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Recently, on another SE page, I've asked a question about a painting that was used as a decoration in a particular movie.

It contained the following sentence:

What is the name and author of that painting?

Soon it was edited to:

What is the name and artist of that painting?

with explanation that "paintings are created by artists".

I'm confused, because in my native language the word "author" is very natural for the artist who created the painting (as with any other piece of art, the word specifies the simple fact of authorship) and I've seen it in use in English on the Internet. This way my question is:

Is the word "author" correct for the artist who created particular painting?

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6  
Both questions are ungrammatical, but for a different reason. At the very least, you'd have to ask, "What is the name and who is the author of that painting?" You can't ask, "what is the author of that painting?" (Well, you can, but that means something different entirely, and will get you rather unexpected answers.) –  RegDwigнt Jun 30 '13 at 23:15
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I have never come across 'author' as the creator of a painting. It is odd. A book has an author, a symphony has a composer, but a painting has at best an artist who painted it. If someone wrote 'the author of this painting ..', I would suspect they want to imply they are something other than an artist. –  Bobbi Bennett Jun 30 '13 at 23:40
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@RegDwighт The construction "what is the name and artist" (or "and author") is an unremarkable example of grammatical syllepsis: bending the rules of grammar. An example from Wikipedia: "They saw lots of thunder and lightning." (Logically speaking, they did not see the thunder.) –  MετάEd Jul 1 '13 at 2:02
    
Thanks guys for comments. I'll be aware of that differences now, thanks once again. In my native (Polish) language, we've got writers, composers, painters, sculptors etc (while artist means a person devoted to creating or performing any kind of art, from dance to novels, even if the first thought would be possibly a painter). But it's imposible to say in Polish, that f.e. "novel has a writer", or "painting has an artist". It can have only an author, creator, composer etc. And the word "author" means the creator of any kind of art - novels, symphonies, paintings etc. –  Darek Wędrychowski Jul 1 '13 at 2:42
    
Still, I'll be glad if there's an answer that I can accept. –  Darek Wędrychowski Jul 1 '13 at 2:48

5 Answers 5

up vote 36 down vote accepted

Standard practice in English is to identify the person responsible for a creative work by a different name depending on the form of the creative work. Thus, the author of a painting is a painter (or artist), the author of a sculpture is a sculptor (or artist), the author of a piece of music is a composer (or songwriter), the author of a dance is a choreographer, the author of a theatrical set is a set designer, the author of a map is a cartographer, and so on.

Of course, in many subcategories of writing, we use more-specific terms than author, too—for example, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, poet, and biographer. But few English speakers would blink if you called any of these creators an author.

In the visual arts, the broad term corresponding to author in the written arts, and applicable to a painter, sculptor, engraver, drawer, embroiderer, weaver, etc., is artist. Unfortunately for clarity, artist may also refer to a musical, theatrical, or other type of performer—who may or may not be the author of the work being performed.

In copyright law, though written works were long treated separately from visual works, the creators of paintings and other works of fine art have sometimes been termed "authors." For example, Chappell & Shoard, A Handy-book of the Law of Copyright (1863) has this to say about "An Act for amending the Law relating to Copyright in Works of the Fine Arts, and for repressing the Commission of Frauds in the Production and Sale of such Works" enacted on 29 July 1862:

The preamble states that by law as now established the authors of paintings, drawings and photographs have no copyright in such their works, and the provisions of the act are intended to supply this defect. The paintings, drawings and photographs in existence on the 29th July, 1862, which are now protected by the act, are those only which the author had not sold previously to that time.

Going farther back, we have this passage from J. Salmon, A Description of the Works of Art of Ancient and Modern Rome (1798):

The three pictures over the altars are by Rubens, and the frescos by Pomarancio. The Mosaic is by Peruzzi, and the basso-relievo of the Pieta by an unknown author.

To similar effect is J. Steward, The Stranger's Guide to Paris (1837), in this excerpt from a lengthy description of "some splendid paintings" in the aisle around the choir at St.-Etienne-du-Mont:

Ste.-Geneviève is represented in glory; below are the city officers in full costume, and a number of spectators, among whom are the poet Santeuil, and the author of the painting—Largillière;

And from John Cassell (publisher), The Works of Eminent Masters in Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and Decorative Art (1854), we have this sentence:

An Italian writer, named Gargani, believed that he had discovered the author of the painting ["The Last Supper" of St. Onofro] to be none other than Neri di Biel, on account of a manuscript, bearing the date 1461, declaring that a picture of "The Last Supper" was painted on the walls of the refectory of St. Onofro by that artist.

Just as inexplicable as the tendency of English speakers to treat author as a mistake when applied to a painter or other fine artist is their willingness to use author to refer figuratively to God (unless, perhaps, they take "In the beginning was the Word" literally) and other nonhuman agencies. For instance, in John Ovington, A Voyage to Suratt, in the Year, 1689 (1696):

Asia we know was the first Stage of Mortals, which both for Riches and Extent, is the most considerable part of our Tripartite Continent, and enjoys a temperature of Air, by its convenient position, equally superior to both. And as it was the first Original of Mankind, by a peculiar Favour from the Supreme Author of the World; so it was likewise of Nations and Kingdoms, of Monarchies and Empires, whose Laws as well Sacred as Civil, were formed here; and those Diviner Mysteries of the Jewish, as well as Christian Religion were first explain'd.

And from John Nickolson (printer), "A Short View of the Epicurean Philosophy," in The Lives of the Ancient Philosophers (1702):

As the World was generated, and is govern'd by Nature, so 'twill have an End. For all Compositions are dissoluble, and whatever has a Beginning has an End. The Incessant Motion of the Atoms, of which it consists, must at length cause its Dissolution; not to mention that some Extrinsical Cause may be the Author of its Destruction, especially, considering that though 'tis produc'd but one way, it may be destroy'd many Ways.

Under the circumstances, it is truly odd that English resists calling the creators of works of fine art authors—but unmistakably it does.

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Thanks, that explains a lot to me and the examples are brilliant. So "author" would be the synonym of "writer", even if we're not talking of a particular book that is of his authorship, but only about the person? F.e. "My father is a popular author"? Or only "My uncle is an author of Catch 22"? –  Darek Wędrychowski Jul 1 '13 at 18:28
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@DarekWędrychowski Author is definitely a valid synonym for writer in the cases you cite, as it can mean the occupation of writing, not just being the creator of a work. That being said, your second example should read "My uncle is the author of Catch 22" (If a work has multiple authors you would explicitly say "My uncle is one of the authors/a co-author of Catch 22." –  Lawton Jul 1 '13 at 19:25

The word author can be absolutely correct in certain circumstances.

Section 9(1) of the UK Copyright Designs & Patents Act 1988 says

9 Authorship of work.

(1) In this Part “author”, in relation to a work, means the person who creates it.

The legal word for the creator of a painting — or any other object — is author (as Sven Yargs has commented in his answer). But this is a specific definition for use in the law, and author wouldn't be used in most other circumstances nowadays.

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Using author to refer to the creator of a painting is unconventional in English, but does occur. When it does, it is perfectly understandable: it offends neither grammar nor logic. As evidence that it is used, here are a few examples from English printed works of the 19th and 20th centuries, uncovered by entering "author of the painting" into Google Book Search.

Steigner was registered as the author of the painting.

Recent scholarship has overwhelmingly supported Heemskerck as the author of the painting.

This confirmed what was suspected from the photographs of the paint surface: that the contour of Rembrandt's cap had been altered, possibly by the author of the painting.

The first of these, identifying the author of the painting, is the greater obstacle since Riverbank is markedly unlike any of the other extant works attributed to Dong Yuan.

The tempo of the beating brings to her mind the fusion music that Amaka, her cousin, the author of the painting, loves so much.

Genevieve is represented in glory ; below are the city officers in full costume, and a number of spectators, among whom are the poet Santeuil, and the author of the painting — Largilliere ; Abraham blessing Jacob; St. Stephen Preaching, ...

[emphasis added]

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Any authors of sculpture or music or dance? –  Mitch Jul 1 '13 at 11:53
    
My first reaction to these citations is that they are all either pre-20th-century or from scholarly works. OP is asking about everyday usage. –  dodgethesteamroller Jul 1 '13 at 15:06
    
The example of everyday usage does not narrow the question. It is a mistake to assume the OP only wants to know the answer for the informal register. But even if the OP means to narrow the question, the print usage is relevant: the fact that the term appears sometimes in print is good evidence that it is correct (but unconventional) in everyday usage also. –  MετάEd Jul 1 '13 at 15:21
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Thanks for the answer, very interesting examples. As for the OP - I wonder about both things. Is the word correct in this meaning and is it OK to use it in everyday usage (especially - will it be understandable to my interlocutors). –  Darek Wędrychowski Jul 1 '13 at 18:24

In English, an author creates written content, while an artist creates visible, audible, or tactile (touch) content.

To note the distinction, a song may have both an author and an artist; the author wrote the lyrics, and the artist sang.

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No, author is not the correct word for the artist who created a particular painting.

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