Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Artists With Rare Last Initials

In this post we are now getting oh-so-close to something like numerology. But hey! -- it's late August and blog readers are probably off on vacation, so why not write a truly inconsequential post while waiting for their return?

I was glancing over the part of my bookshelves containing books about individual artists and noted that I had none for last names staring with "N" and only one staring with "O" (Thornton Oakley, if you're curious). Later that day I was in Barnes & Noble and passed by their books sorted by artist's name and saw none for "N." Hmm.

I found this item noting that N and O respectively ranked seventh and fifth in terms of citations in the 11th edition of the "Concise Oxford Dictionary," 2004 revision. So those letters seem to be popular enough so far as English words are concerned.

But when it comes to names as recorded in the 2000 U.S. census we find that N ranks 16th and O 18th with respective percentages of 1.65 and 1.39. The letter "M" is in first place at 10.48 percent, which makes it about seven times as common as N and O.

Data for other countries would obviously differ. For example, "V" ranks 19th in the report linked above, but surely would rank far higher in the Netherlands.

Another potential research problem is that many artists are not known by their given and family names. This is especially true for Italians where first names and nicknames are the monickers that often stick in art history.

All that aside, were my casual bookshelf observations all that far off?

Probably not. I skimmed through the "Oxford Concise Dictionary of Art & Artists" (Third Edition) making a rough tally of artists mentioned in biographical paragraphs (including passing mentions of relatives of the primary artist who also practiced art). My counts for N and O were 37 and 32 while M tallied at 170 (not counting artists known as "The Master of ..."). So M was about five times as common as N and O.

My copy of Walter Reed's "The Illustrator in America 1860-2000" (2001) has an index of artists. Its M-N-O block tallies are 43, six and ten, so M's are about five and a half times more common than N's and O's -- similar to the other results.

Conclusion? Artists with last names beginning with the letters N and O are not common. But it's because such last names are comparatively rare and not some cosmic connection between name and artistic success.


dearieme said...

You'll probably find that the names of many piss-artists begin with O. And more than 2% of American Presidents.

Jimelle said...

I know it's not the point of the post, but I am amazed and impressed that you can find such information 'at a glance' on your bookshelves. You must be royalty in the world of organization. I just glanced at my bookshelves and only learned that "I need to dust...."

Donald Pittenger said...

dearieme -- One can't ignore the Poisson distribution; something's bound to pop up once in a while.

Jimelle -- Well, the biographical segment of the shelves is alphabetical. And I try to cluster other books as best I can by subject. This mindless neatness might be a result of having been a computer programmer who paid the price more than once for sloppiness.