First painting with text?

The roots of my blog, although not all of its branches, are embedded in my long time interest in the 20th century art practice of combining text with drawing and painting. I have explored this in my own work and in that of others through my studies and teaching of the history of art.

These paths must inevitably meet in my question today: Which artist was the first to use text and in which painting?

Art Historians tend to disagree on the fine points, however, they do agree that Picasso and Braque both began to use text in their paintings around 1911 / 12. These two artists worked together so closely during this period that it is difficult to separate their explorations, (and probably unnecessary unless one has an art historian’s hair splitting curiosity).

I won’t bore you with details of my research but I finally arrived at two paintings I consider neck and neck contenders.

The first is Ma Jolie by Picasso. 1911/12. Oil on canvas. 39 3/8 x 25 3/4 in. (100 x 65.4 cm.)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Ma Jolie was Picasso’s intimate name for Marcelle Humbert, his lover at this time.

The second is Still Life with Chair Caning by Picasso. 1912. oil, oilcloth, stenciled letters. Picasso Museum, Paris.

chair caning

Still Life with Chair Caning incorporates the word “Jou” which refers to the French newspaper of the time, Le Journal


As the painted words ‘Ma Jolie’ could be considered simply the title of the work I’m inclined to go for ‘…Chair Caning’ as the first western painting of the 20th century that incorporates text as an intricate part of the artwork. Jou being less descriptive than Ma Jolie.

What do you think?


8 thoughts on “First painting with text?

  1. mmm…the ancient greeks had text in art like in vase painting, but putting text over say a person’s face was usually taboo and simply wasnt done in many societies.


    1. thank you DR – interesting; can you point me to any examples.
      I am trying to simplify my quest by only looking at 20th century paintings but I can see this expanding back as well as forwards in time and maybe into other media.


  2. Thank you Carolyn – I’ll check him out – but I believe he was mostly a design oriented artist – if so I have to decide how far away from ‘fine art’ I wish to go; because then I get into pottery, posters, artist books etc etc.


    1. Thank you, I appreciate your comment and your interest. I checked the link and you are probably correct. I had considered Braque but was also aware that there is an ongoing academic disagreement, the dates and working relationship being so close. I chose to go with Picasso but understand that, unless one is an art historian it is all splitting hairs. Text appeared in Braque and Picasso’s Cubism.


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