There’s something to be said for leaving a picture untitled, especially when it describes a single figure. A painting professor I had in grad school explained how he went about naming a work, and it makes my point.

Naming game

At a loss to know what to call one of his canvases, the painting professor turned to the Surrealist device of taking a favorite book, opening it at random and, without looking, putting a finger on a page to see where it landed. When he did this with James Joyce’s "Finnegan’s Wake," he landed on “The homely Protestant,” which he said was perfect because it described what he painted – himself.

(Note: Although an Abstract Expressionist, he insisted "The Homely Protestant" is figurative).

But the title doesn't fit the man I knew. His name was Robert Motherwell, and he was far from ugly, which takes me back to where I started: there’s something to be said for leaving a picture untitled. Consider a painting in the Met’s current exhibit “Alice Neel: People Come First,” known as “Peggy.”

Art historian Debra Brehmer, writing for Hyperallergic, sees “Peggy” as a “haunting portrait of domestic abuse.” I don’t. I only observe Peggy’s head on a pillow, looking bleary-eyed, the way one looks coming out of sleep. Her arms are askew in the air as if stretching. Brehmer views the arms as broken.

Seeing things

As for the bleary eyes, Brehmer takes them as “turned inward to the pain defined by her downcast mouth. But the end of a yawn can do that, too can’t it? She also mentions bruises on Peggy's face, even calling them “forensic evidence.” Sounds like the historian is watching too much of the TV crime series “Criminal Minds.”

But isn’t there another way to look at said bruises – as disheveled curls, as bed hair?

If you want evidence that all is well, check out the still life, an undisturbed bowl of apples set on Peggy’s bedside table. Picturesque and peaceful, it's not what you’d expect if there were domestic violence.

Yet, to hear Brehmer tell it, signs of a crime of violence are everywhere in the painting: “This is a rendering of someone lost in her own circuitry of despair,” she writes, even going to far as to assume that Peggy was “beaten by her husband.” Why him?

Why not the handyman? Or a lover?

Wild imagination

Wait, there’s more. Brehmer describes one of Peggy’s fingers on her right hand as it “tremulously touches a wound, reactivating the memory.” At this point you may wonder whose memory this historian is actually getting activated here.

Lastly, Brehmer points to a “dark slash” under Peggy’s left eye. But if you’re at all familiar with Neel’s work, you know that dark circles often appear under her models’ eyes.

To be fair, though, I acknowledge that Peggy, who was Neel’s neighbor, was found dead from an overdose of sleeping pills while her husband slept beside her in a drunken slumber. I suppose one could take that information and imagine Peggy a victim of domestic violence.

But here’s the thing. A painting comes without words in order to be experienced through the senses, and to give viewers space to think for themselves. Picture titles shouldn’t get in the way of that.