What the Back of a Painting Reveals About Its History

back of painting

Works of art that have survived for centuries – and even those that are just a few years old – come with a story. The responsibility of a fine art specialist is to follow the clues left behind by a work of art to uncover its history. Learn the process that specialists take to examine a work of art, and what labels, markings, and other notations on the reverse of artwork actually mean.

This June, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy moved two Raphael portraits of Agnolo Doni and his wife Maddalena Strozzi to a different gallery of the museum, where the paintings encountered a radical change in installation: rather than hanging on the wall, the works were displayed in a standing glass case. This allowed visitors a new chance to examine the backs of the panels, on which are painted a sepia-colored diptych by an artist in Raphael’s workshop, the Master of Serumido.

While not every canvas possesses a hidden artwork on the reverse, much can be learned by examining the inscriptions, labels, and hardware that accumulate as paintings change hands throughout the years. Though the existence and condition of these indicators varies from painting to painting, markings that are commonly found on the reverse of a painting include:

  • Stamps from canvas-makers or other art suppliers
  • Artist inscriptions including painting titles and dates
  • Artist signatures
  • Descriptions of the scene, figure, or location depicted in the painting
  • Labels from auction houses, galleries or museum exhibitions
  • New or original wood supports

To determine what these markings and labels actually mean, we sat down with Gene Shannon from Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers to learn about the process of inspecting and researching a work of art from stretcher to frame. Shannon took us through the examination process used by specialists and explained how to glean knowledge of provenance and condition from the clues left behind on the back of a canvas.

How to Examine a Work of Art

Arthur Bowen Davies, “Dawn” (front), dated 1926, oil on canvas. Sold via Shannon’s for $7,880 (April 2018). Image courtesy of Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers.

Once a work is consigned to auction it is fully reviewed by house specialists. The most utilitarian tools used during the inspection process are a flashlight and a magnifying glass. For harder-to-see indicators of authenticity and condition, conservators examine the work under higher magnifications as well as ultra-violet and raking light. These techniques can expose restorations and help determine if a signature is original.

Because this process is vital to understanding a work’s value, “the importance of seeking the help of an experienced professional before making a significant art purchase” is a key first step, says Shannon. “Dealers, conservators, museum professionals, and auction specialists have seen hundreds of paintings and can help collectors see beyond the surface.”

Arthur Bowen Davies, “Dawn” (back), dated 1926, oil on canvas. Sold via Shannon’s for $7,880 (April 2018). Image courtesy of Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers.

More specifically, Shannon notes, “a good restorer is your best confidant in the whole business, whether you’re a dealer, an auction house, or a private client. People should always align themselves with a highly recommended restorer. A good restorer has almost x-ray vision…they understand [a painting] from the depths.”

What to Look For

Not all of a painting’s secrets are visible from the front. Many clues about a work’s history and condition rest against the wall, invisible to the wider audience but awaiting discovery by a skilled conservator. Here are four key indicators that specialists look for. 

1. Date the stretcher

Canvas paintings are often mounted on a wooden support framework called a stretcher. According to Shannon, “stretchers can often be dated to within 10 years of the execution of a painting” based on construction and material. “They changed the manufacturing process of [American] stretchers roughly every decade from 1840 to 1900. So you make some assumptions, but it’s pretty obvious.”

An original period frame and stretcher consistent with 19th century American wood. Image courtesy of Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers.

There are also differences between American and European stretchers that enable specialists to determine from where the materials originated. “The method of keying and stretching was often different, as was the assembly of the stretchers,” says Shannon. American stretchers were most commonly made of American White Pine, while European stretchers were constructed from a light-grain pine called Deal.

While it’s nice to find a painting with its original stretcher, Shannon notes that it is sometimes better for the work if the stretcher is replaced. “Particularly nowadays, if our restorer gets a painting that’s out of square because the stretcher and the canvas have done their little dance over the last hundred years, he has a handmade manufacturer make a new stretcher to the exact specifications.”

2. Check for a lining

“On the back of canvas, buyers should check to see if a painting has been lined (the process of attaching a new canvas support to the back of the existing canvas),” says Shannon. “There are many ways paintings can be lined and it is not always apparent. A lined painting is generally an indication that some type of significant restoration was done.”

Historically, linings were fused to the original canvas using a strong hide-glue and a hot iron. According to Shannon, “This process often crushed the impasto (areas of thickly applied paint) and cannot be reversed. Artists deliberately used impasto to refract light. When this has been damaged experts will describe the surface as ‘flattened.’”

For paintings on board or wood panel, warping or cracking can be visible from the front or back and present serious conservation issues.

3. Look for gallery or auction house labels

Once a consigned work of art is delivered to an auction house or gallery, they systematically label the object in order to ensure proper tracking of inventory while the work is in their possession. Likewise, some institutions will add labels to works of art featured in exhibitions or when lending from their permanent collection to another museum. These practices have been in effect for many years, which can result in a patchwork of labels on the backside of a painting.

A partial label for a painting exhibited at the Carnegie Institute. Image courtesy of Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers.

“Gallery and auction labels sometimes give partial provenance for a painting or can lend to the credibility of a work,” says Shannon. “The labels themselves are like a passport for a painting, illuminating the journey of a painting from one geographic location to another.”

4. Locate supplier stamps

When looking for clues as to where the painting was created, canvas-maker stamps can be useful geographical touch-points. Says Shannon, “canvas-makers and purveyors often stamped canvases in large black ink. If we know the canvas-maker, we can surmise within which narrow geographic area or areas where an artist was working.”

If any stamps are located on the back of the canvas, consult a vetted reference that can give you more information. For 19th century American paintings, Alexander Katlan’s American Artist’s Materials Suppliers Directory provides dates for almost every stamp used in the country from around 1820 to 1900.

Understanding Provenance

After a conservator or specialist examines a work of art, primary and secondary research is often the next step in determining its value and significance. Like the stylistic attributes of an artist’s work, the markings on the back of the canvas can give vital indicators of a painting’s provenance.

Shannon refers to the exhibition records for the National Academy and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as good places to start on provenance research for American paintings. The catch with many of these references is that only partial information, like exhibition or painting title, are listed.

“It’s not often,” says Shannon, “but if you have an older label on the back, or the artist’s handwriting on the stretcher, and you know it’s dated 1882…usually when they exhibit in the National Academy, they were fairly major works done by the artists. So if you’ve got a 30- or 40-inch work by the artist and it’s a very high-quality work from 1882, you can probably assume that this was the one exhibited. It’s sort of CSI.”

Mary Louise Fairchild MacMonnies, “The Garden” (back), dated “96” and inscribed “Giverny,” oil on canvas. Sold via Shannon’s for $37,500 (April 2018). Image courtesy of Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers.

Another stumbling block in provenance research is the lack of information available on lesser-known artists. “Provenance is really only available on a very small percentage of the period that we primarily deal with (1840–1940) because the only records were kept on famous artists, and not even on all of them,” says Shannon. “While provenance can be important, it is most often elusive. The more important the artist, the more it is possible to trace the provenance through exhibition histories and ownership.”

With a lack of complete information, provenance research is aided by scientific analysis methods referenced earlier. For example, you can verify a signature stylistically but back up the attribution by looking at the minute cracks in a painting under a 30-power magnifying device. Signatures attached to the work later will cover up cracks that go down to the base of the canvas.

Impact on Value

Sometimes, against all odds, the value of a work of art can increase exponentially thanks to clues revealed by the backside of a painting.

In one instance, a painting’s labels led Shannon’s to believe that it was by American painter Mary Louise Fairchild MacMonnies. The painting was authenticated after cleaning, when the signature, date and inscription became visible. After the estimate was raised to $8,000 – $12,000, the painting ultimately sold for $37,500 in Shannon’s April 2018 sale.

Mary Louise Fairchild MacMonnies, “The Garden” (front), dated “96” and inscribed “Giverny,” oil on canvas. Sold via Shannon’s for $37,500 (April 2018). Image courtesy of Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers.

Another example noted by Shannon is the story of a schoolteacher who purchased a work for $85 at a tag sale. After doing his own research, the owner approached Shannon’s to examine what he believed to be a painting by Hudson River Coastal School artist Alfred Thompson Bricher. “He brought it in and it was very large and all we saw was the back. We knew the artist’s big script handwriting: ‘Off the Coast of Narragansett,’ signed A. T. Bricher and it was 100% real…so we had it cleaned and restored and lined for him and we sold it for him for $150,000.”

Detail of signature on the back of a painting by Mary Louise Fairchild MacMonnies. Image Courtesy of Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers.

“The beauty of seeing that signature, knowing that we have handled this artist for decades, and seeing this beautiful script which we recognized instantly…it was like, ‘Holy-Moly that’s it.’ It’s the thrill of the chase, the thrill of a find,” says Shannon.

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Sources: The New York Times