Behind What's Seen: Learning from the Back of Paintings

When considering works of art for acquisition, it is important to find something that moves you and speaks to you on a visceral level. Perhaps the work also piques your intellectual curiosity or was produced by the hand of an artist you greatly admire. Regardless of what attracted you to a painting initially, it almost certainly had to do with the image contained within the picture plane, whether on panel or canvas. But historic paintings are special because they are so much more than an image; most have traveled internationally and lived many lives. It is only when you take a look behind the scenes - at the back of a painting - that you start to uncover its history.

The reverse of a painting, though sometimes overlooked, can be a crucial site to find information on a work of art. We've drawn on our own expertise as well as insight from professional painting conservator Alessia Filetti to fill you in on exactly what the back of a painting can tell us. Here are a few things you might be lucky enough to discover.

EXHIBITION HISTORY

Le Carnaval Du Sage By René Magritte. Dated 1947 Le Carnaval Du Sage By René Magritte. Dated 1947

Museums and galleries strive to exhibit artworks of art historical importance, and often leave a trace when they do so. For reasons of inventory management, museums and galleries typically adhere a branded label to the back of a canvas or its frame.

These will include basic information about the work of art, like its artist, title and year of completion. But, if you are lucky, you might also find information on the exhibition it was included in, specifically the exhibition title and date. Sometimes private collections label the back of artworks as well, which can help to trace the chain of ownership or title.

Of course, some paintings have been exhibited more than others and not all retain their labels on the back. That being said, the patchwork of stickers and information makes for a very telling tale in regards to a particular painting. For instance, should you find the name and date of a particular exhibition in which a work was included, you might also then look for a catalogue that was printed in conjunction with the show. Exhibition catalogues can teach you even more about a work of art and can help you to build confidence in the authenticity of a painting; if you are able to fact check information gleaned from these labels, you can further solidify its story.

CONDITION

Official Portrait Of Emperor Napoléon I By Michel Martin Drolling. Dated 1808 Official Portrait Of Emperor Napoléon I By Michel Martin Drolling. Dated 1808

The back of a painting speaks volumes for its condition. Anything that might strike you as out of the ordinary when examining the front can be further investigated when looking at the reverse. For instance, sometimes elevated spots on a canvas could denote a tear, and by locating that location on the back, you can see if it is patched, which would confirm your suspicions.

When looking at the back of a canvas, you can also check to see if it has been relined with another canvas. Sometimes this is done to give structural support to older or larger paintings; otherwise it can denote that the painting has been conserved. While dealers and art historians sometimes romanticize the idea of a pristine artwork that's untouched by restorers, the reality is that most historic works of art exhibit some conservation efforts. Therefore, rather than searching for a perfectly pristine work of art, we instead recommend ensuring that touch-ups or in-painting are minimal and preferably do not cover important areas of the work.

For paintings that are unlined, looking at the back of the artwork helps you to better understand its canvas, stretchers, and substrate (primer). Perhaps the painting was done on a hemp, cotton, or linen canvas. It might have been prepared with gesso, linseed oil primer, an animal glue base, wax, or wax and resin. The stretcher bars on a canvas are rarely from the period in which a work was produced; most historic works have been restretched to ensure the canvas stays taut and avoids stretcher burn. However, occasionally you'll find a stretcher from the same period as the piece, perhaps with “keys” added later to prevent any slack. While complex and highly particular, these processes and materials tend to denote a region and time in which the work was produced, which brings us to the next point.

AGE

By The Blue Ionian Sea By John William Godward. Dated 1916 By The Blue Ionian Sea By John William Godward. Dated 1916

Observing the color of the reverse of a canvas can help ensure it is old. An old canvas will never retain a bright white or cream-color over time, even if it has been well cared for. Therefore, if you are studying the back of an older canvas, you can expect it to be dark and somewhat yellowed.

Should you have the ability to study the side of a painting, you'll find more insight to its age. This can be misleading since, as noted above, the vast majority of older paintings have been restretched at some point. Nonetheless, as a general rule, prior to about 1940, canvases were attached to stretcher bars by nails; after 1940, they were attached by staples.

SURPRISES

The Education Of Achilles By Auguste-Clément Chrétien. Dated 1861 The Education Of Achilles By Auguste-Clément Chrétien. Dated 1861

Lastly, the reverse of a painting might reveal a surprise. European artists during the Wars often repainted on the reverse because they had limited access to art materials. However, earlier examples of this practice do surface. Conservator Alessia Filetti estimates that she finds some kind of preparatory sketch or work in progress on one out of every 40 paintings she examines.

Other surprises might be lurking on the reverse of a canvas as well. Picasso, for instance, often painted the exact date of completion on the back of his canvases. This is exciting because it helps locate a work very specifically within the timeline and narrative of an artist's life.

Tête D'Homme Barbu V By Pablo Picasso. Dated 1965 Tête D'Homme Barbu V By Pablo Picasso. Dated 1965

So the next time that you are in the market for a new work of art, be sure to inspect the reverse of the canvas before purchasing. While sometimes it will reveal issues with the work itself, more often than not it will only make your experience and appreciation of the work that much richer.

Ready to start exploring? Click here to view M.S. Rau Antiques' current collection of fine art. Your Sales Consultant can provide a photograph of the back of a painting at any time, so do not hesitate to contact us for more information.

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