What Can You Learn from the Back of a Painting?
You can learn a lot by looking at the back of a painting. In fact, some of the most important and revealing information about a work of art is not visible from the front. But what, exactly, can you learn from the different markings, stamps, labels, and inscriptions hidden on the back of a work of art? Plenty. Whether you’re curious about the age of a particular piece or you’d simply like to know if it was restored in the past, these clues will help you uncover essential information hidden on the back of a painting.
How Old is the Painting?
Clue: Age Causes the Canvas to Turn Darken
Originally colored off-white or beige, a canvas will darken as decades pass. When checking the back of a painting, compare it with other examples to get an idea of how much yellow color has come into the canvas. Also check for a layer of patina or grime on the back surface. Cracks and discoloration on either side are signs the painting has aged.
Clue: Look at Markings, Labels, and Stickers
Unless the artist took unusual steps to prepare their own materials, a painting’s canvas or art board was probably sold with stencilled markings or labels attached to the back. These manufacturer labels can indicate the painting’s origin.
Dated labels give researchers an idea of when the artist started the painting, and can even lead to knowledge of how much money the artist spent to purchase the canvas! Combine the data from a label with an artist’s dated signature on the front side, and you can estimate how long it took an artist to complete the work.
Labels also help in detecting fraud: a painting that bears an artist’s signature and date of 1950 on the front, but a manufacturer’s label from 1980 is probably a fake.
Who Owned the Painting and Where Has it Been?
In addition to showing a painting’s age, labels and stickers found on the back of a painting can indicate where and in whose hands a painting has been.
Image: Frederic Taubes (American, 1900-1981), Quartet. Oil on board, signed, framed. Reverse: Dealer and exhibition labels.
A label will be attached to the backside of a painting when it is loaned from one gallery to another for an exhibition. Important paintings may have a series of labels to describe their exhibition history.
Labels from international border and customs agencies are a sure sign that the painting has entered a new country. Information on the label may include an item description and the amount of money the painting was declared to be worth.
Barcodes or other stickers indicate that the painting was inventoried with a gallery, auction house, or dealer.
Follow through on this information because it can yield important information about a painting’s background. We recommend you search the internet to learn if the galleries or institutions listed on the back of a piece are still in operation. Get in touch to find out more about your painting.
You may strike it big! In 2015, a woman in paid $US 2 dollars for a painting at a thrift store. After researching a sticker found on the back, she learned it had been painted by a well-known Filipino artist and consigned it for sale with an auction house in Hong Kong.
Has the Painting Been Restored or Damaged?
Look for patches of canvas that are discolored or have a different texture from the rest of the piece. These patches could indicate restoration work or repairing. Wavy, distorted lines, mold, and stains are all evidence of water or other environmental damage.
Consult an expert if you have any questions or concerns regarding your painting’s condition.
Who Made the Painting?
Image: Ben Stahl (American, 1910-1987), The Evangelist on the Beach, 1976. Oil on canvas, signed, dated, located.
Clue: Look for Inscriptions
Words written on the back of a piece are called inscriptions. These can contain hidden messages from the artist, but more often the artist simply uses this space to declare the painting’s title. Some contemporary artists also assign serial numbers and mark them on the back side of paintings.
Are the Frame and Mount as Old as the Painting, or More Recent?
A painting on canvas is generally stretched over a wood frame; and some paintings are done on wood panels. Wood becomes dark as it ages just as canvases do. Check the back side and compare the darkness of the wood to other examples.
As a rule of thumb, Dark Wood + Old Nails = Probably an Old Painting. Art historians know that wood was always attached to the canvas with nails, until staples replaced them in around 1940. If the hardware on a painting seems less grimy or more fresh than the rest of the piece, you can assume that the canvas has been restretched or framed: the old wood has been removed and new wood attached.
Image: John Terelak (born 1942), The Grape Harvest, 1997. Oil on canvas, signed and dated. Reverse inscriped: “To Bob Slack – The Best of the Vineyards N.F.S”
Canvases are commonly reused by artists, meaning the backside could reveal a sketch of the painting or even an entirely different work.
The New York Times reported in 1991 on one Pennsylvania collection who paid $US 4 dollars for a painting at a flea market. When he removed the paper backing from the frame, an original copy of the Declaration of Independence was revealed. It was one of only 24 copies known to be in existence at the time, an enormous discovery. The lucky collector sold his historic document with Sotheby’s and made a considerable profit. You never know what you may find on the back of a painting!
Featured Image: Tony Berlant (American, b. 1948), Caught Napping #78-1990, 1990. Metal collage mounted on plywood. Reverse: Dealer and exhibition labels.