was donated to The Whitney Museum of American Art as stipulated in the late Josephine Hopper's Last Will and Testament.

Josephine Nivison Hopper (1883-1968) was an artist who became Mrs. Edward in 1924. She made the decision to donate a massive number of Hopper's oils and works on paper to The Whitney because it had always been supportive of him, both as a museum and during earlier days when it was known as the Whitney Studio Club. She didn't want to part with these works during her lifetime, so that is where the word "Bequest" figures in.

There is a similar tale to be told any time you run across the words "Bequest," "Gift of" (especially when it is followed by "... in loving memory of ..." or "Purchase of" -- the last usually being appended with a Fund or Friends group name.

Now, aside from the good manners civilized people use when thanking generous other persons, there are other reasons that this line of an image caption is important.

First, every major donation has a contract attached to it. Adding this line to future captioning about the donated object is standard legal-ese.

Second, if this is included in the museum's captioning, it should be included in any reproduction of that object's image caption. Museum press departments do ask that this line, whenever applicable, is observed elsewhere when giving permission to use an image.

Finally, putting these very public "donor" lines out there for everyone to see certainly doesn't dissuade other, potential donors from doing the same. And donors make the art museum world go around, my friend. Were it not for donors, we'd have damned little art to look at in a mere handful of art museums. So, yes, let us always read this line of the caption and give thanks.

07
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Numbers and Letters and Dots, Oh My!

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Screen capture provided by Shelley Esaak; Licensed to About.com

The sixth line in our image caption example reads "70.1208." This is Soir Bleu's accession number, as assigned by The Whitney Museum of American Art.

An accession number is internal to the institution, and is given by curatorial staff to every object that is taken into legal possession. Each accession number is unique, may contain both letters and numbers, and comes in two or three segments separated by decimal points. What you won't see are whole words spelled out because these numbers are, at their most basic level, a form of inventory and thus need to be kept short and sweet.

As with other things like object dimensions and donors, an accession number isn't something you'll come across in an art history exam. You are completely free to disregard it, now that you know why it's there and what it stands for. It is simply present, when it is present, at the request of the museum which has granted permission to reproduce an image - as long as thus-and-so is included in the captioning.

08
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Where Can I Find This Work?

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Screen capture provided by Shelley Esaak; Licensed to About.com

The seventh line in our image caption example reads "Whitney Museum of American Art, New York." This tells us that Soir Bleu is owned by The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and that is where we'd have to go to see the painting in person (unless it is currently out on loan to another museum).

This part of the caption is very often the last item. You'll read the name of the museum or collection, note that it is usually preceded by a copyright symbol (meaning the museum owns the reproduction rights to the image you're looking at) and that's that ...




... Of course, there are exceptions to this "last line" rule. There are also exceptions to museums being the legal copyrights holders. Please see the next page for more action-packed details.

09
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Who Owns the Copyright?

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Screen capture provided by Shelley Esaak; Licensed to About.com

The eighth and ninth lines in our image caption example read "© Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, Licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art." This tells us two things.

First, the heirs - and only the heirs - of Josephine N. Hopper hold the copyright to Soir Bleu. Second, the heirs or their legal representative(s) have granted the Whitney Museum of American Art licensing rights to reproduce Soir Bleu. In this case, an image of the painting was made available to print and digital media sources for publicity purposes surrounding an Edward Hopper exhibition.

As was previously stated, nine times out of ten any museum that holds a work also holds the copyright to images of the work. So the museum information line is often also the singular copyright line, and will contain a "©" symbol.

The big exception to this rule - evident in our example image caption here - occurs whenever the artist was active in the 20th Century. Because copyright laws in favor of artists have been greatly stiffened in the past four decades, it is now common for an artist or an artist's estate to hold a work's copyright for 70 years (renewable).

This caption shows the heirs and the Whitney Museum as righteous copyright users. Many other captions accompanying the works of Modern and Contemporary artists will list the artist or the artist's estate as the copyright holder, followed by an overseeing licensing agency and possibly even a Foundation. An example of this would be:

  • © 2006 Marcel Duchamp / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Succession Marcel Duchamp

What this is saying is that four separate legal entities are concerned with clearing copyright permissions.

What I am saying is that it's always a great idea to pay attention to the "©" symbol, no matter how often it appears in an image caption. It's there for good reason.

10
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And Just When You Thought I Was Done ...

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Screen capture provided by Shelley Esaak; Licensed to About.com

The tenth line in our image caption example reads "Photograph by Geoffrey Clements." This tells us that Geoffrey Clements was the creative force behind the *digital image* of Soir Bleu.

In other words, we are looking at the work of two people in this picture: that of Edward Hopper, the painter, and that of Geoffrey Clements, the photographer who shot the picture of the painting.

The photographer is usually not credited separately in an image caption, because he or she is typically an employee of the museum or collection, and the museum or collection already has the copyright covered.

However, you should be aware that, whenever a photographer is credited, he or she holds the copyright to the image s/he shot. It's one of those "intellectual property" matters.

So, to recap:

  • The museum or collection may be the copyright holder.
  • The artist, the artist's estate, a licensing agency and/or a foundation may be the copyright holders.
  • The photographer may hold the copyright to his or her image of the copyrighted-by-others actual work.
  • All of the above, with infinite variations.

Even if twelve different entities have a copyright stake in something, it is right and proper that all twelve should be included in the image caption. Why? Because they own what we are looking at. They gave permission for us to see it, and they are the people to whom any future permissions requests should be directed. They have also frequently stipulated that this information is published. For these reasons, you should always see any and all copyright notices included in an image caption -- up to and including the photographer, if applicable.