For hundreds of years, artists of all kinds from writers to painters have taken pride in their creative output. And the keystone of this pride is the two or three square inches it takes to sign their work. Such signatures allow for at least the possibility that they will be collectible, if not now, then sometime in the future. Of course not all artists, even today, sign their work. Some labour under the somewhat egotistical assumption that their work is so distinctive their signature would be redundant. And indeed, a number of unsigned attributions down over the years are pretty certain just for this reason. Unfortunately for art historians, the further back they go into the history of painting the less common the signature on artwork becomes. And if the work goes back very far into the medieval period, signatures are, in fact, rare.
Here's a bit of trivia to impress your painting friends next time you meet to dunk donuts in coffee. What painter is the earliest known example of an artist signing his work? Where and during what era did he live? His name was Exekias and as the name might tend to indicate, he was Greek, living about 535 BCE. We have two examples of his signed work surviving today. The best is in the form of a two-handled, shallow drinking vessel having the appearance of what we might call a soup dish today. It is of red clay with a black glaze painting of a Greek sailing ship sporting a white sail. It is decorated with a profusion of grapevines in the upper third and playful dolphins arching out of the water in its lower half. And unlike other black-glazed Greek ceramics, it is the image rather than the background that is painted black. The background is, in fact, a bright red.
Another artist who signed his work, this time a Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, around 65 CE wrote glowingly of Greek painting including detailed description of panels and murals that no longer survive today. And even though we don't have the actual work with which to validate what he wrote, it is largely based upon his word that we have come to place Greek painting on a par with Greek sculpture. What little Greek painting that does survive in the form of vase painting seems to bear out his judgement as to their skill. These proverbial "Grecian Urns" with their painted, narrative scenes are remarkably "whole" works of art in which the item is not merely decorated with some painted motif, but the image in integrated into the container in such a way that the two become one. Indeed, most scholars believe the vases were both formed and decorated by the same artist/craftsman much as they are today. And while they definitely served utilitarian purposes, we have to believe that this unity of functional design, graceful shape, and skilful painting, is the reason we have them today. It's little wonder Exekias chose to sign his.